Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django fits firmly into that increasingly popular tradition—exemplified for contemporary audiences by Tarantino and the Coens—of the densely allusive, heavily stylized pastiche, content to limit its engagement to the world of film and television and milking its share of yuks from dollops of imaginatively exaggerated gore. As such, the film is passable. Miike’s take on the spaghetti western, Sukiyaki gives us (with varying degrees of success) painted pastel backdrops, gaping stomach wounds which serve as visual frames, rape, child murders, some lovely surreal imagery and (regrettably) the aforementioned Pulp Fiction auteur. The plot—though clearly of secondary importance here—comes from any number of entries in the genre (Sergio Corbussi’s 1966 Django is the acknowledged reference point though Fistful of Dollars does just as well) and involves the appearance of a mythical gunslinger in a town caught between two rival gangs, in this case the “reds” and the “whites” who square off during Japan’s 12th-century Genpei Wars.
What we’re chiefly concerned with here, however, is Miike’s powers of cinematic invention, which are only intermittently displayed. Though Miike is a visually accomplished filmmaker capable of staging simultaneous action on more than one visual plane, his knack for aesthetic inventiveness only surfaces in occasional moments of inspiration, as in the final showdown which transpires in the midst of a suddenly materializing snowstorm and some odd one-off images such as a fetus growing out of the opening petals of a rose. One of the film’s more successful artistic conceits—because it’s thematically justified—is Miike’s decision to have his entire Japanese cast deliver their lines in a halting English. Just as Miike takes his filmmaking cue from an American model (the western), so do his actors bring a Japanese sensibility to an occidental form by filtering the distinctly American English dialogue through their native speech patterns. If the strategy tends to pall before too long, it nonetheless serves as a suitably odd distancing device and an appropriate aural analogue to the filmmaker’s visual appropriations.
These occasional triumphs aside, Miike too often seems to be not so much reinventing the spaghetti western as simply contributing a middling entry to the genre. And even when it’s going strong, Sukiyaki continually reminds us that it’s nothing more than an occasionally clever bit of dispensable pastiche.