Go back in time. Imagine you’re a pre-teen again, home sick on a
Saturday afternoon. You’re sweating on the couch, watching TV. As you
drift in and out of fevered sleeps, A Fistful of Dollars gives way to
Yojimbo, but your brain can’t tell where one begins and the other ends and they melt together
in the swamp of your grey matter.
The movie you’ve hallucinated is Sukiyaki Western Django.
of the four films that bizarre genius Takashi Miike directed in 2007,
Sukiyaki Western Django is both an homage to and a commentary on the
spaghetti western and chambara genres. In modern dance music terms it
would be called a mash-up, but the film has more going on than simply
overlaying western elements on a samurai story. Miike’s made a movie
that’s almost completely about the movies, to the point that the film
happily smashes through the fourth wall to acknowledge us as we watch
The film’s most obvious forebear is Yojimbo – a nameless gunfighter
wanders into a town that has been all but destroyed by two rival
criminal gangs looking to get their hands on the town’s legendary gold
treasure. But onto this chambara frame is draped the signifiers of the
spaghetti western – long, dirty dusters and six guns. At first the
conceit seems silly, especially as the Japanese cast delivers their
lines in seemingly phonetic English (apparently the film played with
subtitles at Toronto last year, but I saw it without. You do have to
pay attention to make out the Engrish at times), but eventually you
realize that Miike is not making a samurai movie or a gunslinger movie
but rather a movie about the weird dreamspace both genres occupy.
They’re two sides of the same coin – hardly a new revelation to anyone
who has seen a Kurosawa film or The Magnificent Seven – to the point
that this story could easily have been told in either genre. But the
brilliance of Miike is how he tells it with both.
Just in case the line hasn’t been crossed enough by playing out a
medieval Japanese story with American western tropes, Miike really goes
nuts by having Quentin Tarantino appear in the film. He opens the movie
on a stage – a very obvious stage, with a cardboard sun hanging from a
wire next to a simply painted cardboard Mount Fuji, and it seems like
the movie we’re watching is a story Tarantino is telling… until he shows up
in the movie as an older version of that character who flashes back to
the opening scene where he began telling the story. As part of the
audacious metacommentary of the film, that flashback plays purely as a
Quentin Tarantino movie circa Kill Bill, replete with an anime sequence
and a moment where a character is introduced in freeze frame with her
name appearing on screen (of course it’s an ass-kicking female being
introduced in the flashback – this is Tarantinoesque, after all!).
Tarantino’s character Ringo explains why he named his son Akira –
because he was always an anime otaku.
The film itself also embraces anime beyond the actual animated segment;
Miike begins inserting cartoon noises, and some of the character
designs seem like anime figures come to life. It’s all part of the
film’s stew of style and genre, like the titular Japanese dish Miike
has put everything into his pot to find out how they taste together.
I’m sure there’s more I’m missing; if ever a film called for a Pop Up
Video style commentary, it’s this one.
A movie as interested in doing strange things as this one won’t always
work. There are stretches of Sukiyaki Western Django where the film
simply drags, although to show my uncultured gaijin worldview, I’ve
found that most samurai movies get more than a little draggy in the
middle. But even when things get slow, Miike keeps enough on screen to
reward your attention. Even the most boring of scenes take place in
places that seamlessly merge medieval Japanese design with the look of
a western – from the ornately carved swinging wooden doors of the
saloon to Tarantino’s steampunk wheelchair, Sukiyaki Western Django
offers a visual delight from the beginning to the end.
What it doesn’t offer is a Miike bloodbath. While not one of his ‘safe’
films, like The Great Yokai War, Sukiyaki Western Django is only as
violent as you’d expect a western to be – lots of squib hits, but not
much by way of over the top mayhem. Even his trademark perversity isn’t
on display here; there’s a rape scene, but it’s downright subdued and
classy. I thought for sure that when you got Miike and Tarantino
together, even with one of them as an actor, arterial spray would
follow, but instead Miike seems to have decided to keep his violence on
the level of what you might see in the old Eastwood films, and not
quite as much as you’d see in the original Django.
By the way, I won’t tell you what the full connection is between this
movie and Django beyond the fact that Miike uses that film’s theme and
a coffin containing a gatling gun shows up about halfway through the
picture. The connection was one I found surprising and funny,
especially because it serves as one final metajoke. That also means
that people not familiar with the Django films don’t have to worry
about coming into some kind of impossible to follow homage or something
– the knowledge that there was an Italian western with that title is
pretty much all you need to know.
I recently rewatched I’m Not There with the audio commentary and was
amazed at how the movie is a work of hyperlink cinema; Todd Haynes made
a masterpiece of experimental filmmaking that also serves as a jumping
off point for a personal exploration of Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, if
you’re not into Bob Dylan or experimental film, I’m Not There, while
wonderful in a pure cinema kind of way, won’t have much for you. Sukiyaki Western Django is also a hyperlink movie, one that rewards going beyond the surface and becoming familiar with the subject matter in a deep way, but it
is even purer cinema – it’s cinema about cinema
– but it’s also exceptionally accessible on a surface level, even if
that surface level is ‘Let’s get really stoned and watch this weird,
crazy midnight movie.’ In fact, midnight movie is the perfect way to
decribe Sukiyaki Western Django – walking out I obviously thought about
the great samurai and spaghetti western influences, but it was El Topo
that stuck in my head. Sukiyaki Western Django might be the movie that
Jodorowsky would have made if he had movies on his mind more than
Funny and weird and unmistakably Miike, I understand why this film divided audiences when it played Toronto last year. For people who don’t know much about film and are just looking for wacky bursts of ‘cool’ mayhem, this film will disappoint. For others the movie will feel pretentious. But for the right people this film is a shot of pure cinematic adrenaline, a love letter carved into the skin of the one you love.