by Steve Habrat
When you first hear about Japanese auteur Takashi Miike’s samurai/spaghetti western mash-up Sukiyaki Western Django, you can’t help but be intrigued if you are a fan of either genre. Any unlikely genre mash-up is going to grab the interest of cinema fanatics and when you say the unpredictable Miike is behind the camera, it becomes a must-see film. But, like most genre mash-ups/hybrids, Sukiyaki Western Django is immensely disappointing. Way back in 1964, Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo and he loosely based his first spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars off of Kurosawa’s film and ended up reinventing the genre. The east was the inspiration for the new vision of the west that was emerging out of Italy. With Sukiyaki Western Django, Miike pays tribute to the two classics and fuses the spaghetti western to the samurai film then attempts to conceal the line where he connected them. The result is a surreal and often times cartoonish vision that also attempts to weave in some traces of Japanese history. Unfortunately, Sukiyaki Western Django, which is named after a popular Japanese one-pot beef dish and Italian filmmaker Sergio Corbucci’s legendary spaghetti western Django, has a flavor that is tasty on the first bite but quickly begins droning on the viewer until Miike dumps a whole bucket of salt and pepper on the feisty gunfight at the climax.
Sukiyaki Western Django picks up in the small town of Yuta, Nevata, where two warring gangs, the Heikes (reds) and the Genjis (whites), are waging a battle for control of the town. One day, an unnamed gunman (Played by Hideaki Ito) wanders into Yuta and offers up his service to whichever gang will pay more. After demonstrating his skills, both make generous offers to this mysterious gunman but he isn’t entirely interested in their offers. The gangs are after gold that is buried somewhere near the town and one gang is importing a weapon that can give them the upper hand in their battle. The gunman begins playing to two gangs against each other in an attempt to wipe both of them out and make off with the gold for himself. As the war grows more and more violent and the body count racks up, the gunman finds an ally in a legendary gunslinger that has been hiding in plain sight of the gangs. Her name is the Bloody Benton (Played by Kaori Momoi) and she happens to be an independent one-woman killing machine.
Sukiyaki Western Django opens with a nifty sequence that involves a lone gunslinger named Piringo (Played by Quentin Tarantino) who finds himself confronted by three cowboys who wish to kill him. Miike doesn’t make any attempt to hide the fact that his actors are on a soundstage with a painted backdrop behind them and a very visible string holding up the giant sun. The sequence is suggestive of films like The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, and A Fistful of Dollars all in one breath. It is the most inspired sequence in Sukiyaki Western Django, Tarantino getting his dream role of emulating Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. If Miike had run with this technique throughout the entire runtime, Sukiyaki Western Django would have no doubt been a much better and cooler film. When the film travels to Yuta, he switches over to real landscapes, intense color pallets, and lots of special effects which all get worn out before they even get going. Miike finally gets things back on track during the final shoot out where he slips in references to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Django, and The Great Silence. This is a sequence that will have fans of the genre erupting in applause. It is a sequence that also single handedly saves Sukiyaki Western Django from crumbling like one of the ramshackle buildings that dot the town of Yuta.
One choice that Miike makes that is very questionable is having his Japanese actors abandon their mother tongue and speak broken English. On one hand, it is understandable why he would make this choice, approaching the western genre that finds its roots in America, but it is clear that some of his actors are having a difficult time with the English language and that they would have been more comfortable speaking their own language. In my opinion, if he would have stuck to the Japanese language, Sukiyaki Western Django would have been a much more coherent film and much easier for the viewer to follow. At times, I found myself getting lost and finally switching on the subtitles so I could understand some of the actors and keep up with the plotline. Once I did this, Sukiyaki Western Django clicked together ever so slightly. Miike also makes the mistake of not fleshing his characters out enough, turning them into silly caricatures that look like they leapt off the pages of a comic book and left their back stories in the mind of their creator. You can’t particularly care about any of them and they all just fill the screen to become moving targets for shotgun blasts. The actors seem to be having fun with their characters but no one actually inhabits their character and brings them to life.
Sukiyaki Western Django exists simply to be an in-joke to the hip cinema crowd and I must admit that I enjoyed a few of those in-jokes. I found the references to Yojimbo and the spaghetti western classics to be comical but I wish that Miike’s film had created its own world rather than just cobbling together borrowed blood-dipped chunks of other director’s cinematic worlds. The film will also appeal to those who have a strong interest in world history, as the film makes a fistful of references to historical events including England’s Wars of the Roses and Japan’s Genpei War. To me, Sukiyaki Western Django turned out to be a middling film that left me dissatisfied because I thought it was capable of so much more but it wasn’t interested in aiming higher. I tend to enjoy Miike’s depraved work even though it makes me want to loose my lunch after it ends but this particular film never comes together when it needs to, especially when it is giving clunky, vague and longwinded explanations of its plotline that are ultimately forgettable. Miike does add a bit of kick with the awesome opening sequence, the very cool Bloody Benton character (the only one given an intriguing backstory), and the outrageous climatic showdown. If you find yourself to be the fanatic of Japanese cinema and history, a guru of westerns, spaghetti westerns, Yojimbo, Quentin Tarantino, Miike, and his entire body of work, you will eat up Sukiyaki Western Django. If you are only some of those things or none of those things, you’re going to find this film to be an incredibly uneven experience and a chore to endure.
