There are countless points to bring up when discussing a Takashi Miike film: the legendary uneven pacing, the “quirky moments,” the visual gags, the glimpses—and sometimes stretches—of genius that keeps itself in check with overt ribbing, and, of course, the violence. He is a director of dualities: you either love his work or you dismiss him as a cult figure; he is either too slow or he is too quick; he is making sly references to culture or he’s just a fucking hack.
It isn’t a surprise that Sukiyaki Western Django continues this tradition, but the version that has been released is a “re-cut” edition that premiered at the New York Asian Film Festival last June and is now spreading to the rest of the world. At 98 minutes, Django falls into the normal length of a Miike film, though the 128 minute monster that bored critics at Toronto still exists on bootleg DVD.
The plot is still the same: a Western twist on the rivalry between the Taira (“Heike”) and Minamoto (“Genji”) clans that pays homage to A Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo. The tiny village of “Nevada” is slathered in dusty reds and whites, and there’s a long dead village elder strung up on the town limits. Of course, there’s a rumored treasure nearby and two off-shoots of the Heike (they’re in red) and Genji (white) have set up shop, though no one’s yet bothered to notice. Cue the nameless gunman (Hideaki Ito) who enters the fray, established through two trick shots before sauntering off to learn the town’s history in glorious sepia flashback.
Django’s best trick is that it has little to do with the original Corbucci film (aside from the chaingun-in-coffin and an extremely odd reference to the Django series). Instead, it acts as a unification call for the pulp of both Samurai and Western genres, comparing and contrasting them to such a point that their fusion seems redundant. Why shouldn’t two warring Japanese clans wage battle with katanas, pistols and Henry VI? Miike’s appeal is taking source material, whether it be traditional or even a name brand, and running wild with it.
At times it can be jarring, such as in an impromptu frame-by-frame sequence where the Gunman leaps through a window and onto his galloping horse. A gang member then blurts out, “How did he do that?!” It’s placement is so strange because aside from a bit of slapstick violence (a person having a hole blown through them while an arrow flies through and kills another), Django takes itself as seriously as a “Sukiyaki” genre film could. The obvious pun of Spaghetti aside, sukiyaki perfectly fits Miike’s view on mash-up genre culture. The over-exaggerated English spoken by the Japanese actors (somehow clearer in the recent cut than the longer version, but maybe I’m just being forgetful) starts as coy trick, but it quickly becomes a part of the charm. Some may have issue with the accents, but listening to Kiyomori (Koichi Sato) likening the Heike clan to Shakespeare is well worth it.
There are also traditional Miike staples of familial loss and the lack of a central father figure that brands nearly all the characters, but the “forced to adapt culture” motif found in earlier works like Ley Lines and Rainy Dog reverses itself with Django: here the Japanese have embraced the Western and found more at stake with it than the dwindling American audience. What could on one hand be seen as hackneyed John Wayne impressions also come across as an internal dialogue about the “hero” character.
While it may prove Miike’s visions are best handled with a stricter knife in the editing room, Sukiyaki Western Django is exactly the continuation you’d expect and desire from the guy who got famous by making “Deeper, deeper, deeper…” the reason some people still uncontrollably flinch.
John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E [print only] and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.