Sukiyaki Western Django

Posted: 02/10/2009 in Film Review [Archive], Review

I’ve finally decided to resign myself to the undeniable influence of Japanese agent provocateur Takahashi Miike, the uncompromising sadistic creative force behind Audition, Multiple Personality Detective, and Ichi the Killer on my own creative pursuits.

It would be hard to argue that my viewing of Ichi the Killer didn’t fuel a complete re-evaluation of Japanese pop and fringe culture that fed directly into the creative approach behind Shinigami and Tentacle Hunter, with emphasis on the latter, but Sukiyaki Western Django represents something of a reconciliation between us. I was originally drawn into the movie by the audacious anachronism of a Japanese matinee idol with a labret piercing decked out in a hybrid of Tokyo street fashion and Spaghetti Western costume and further drawn in by the apparent cameo by the eponymous ambassador to Asian cinema Quentin Tarantino, but the revelation that it was a Takahashi Miike film made me apprehensive in a way that necessitated a viewing.

Sukiyaki Western Django is best described as Miike beating Stephen Chow senseless with a tire iron. Comparing it to Chow’s now classic Kung Fu Hustle is as unavoidable as it is inadequate. True it is just as ludicrous of a spoof with many of the same tropes, but where Chow injected the whimsy of classic American cartoons and the pure self indulgent spectacle of Akira Toriyama anime, Miike infuses Django with the narcisisstic anachronistic flare of Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge and an earnest yet sarcastic investment in the western genre to rival David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.

With the exception of Tarantino the cast is entirely Japanese yet in an amusing twist the vast majority of the spoken dialogue is in heavily accented and poorly structured english, sly satire of the long dead Spaghetti Western. American fans of Miike’s work will recognize his fondness for playing with spoken language from the Lynchian Gozu where an American character reads her dialogue off cue cards written in romanji, but the effect is much more akin to the lighthouse shoot out in Battle Royale in which the polite teenage girls snarl at each other in Yakuza tough guy one liners.

Much like Shinichiro Watanabe’s Samurai Champloo, it helps to know Japanese cooking to understand the joke behind the title. Sukiyaki, which Tarantino’s character makes, describes, and throws at a woman is a Japanese noodle dish whose significance in the title is to complete the appropriation of the Italian Spaghetti Western. “Django” then is the true title of the film with “Sukiyaki Western” establishing the genre.

Fusions of Japanese and American cinema have been done in varying forms since Kinji Fukasaku directed the Japanese portions of Tora, Tora, Tora! to varying degrees of success with a surge in popularity within the last decade most notably in Kill Bill Volume One, Samurai Champloo, Afro Samurai, Speed Racer, and Road to Perdition most of which were American led productions cashing in on lucrative Japanese tropes and cliches. The problem with most of those productions and even lesser ones like the spate of reamkes of Japanese horror films including Miike’s own One Missed Call is that few have managed to step out of the shadow of the material they borrow from to become a truly unique film. Even Kill Bill, for all of it’s unmistakable Tarantino flair still feels more like a patchwork quilt of homages than a singular film.

Miike, however, has no time for such indulgences and eschews any obvious homages or references to pre-existing work to create a singular ideosyncratic vision much like Pineapple Express and in direct contrast to Hot Fuzz. The influences of period and genre are unmistakable, but not of individual films from the period and genre, which creates a much more coherent and independently enjoyable experience. As much fun as the Pegg-Wright winking is, at the end of the day I’d rather enjoy James Franco attempting to kick the windshield out of a car while behind the wheel for what it is than being told which film he saw it in or being made to feel like I’m sitting a movie geek SAT exam, wracking my brains to see if my kung fu is strong enough to recongize who kicked the windshield out of a cop car while driving it in what movie.

To me Sukiyaki Western Django represents Miike stepping out of the shadows of fringe cinema and take his seat at the table as one of the world’s premier action-comedy directors along with other idiosyncratic entertainers such as Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz, Sean of the Dead), Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Pineapple Express), Ben Stiller (Tropic Thunder), and Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Rocknrolla) at a time when the genre is not only thriving but dominating it’s more serious cousin. Sukiyaki Western Django is for anyone who managed to see past the gore and tits of Afro Samurai to be deeply disappointed that it didn’t do anything interesting. It’s for the people that thought that singing Nirvana in Moulin Rouge was cool, Sweeney Todd needed more samurai swords and less singing, and that Wild, Wild, West just plain sucked.

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