Sukiyaki Western Django Dir. Takashi Miike

[First Look Studios; 2008]

Takashi Miike is the hardest working film director in Japan. Conservatively speaking, he has directed no less than 25 feature films since 2000, or approximately three films a year. Try to imagine any American director attempting a similar feat and you might be inclined to forgive Miike for his recent drought of high quality films (that is, he hasn't made anything memorable in the last year or so). Although disjointed, like much of the director's recent fare, Sukiyaki Western Django's off-kilter style makes for enjoyable viewing.

Sukiyaki Western Django takes place in the mountains of Nevada, where two clans, Genji and Heiki, battle over a claim to a chest of gold rumored to be hidden in a tiny village. Genji clan leader Yoshitsune (Yusuke Iseya), who looks more like a lip-pierced Japanese pop star than a samurai sword-wielding cowboy, attempts to run the Heiki clan out of town. Of course, when a lone gunman (Hideaki Ito) rolls into town, bullets fly and stylized combat ensues. If the title and plot sound familiar, they should. Essentially a spaghetti western-style homage to Sergio Corbucci's 1966 film Django and Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, Miike's first significant foray into the Western is not as delicious as Corbucci's rough-around-the-edges flick or Kurosawa's career-long obsession with necessity. Still, Miike manages to craft enough creative bric-a-brac to put his own fun and bizarre spin on the Western genre.

Miike’s clever twist on the horror genre is how violence can be simultaneously titillating, repulsive, and comical. Although Sukiyaki Western Django is not much different than his previous films -- rape, murder, and sadistic violence are all in attendance -- what makes Miike successful in circumventing the violence-as-usual moniker is in its presentation. Miike attempts, at all costs, not to let the audience slip lazily into the realm of fantasy, exerting an inordinate amount of energy to remind the audience that they are indeed watching a film. In one scene, Genji clan leader Yoshitsune fires his pistol at opposing Heiki clansmen, aiming his gun in the opposite direction to allow the wind to travel the bullet straight into his opponent's body. Yoshitsune’s magician-like gun display merely adds to Miike's de-mythologizing of violence in the Western canon through obvious ironic reinforcement.

Additionally, Sukiyaki Western Django is so saturated with color and over-the-top action sequences that the director's irony comes across in almost every scene. And, as strange as it sounds, Sukiyaki Western Django's actors are mostly Japanese non-English speakers who memorized their lines phonetically. The deliberate awkwardness this creates adds to the film's fun, kitschy vibe. But Sukiyaki Western Django's biggest delight comes from the screwball antics of schizophrenic sheriff Teruyuki Kagawa, who emerges in one of Miike's many odd but rewarding sub-plots.

Of course, there are missteps. Although the film nerd in me appreciates the numerous Kill Bill-like genre references, Sukiyaki Western Django's spotty editing seems more meandering, drunk peasant than super-slick samurai. And Quentin Tarantino's strange guest spot as an ancient cowboy with a western drawl is both painful and humorous to watch. Despite his knowing ineptitude, Tarantino adds to the meta-irony that makes this film a constant inside joke. (If you have a sharp eye, you will notice that the black metal duck that adorns Tarantino's wheelchair in the film is none other than the same hood ornament that sits atop Stuntman Mike's Dodge Charger in Death Proof.)

In all, Sukiyaki Western Django is simultaneously fun and disappointing. Don't get me wrong -- the film excels at key moments (especially the final showdown), but the haphazard editing and cartoonish sound effects come across as mimicry rather than insightful nostalgic reconceptualization. And at two hours, the film can become woefully tedious. (In the first third of the movie, Miike presents us with an elaborate array of flashbacks just to bring us up to date.) There is surely enough here to warrant a viewing, but Sukiyaki Western Django will probably only be truly appreciated by the Miike faithful.

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