Sukiyaki Western Django is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
With the western genre beginning to loose steam in America during the 1960s, new interest in the genre was sparked with the emergence of Sergio Leone’s dusty A Fistful of Dollars, a rock-n-roll reinvention of the fatigued western genre. A Fistful of Dollars was the first spaghetti western to land in America and introduce audiences to the rising star Clint Eastwood and his iconic Man with No Name, arguably the best western character ever created. The spaghetti westerns that were coming from Italy were rougher and tougher than the ones America was churning out, westerns where the line between right and wrong were blurred and the violence was cranked up to the max. A Fistful of Dollars is one of my favorite westerns and perhaps one of the most influential, boldly breaking new ground and embracing a dark edge inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. This is the first film that introduced many to the genius of Ennio Morricone and his whistling scores.
A Fistful of Dollars follows the Man with No Name (Played by Eastwood) as he arrives in a small town on the Mexican border. Once he arrives, the local innkeeper Silvanito (Played by José Calvo) informs him that the small town is caught in a deadly feud between two families—the Rojo brothers and the Baxters. The Man with No Name sees this feud as an opportunity to begin playing the two families against each other and make some large sums of cash in the process. The Man with No Name uses a group of Mexican soldiers mosey into town with a large shipment of gold as a chance to spark up a conflict. As the feud grows deadlier and deadlier, The Man with No Name pushes the malicious and clever Ramón (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), one of the leaders of the Rojo gang, a bit too far and puts his life in danger.
What is instantaneously atypical about A Fistful of Dollars is the fact that the film refuses to allow us to root for the sheriff of the small town, the ones who stand for law and order. It breaks the mold laid by the American westerns where you root for the honest, ethical, and steadfast. Here we root for a man who operates in a gray zone, someone only looking to benefit himself and no one else. He is better than the Rojo gang but the Man with No Name still operates outside the law. He is interested in personal gain and wealth, seeing the dispute as a game of chess, his squinty eyes carefully plotting his next move. He is shrouded in mystery, hidden in a poncho and always chewing on a cigar. What is his story? We find ourselves drawn to those we do not know and we actually like someone we know nothing about more than when we learn about their past, present, and future. This is precisely why the Man with No Name possesses a magnetism that in my eyes can’t be matched.
Leone’s portrayal of the west is another standout of A Fistful of Dollars, giving us a vision that is the furthest thing from romanticized. Much like the morals at their heart, the American western was concerned with presenting a glossed over version of the Wild West, a place where love stories flourished along with the good old boy heroes. Leone’s west wasn’t a place where the good guys wore white and flashed a badge and the mean old outlaw was dressed in rebellious black. Just like the fine line our hero walks, this west is shifty, deadly, and often repulsive. Here cowboys and outlaws chug whiskey, womanize, kill for entertainment, and pick gunfights out of boredom. For such a depraved place, Leone mirrors it in the run down builds that dot the town. Everything just seems like it is rotting away into the blowing sand right down to the sweaty close-ups that Leone loves to shove our faces in. Faces are weather worn, wrinkled, crack, toothless, and broken. It is a place where even the viewer keeps an eye on the gunslinger at the bar in the background, a place where apprehension rules every move we make. Leone, it appears, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Leone also finds beauty in silence and glances, a touch that would become increasingly popular in his work. In A Fistful of Dollars, the Man with No Name talks more than he does in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Yet when dialogue is spoken, it is cynical and pessimistic, no one ever truly offering a word of hope that things will get better. Leone ties silence with tension, allowing faces and eyes to do all the talking and squinting to signal it was time to draw your pistol. These silences usually build up to explosive gun fights that last five seconds at their longest. This approach would go on to inspire Quentin Tarantino, who is very vocal about his love of Leone’s work. It is this approach that separates the loyal fans of Leone from the one’s who prefer films that are talkative. And yet the anti-social personality of his work mirrors the anti-social behavior of the characters he photographs.
In film school, one of my professors praised Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 epic The Wild Bunch as the film that captured the dramatic shifts in American society in the 1960s. He claimed that the film acknowledged the death of the conservative values and the beginning of a new era. I’ve always wondered where that left Sergio Leone’s work, especially his Dollars trilogy. Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was one of the first to truly acknowledge the violent shift in American during the 1960s. Leone presented a west that would run John Wayne out of the town the film took place in and gave us a hero with distorted morals. The film was made in 1964 but was released in America in 1967, right smack dab in the middle of an angry America that was facing an unpopular war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, riots, protests, assassinations, the rising counterculture, and more. While I agree that Peckinpah’s film has a lot on its mind, I don’t believe that he was the first one to use the western to mirror the times and make a statement about the evolution of America. For a film genre that was American made, one where the good guys always prevail and the bad guys always loose, Leone was among the first to rip those black and white ethics to shreds, magnify our underlying violence, and in the process, created a classic film that is just as nasty today as it was back then.
A Fistful of Dollars is now available on Blu-ray.