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Scattershot Inspiration: Sukiyaki Western Django—Take 2

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Scattershot Inspiration: <em>Sukiyaki Western Django</em>—Take 2

When I was a teenager embarking on my career as a sociopathically completist film-viewer, Takashi Miike’s work was just starting to make its way outside of the festival circuit: Audition paved the way for the surprisingly wide release of short-lived cult sensations like The City of Lost Souls, a movie I forgot even existed until looking over his filmography recently; like many of his films, it exists only in my mind as weird flashbacks from dimly-remembered trailers, which may be the best way to watch a Miike movie. For a while, it seemed like an incredible treasure trove had been discovered: after sitting through The Happiness of the Katakuris and being bored with Audition (let’s not get into that please), however, the awesomeness of Dead or Alive and (less so) Gozu just didn’t register with me. Miike’s scattershot inspiration—wherever it comes from—doesn’t stop for quality control, and if you want to argue that five movies annually is good enough for an hour’s worth of bizarro awesomeness delivered punctually every year, I’m just not listening. Life’s too short.

So maybe I’m feeling more charitable than usual to Sukiyaki Western Django because I haven’t seen one of these suckers in 4 years, or because a lot of shit gets blown up here and I don’t watch nearly enough action movies to sate that particular sweet tooth (explosions were the norm for the blockbusters I grew up with, and frankly I’ll take a good fireball over any damn orc or CGI fantasy army you care to conjure up). Or maybe it’s because Miike has his Japanese cast do the entire film in phonetic English; the result is an alienation effect that wears off about halfway through the movie, but that’s long enough to keep things strange and engaging until you get tuned in to Miike’s peculiar sense of humor. Whatever its demerits, Sukiyaki has a virtue I’ve never associated with Miike: consistency. Grantly, it’s mostly the consistency of stupidity and fanboy geeking-out, but I’ll take it.

Sukiyaki’s main task is to translate the alleged awesomeness of beloved spaghetti Westerns (like its namesake Django) into terms that might be comprehensible for those of us who’ve never ventured outside the Leone canon. That’s not quite fair: I’ve also seen Death Rides A Horse, which is very well-composed and so ludicrously macho it’s hilarious. Sukiyaki is both of those things, but it’s supposed to be funny on purpose, fetishizing the outsize confrontations and ridiculously accomplished gunslinging. The strangeness of it all—blatant costuming anachronisms, dialogue delivered with the stresses in all the wrong places, non sequitur interludes—is mostly respected by Miike within some kind of genre boundary: for all the excess, I was mostly shocked by how thankfully straightforward it comes off as. Even when it’s not “wacky,” it’s as ploddingly efficient as its sources, just with a little extra testosterone. That’s praise, more or less. I’m amazed that a Western full of samurai swordplay doesn’t constantly call attention to its own strangeness, but the macho tendencies of both genres link them seamlessly.

Those who come for the sheerly outrageous stuff may be disappointed: there’s less of it than usual, and what’s there isn’t that excessive. Quentin Tarantino delivers all of his lines in a strangled Western voice that’s nearly incomprehensible and no fun whatsoever; it would be a relief to excise him from the film altogether, since his presence is mostly a symbolic benediction in any case. There’s also a strenuously “wacky” sheriff (Teruyuki Kagawa) whose loyalties are so divided between the town’s warring factions that he’s gone multiple-personality, resulting in a lot of tedious footage of a guy slapping himself around; it’s like something out of a D-list Sundance reject. Much funnier is Kiyomori (Koichi Sato), the gang leader who insists on being called Henry in pursuit of his new goal: winning the battle in the same fashion as victory in the War of the Roses comes in Henry VI, which he insists on reading to his non-comprehending followers.

And there you go: as usual, Sukiyaki is easy to make sound unusual and intriguing, clearly designed as ever for breathless, cultish summarizations of the best bits. The difference—at least from where I’m sitting—is Miike’s relative patience, his willingness to make everything the same level of mildly amusing rather than racing from one YouTube clip to another. If you’re consistently amused by ludicrous color-coding (the look’s almost as artificial as Speed Racer, complete with an opening sequence straight out of Kwaidan, set against a glaringly artificial painted red sun), or if the sound of a movie where the climax is basically random mayhem punctuated by a dude firing a Gatling gun with the crazed laughter of a kamikaze pilot sounds appealing to you, you’ll get exactly what you want in consistent doses. Which is more than can usually be said for Miike; for once, the thought of watching another of his movies doesn’t make me feel completely weary.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.