Starring: Hideaki Itô, Kôichi Satô, Yûsuke Iseya, Kaori Momoi, Quentin Tarantino
Director: Takashi Miike
Mood: If you pride yourself on being a super niche film geek and want to laugh at a bunch of inside jokes that no one else gets and probably you don’t either but you’ll never admit it
I have NO IDEA what I just watched. None. Somebody tell me what the fork was going on in Sukiyaki Western Django!
I bought the DVD a couple of years ago, when I was trying to broaden my Western viewing experiences. Then I never got around to watching it because I was just never in the mood to push my brain that hard.
You see, I’m not the target audience for Sukiyaki Western Django. It’s both a Spaghetti Western and a Ramen Western. I, on the other hand, didn’t get the fuss over A Fistful of Dollars, and have never been into Japanese movies. But I WAS intrigued to see Asian gunslingers, since every Asian character in a Western I’ve seen to this point has either been a railroad worker, a citizen of Chinatown, a time-traveling martial artist, or a knife-throwing assassin.
I made my fiancé watch it with me, because he’s a huge Samurai film fan. I figured he could lend some insight if I got confused. This turned out to be extremely smart foresight on my part, except that he was equally perplexed.
It’s a Western, but it’s not gonna scratch any kind of classic Western itch. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it either. Yet I still have to write this review…
Sukiyaki Western Django blatantly borrows from Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy, which itself was a nod to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo. And it’s definitely rooted in another famous Spaghetti Western, Sergio Corbucci’s Django. It also frequently references the Genpei War between the Genji and Heike clans, and the Wars of the Roses between the English houses of Lancaster and York.
This is just stuff I Googled while trying to understand what the heck was happening on the screen.
A mysterious gunslinger (Hideaki Itô) rides into a town with buildings that are equal parts Old West and Japanese. He talks to a creepy guy (Quentin Tarantino). Two warring clans rule the town, as in movies like The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars: the white-coloured Genji, and the red-dressed Heike. Both try to get the gunslinger to join them.
He refuses both, shots are fired, then he follows an older drunk woman named Ruriko (Kaori Momoi channeling the classic Spaghetti Western priest sidekick character) into her establishment. She tells him the history of the town, which is a lot like a gold rush in a typical Western where cattlemen and farmers fight for control, but you can clearly see the opposing sides because they wear their clan colours.
Beyond that, it gets murky. There’s a little boy who is both clans because of his parents. His mom is a prostitute. The gunman is there to help her, but I have no idea why and he’s very antihero because he also uses her services. Then it’s lots and lots of fighting as the clans kill each other off.
Let’s start with the stuff I liked:
- The sets and costumes in Sukiyaki Western Django are absolute eye candy
- The costumes are a fascinating hybrid of Samurai, Elizabethan, cowboy, and somehow also post-apocalyptic and you don’t know what you’re looking at but you’re appreciating every detail
- The action is f*cking outstanding – you get every kind of Eastern and Western combat possible: guns, swords, choreographed brawls, and even a gatling gun, and it’s shot in a style that’s both gratuitously gory and occasionally funny
- Yûsuke Iseya steals the entire movie as Genji leader Minamoto no Yoshitsune, aka ‘Henry’ (as in Henry VI); his talents are equal at swordsmanship and gun spinning, often at the same time, and he’s a seriously commanding bad guy… I just wish he hadn’t also had an entire scene of sexual assault
- Kaori Momoi is also quite brilliant as the wise-cracking innkeeper and secret badass gunslinger – but then you’re super confused as to why her character did nothing for years until the last possible minute
- Hideaki Itô looks great and has excellent moves as the mysterious gunman, too bad there’s literally nothing else to his character (although I could say the same for Clint Eastwood so maybe it’s a success!)
And now the negatives:
- The story has so many references that it’s basically tripping over them to force dialogue and plot points – it comes across as trying too hard to cram the script full of ‘in jokes’ for various niche audiences
- The characters get almost no development or dimension, other than who they are on screen at the time
- Using an English script and Japanese actors putting on ‘manly’ Western voices was a poor choice, because it crushed all the possible character nuances of voice, tone, and language that might have helped
- Quentin Tarantino is a big negative; I have NO idea what the f*ck he was going for in his ‘accent’ or his character, but it’s repulsive in a way that does nothing for the story
- There is literally no reason for the snow at the end other than for the drama
- WTF is up with the presumptuous note at the end that this is a prequel to Corbucci’s Django?
If you enjoy Sukiyaki Western Django, it’s probably either because you love director Takashi Miike’s work or you just really enjoy elevated action that fuses different genres and don’t care too much about story.
It seems like it was made as a pet project, just to do Miike’s own take on specific Spaghetti Westerns that already exist. The word ‘pastiche’ is used in a lot of reviews from when the movie was released.
But the thing about pastiche is that it’s the opposite of parody. It’s supposed to be a loving tribute. And this seems more like a self-indulgent take that’s intentionally trying to exclude the audience by being too cool.