4 out of 5
Directed by: Takashi Miike
When you’re getting in to the works of an artist – comics, books, movies, whatever – there generally comes a point where you have to justify, to yourself, your fandom: some artifact that you experience doesn’t feel up to whatever line of quality you expect, and so the reasons start spewing forth as to why that is. Sometimes, the reasons are easy to come by, like if it was something really early in that creator’s career. But sometimes, it takes more than one easy statement to settle the matter, and… funny things happen: nonsensical explanations; extreme positivity – it’s the most misunderstood, greatest thing ever!; some wayward conspiracy theory as to why it’s not representative of whomever’s oeuvre…
With Sukiyaki Western Django, Takashi Miike’s – as of 2020 – only English language (I think) production, co-starring Quentin Tarantino and getting quite the push in the director’s notoriety in the years following Audition, my method was to completely ignore the thing. To say ‘I didn’t get it’ isn’t right; I thought I did get it, and I was embarrassed by it. It felt like a bid for crossover fame that failed; it felt like an eye-rolling set of homages to Westerns, and whatever else, that was clunked up with Japanese actors woodenly speaking their English lines. I’d dragged friends to / forced friends to watch Miike flicks in the past that lacked the direct zing or flagrant offensiveness as his more “known” movies, and felt the sting of their boredom, but those movies always had qualities I could stand by, as I continued to fill in my gaps of viewing awareness of Takashi’s growing body of films and TV shows. Sukiyaki: not so much. And so I scrambled to watch the flick, pedaled away somewhat dispirited, and then never mentioned the director’s name around those friends again, so I wouldn’t have to figure out how to answer regarding my thoughts on That Movie He Made. It got a home video release, which I purchased, but it didn’t get watched before all of the other films I “needed” to watch, instead staying nestled amongst my collection, overlooked.
As my stories often go, especially with Miike: years have passed. I’ve watch a lot more of his movies, and of Japanese cinema (and anime) in general. I don’t really have any friends to whom I’d feel compelled to justify my movie viewings anymore, but regardless, I think I also mostly passed that stage where we’re afflicted with that syndrome; I’m pretty comfortable with any and every piece of media I choose to consume, as well as my feelings toward such things. Sukiyaki Western Django was being rereleased, and with the extended version that I’d never seen – the original two hour (version 90ish minute) version that aired in Japan, prior to being cut down for American release – it seemed like the rightest time to check the movie out.
And it is one of the most Miike things I’ve ever seen, rather gloriously so. Coming into existence at the time that Takashi was making the necessary crossover from V-cinema releases to big budget ones, as required by changes in the Japanese film industry at the time, Sukiyaki is also – again, I think – the sole movie on which he actually takes a screenwriting credit. While Takashi has almost always fiddled with his movies’ scripts, that’s part of his filmmaking process, and his interviews suggest that he’s just working to bring things to filmic life the best he knows how. Sukiyaki, then, suggests something a bit more premeditated; an idea to be expressed that is then adapted to the screen. I think the film had something of a lukewarm reception, which makes me wonder if we would’ve seen more of this style had it been an outright success, either critically or commercially.
The plot takes note from a few things that I recognize (mainly Yojimbo), mapping it to a time-displaced clash between the Genji and Heike clans (an early AD bit of Japanese history preceding the spike of samurai in the country), but the story could be seen as one giganto MacGuffin for the sensory overload and conceptual splatterpunk of the film itself. The ideas are fascinating as hell; the tale of a nameless cowboy (Hideaki Itō) sauntering in to the town of “Yuta” in “Nevata” and getting in the middle of a gold rush being fought between the white-suited Genji and red-suited Heike (there’s your Yojimbo – or perhaps A Fistful of Dollars – parallel) is… not, and not because you’ve seen its variants a million times over, but because character motivations take a seat way far behind representation here. This could be a killer in a 2-hour movie (and the extended edition lacks the English subtitles of the American-released one, making a lot of the dialogue very hard to follow), but as, again, it’s all intended to be besides the point anyway, it works; the loosey-goosey plotting is fine. And I didn’t catch that my first time through; I didn’t appreciate the forceful pretense of shooting the first framing-ish scene with a stiltedly-speaking Tarantino – switching in and out of accents – against an obvious studio backdrop of a painted setting sun. But I was watching a Miike movie to be blown away by an intensely weird story and visual overload; I wasn’t expecting to watch something a little more personal and indulgent.
It seems rather obvious now; it’s there, even, in the title: Sukiyaki Western Django; mash-ups upon mash-ups; a film genre that’s “American” by way of another culture, with Westerns also often being seen as translations of samurai flicks… The movie is Miike filtering his experiences in the industry, and it’s changes; of making movies for a DTV audience expecting a certain thing and then – just by force of will, his inclinations taking over – pushing any given film into a “something else” realm, adding up to a body of work that is very uniquely his and absolutely no others’. Right around the time of this movie, we see some very fascinating experiments with his style and approach, and then afterwards, his evolvement into a big-budget picture maker, and all of that is in Western Django as well. The choice of having his Japanese actors speak their lines in English isn’t a lark – it’s both tribute to the source inspiration, of English-dubbed Spanish / Italian Westerns, and another nod to the cross-culturalism the movie is playing with. True, as mentioned, this occasionally gets in the way of a “clean” read of the flick, but the emotion is there in the lines; having slightly more experience now with Japanese, I can understand how difficult it must be to know which words to stress, even when you’re pantomiming the language, and so if you scrunch up your ears to just get the gist of each sentence and pay attention, instead, to the moods of the performances, a lot of it is pretty stunning stuff, whether it’s intended to be funny (Teruyuki Kagawa’s multi-personality sheriff) or badass (Yūsuke Iseya’s Genji-leading Yoshitsune) or something more emotive (Yoshino Kimura, playing the girl who crosses the lines of the clans). And where it doesn’t work – our nameless stranger, played by Hideaki Itō, is just danged wooden, and the Heiki leader, played by Kōichi Satō, has a lot of heavy-lifting dialogue to do that weighs his acting down – Miike is there, with cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita to pick up the pieces with some of the best looking shots (and sets) of Miike’s career. Mix in some excellent action setpieces along the way, and the two-hour runtime never sags, and is stuffed to the gills with fascinating explorations of this filmed-sukiyaki concept, and riddled with a consistency of that concept that isn’t always there in Miike productions.
…And then, for sure, there are the bits and pieces that don’t quite work. A brief gay joke doesn’t go over so well – Tom Mes suggests this is a subversion of masculinity, but it doesn’t play that way to me – and I think the balance between statement and tribute sometimes misses the mark as well, particularly involving Kimura’s character. Countering these missteps, though, are the flashes of demented randomness Miike is so good at, such as Renji Ishibashi’s humorous bit in the proceedings, and the general visual splendor that hits the screen.
I’m now incredibly eager to watch the cut version to see what went away, and who knows, maybe that version will make me revert back to my original non-opinion opinion, but I don’t think so. Sukiyaki Western Django is a challenge to the viewer; it’s an experiment, and not likely one that will work well with viewers without some context of Miike, and the genres in which he’s working, which, admittedly isn’t a great thing – I generally don’t approve of needing outside knowledge to enjoy something. At the same time, if approached without any expectations, the film is bonkers enough and certainly stuffed with enough eye-catching spectacle to likely pass the time effectively, and maybe even twinkle interest in exploring more. Once that bridge is crossed – and once one becomes a true Miike fan, accepting of all of his ups and downs – I think it becomes clearer that this belongs on the list of top works of his so-far career.