Synopsis: In Takashi Miike’s post-modern foray into the western genre, a gun-toting stranger inserts himself into age-old hostilities in a dust-blown town.
Review: Like the ‘half-breed’ boy Heihachi (Ruka Uchida) at its core, Sukiyaki Western Django is a film of confounded and contested pedigrees, occupying the shifting generic borderlands where samurai flick meets oater and East meets West, as Japanese maverick director TakashiMiike (Audition, Ichi The Killer) mixes it up to freak us out.
The setting is the Japanese town ‘Yuta’, in ‘Nebada’. The plot, in which a mysterious gunman (Hideaki Ito) takes on two rival gangs both after Yuta’s legendary gold, is a loving pastiche of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) and Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) – which were themselves heavily influenced by Kurosawa Akira’s Yojimbo (1961).
The names of Heihachi’s father Akira (Shun Oguri) and grandmother Ruriko (Kaori Momoi) acknowledge the film’s distant ancestry in Nikkatsu studio’s nine-part, ‘miso western’ series ‘Wataridori’ (1959-62), which regularly starred Akira Koyabashi and Ruriko Asaoka – while the gangs themselves, conveniently colour-coded into Reds and Whites, claim a more literal ancestry from the Heike and Genji clans whose famous 1185 battle at Dannoura is chronicled in the traditional epic Tale of Heike (here quoted several times). The Heike gang’s leader Taira No Kiyomori (Koichi Sato), however, now prefers to read William Shakespeare’s Henry VI (and to go by the name ‘Henry’), because “it’s a story of the Reds winning the war.”
The dialogue is a mash-up of horse opera cliche (“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”) and quotes from more unlikely cinematic quarters (“It smells like victory”), all delivered in deliriously garbled English by the Japanese cast, as an absurd inversion of the Japanese-dubbed spaghetti westerns of Miike’s youth.
Meanwhile Quentin Tarantino, who himself appropriated the motifs, tropes and sensibilities of Japanese cinema in his own Kill Bill – and who would go on to make his own oater mash-up Django Unchained – here returns the cross-cultural favour in a lengthy cameo as the gun fighting sensei Piringo, uttering his English lines with a ludicrous faux-Japanese accent, and claiming, with the sort of anachronistic postmodernity that typifies both Miike’s and his own oeuvre, to have always liked the name Akira because “I am anime otaku [or ‘nerdy fanboy’] at heart”. It is a line that very much defines this film’s ideal audience.
Naturally the final showdown between Ito’s High Plains Drifter and the epicene Genji leader Minamoto No Yoshitsune ( Yusuke Iseya) is a clash of Eastern sword and Western gun – but in a film where history is always being rewritten and boundaries (both geographic and generic) constantly redrawn, scores can be temporarily tallied but are never really settled once and for all. There is a lesson for us all here, during this decade of renewed cowboy politics and extra-territorial incursions into the (Middle) East, as Miike reveals generations eternally returning to the battles waged by their fathers (and grandmothers).
If Miike suggests that the western genre belongs to any person or nation that has ever known conflict, he nonetheless brands this particular variant as very much his own. The breath-taking opening sequence, in which Piringo shoots a snake out of a flying eagle’s talons and slits the reptile’s belly open, extracting a bloody chicken’s egg from within to garnish his own bowl of sukiyaki, references the similar dog-eat-dog prologue of Miike’s earlier collaboration with producer Toshiaki Nakazawa, The Happiness Of The Katakuris (2001).
The town sheriff (Kagawa Teruyuki), driven crazy by his inability to choose sides, recalls the detective protagonist of Miike’s television series MPD Psycho (2000) – and a big-gun duel in a field between Kiyomori and Yoshitsune is suspiciously similar to the climactic face-off in Miike’s Dead Or Alive (1999). Besides, who else, even among the more outrageous directors of the spaghetti westerns, could cook up a dish as flamboyant, as sadistic and as downright hilarious as this – and then throw in a didgeridoo-accompanied dance sequence for good measure?
And so Miike’s film takes its place amongst a recent rash of stylised eastern oaters – Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears Of The Black Tiger (2000), Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008), Shashank Ghosh’s Quick Gun Murugan (2008) and Sadik Ahmed’s The Last Thakur (2008) – as perhaps the wildest, and certainly the punkiest, of the bunch. Great looking, too.
In a nutshell: Miike’s ‘wild east’ take on the western genre is a colourfully violent stand-off of pastiche, politics and punk.
© Anton Bitel