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Miike Takashi's Sukiyaki Western Django

I am a big fan of prolific Japanese director, Miike Takashi. His movies are not always good (which would be an accomplishment, considering he averages about three feature length films a year), but he doesn't mind experimenting or playing around. Not everything he tries works, but when it does, it can be pretty damn awesome.

His subjects and genres vary wildly from a musical about a family running an inn, to a kid fighting goblins, to some of the best yakuza flicks I've seen. Meanwhile, he tends to get good performances from his actors, even when they are children or non-native Japanese speakers. The only time I've been completely disappointed with one of his pieces was a rejected instalment in Showtime's Masters of Horror, entitled 'Imprint'. The story was stupid, and the acting was bad. This was Miike's first all English production, and it showed.

So, when I found out one of his 2007 films, Sukiyaki Western Django was in English, I was a bit put off. How did I find out? Well, I started watching it, and that was the only language track. You could tell the actors hadn't been dubbed over, either from the way much of the all Japanese (except for Quintin Tarantino) cast struggled with their deliveries. As such, the film is an excellent example of Bertolt Brecht's 'theatrical alienation', constantly forcing us to deal with the movie as a movie, but this is not something we are entirely comfortable doing.

It took me about 45 minutes to get over the choice of language. So, for artistry, the original dub accomplishes what it sets out to, but, man, it would be nice to see it overdubbed by native speakers in several languages. This is probably the only time you'll ever see me say that about anything that isn't a comedy which I want revoiced by Mexican actors. Mexican voice actors make everything funnier.

Diction aside, it was pretty good for an adaptation/prequel of the second Italian, western adaptation of Kurosawa's wonderful tip of the hat to the genre, Yojimbo (which, itself, was an adaptation of a noir novel). That's right, Sukiyaki Western Django is both an adaptation and a prequel to the Spaghetti western, Django, which came out two years after Sergio Leone's A Fistfull of Dollars, both of which were adaptations of Yojimbo, which was a samurai nod to westerns, but based on Dashiell Hammett's noir novel, Red Harvest. Follow? SWD is less derivative than you might expect.

Sure, Red Harvest, Yojimbo, Fistful of Dollars, Django, and Sukiyaki Western Django, all centre around a martially talented drifter who finds himself in a town with two warring factions and a demoralized civilian populace. All their lead characters attempt to play the two sides against eachother and are eventually dragged into fighting both, ostensibly for the good of whatever's left of the town by the end. But SWD fashions its own world, unlike the rest.

It is apparently set in something like the mid to late 1800s, after the Shogunate has begun to lose power, but before the Meiji emperor's government has gained dominance; a time in which Japan appears to be in decline, and has been humiliated by foreigners. It's hard to pin down, though, because the film doesn't really concern itself with such matters. The competing groups are the remnants of the Genji and Heike clans, whose twelfth century conflicts were famously recorded in the performative epic poem, Heike Monogatari. One of the gangs' leaders finds inspiration in Shakespeare's Richard III.

The two factions face off in a town whose very architecture conveys the strange lineage of this film, looking for its fabled treasure and fighting eachother with guns, swords, dynamite, and whatever happens to be handy. Their garb fits with the architecture, and exhibits occidental, Japanese, feudal, and semi-modern influences. Their dialogue is peppered with hackneyed western cliches, delivered in by actors who mostly no have idea what they're saying.

In the few reviews I read, and on IMDB, I saw some glancing comparisons to the arch, technicolored western tribute, Tears of the Black Tiger. They're both recent Asian films offering tribute and parody of the same (outwardly) American genre, so that's understandable, but I think SWD is better compared and contrasted with The Quick and the Dead. They have a more similar purpose, but where Sam Raimi failed (despite a stellar cast) to find a decent treatment for westerns along the lines of his horror and superhero flicks, Miike has mostly succeeded by introducing a bizarre cultural mix and his own cult cinema sensibilities.

Anyone who likes weird should check it out.


  1. What was your thought on Visitor Q?

    I'll have to watch this one, now that you got my interest piqued.

    But, it's not just a musical about a family running an inn!

  2. Few of Miike's movies are just what the dust jacket or tag-line might say. But going with the simplistic description served my purposes in this case.

    I enjoyed Visitor Q a lot. Its violent and ludicrous sense of absurdism, and its Rube Goldberg approach to addressing the family's problems really appealed to me. Haven't seen it in years. I'd like to watch it again, sometime.

    Despite what some may see as its depraved content, I think it's good for viewing with friends. Finding friends who would appreciate it is another matter. Just getting a lot of people to sit through subtitles can be a chore. It shouldn't be, but what are you going to do? This is America.

    And what did you think of the film?


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