Screening at 2008’s New York Asian Film Festival and Fantasia Film Festival, Takeshi Miike’s ‘Sukiyaki Western Django’ is an homage to the great westerns of the 60’s. Using stylised set design and tributes to just about anything to come out of Japanese popular culture, we are taken on a journey to revisit the site where the Battle of Dannoura once took place and a fabled treasure still lives to this day.
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In a once sleepy mountain town, chaos reigns as the Heike and Genji gangs face off on the search for a mysterious wealth of gold. A lone gunman enters town offering his services to the highest bidder out of the red and white clans, which spurs on the already boiling tension between these warring parties. We learn that the Genji’s hold a mysterious woman with a tormented past in their possession, who our gunman decides deserves to be free and offers to buy her. This sets in motion a battle between all parties, culminating in a classic shootout to finalise this war once and for all.
There is a deliberate style to this movie that Miike sets from our opening scene, featuring a cowboy trying to cook some lunch, who then goes on to tell our tale. The entire film feels like a cartoon, with over the top violence and an underlying comedic tone to everything that transpires. The set itself, whenever the aforementioned cowboy is on screen, is a very obvious painting as a backdrop and little more than a campfire and a chair. When we see our main story playing out, the use of a set from what could easily be a spaghetti western is what we are privileged to. Everything is very deliberate in how Miike wanted us to view this film.
The use of phonetic English can be difficult to understand at times, using the almost entire Japanese cast speaking English is an interesting choice. I was happy to have English subtitles. The writing is average at best, but I’m unsure whether that is purely due to the translation from what I’m assuming was originally a Japanese script transferred to English or if once again it’s a deliberate act.
Toyomichi Kurita does a fine job as cinematographer, managing to follow the pace and style requested of him, but also managing to sneak in some exquisite shots using shadow and beams of external light. The movie sets out to achieve what it wants to technically, stripping everything back to give it an more basic feel, yet there are moments such as the aforementioned use of shadow where Miike’s knowledge as an auteur really shines through.
The cast is lead by Hideaki Ito (‘Memoirs of a Murderer’) as our unnamed gunman, Koichi Sato (‘When the Last Sword is Drawn’) as the leader of the Heiki clan, Masanobu Ando (‘Battle Royale’) as the Genji gang and finally Quentin Tarantino (‘From Dusk Till Dawn’) as Piringo, our story telling cowboy. None of the cast really shine as they are not given the chance to. It is a fairly basic story with no character development to speak of. Outside of our gunman, it is just a group of cruel people trying to find gold beating the hell out of each other.
I enjoyed the film because I am a fan of Miike and no matter how hard he tries, his talent always shines through. It’s a minimalist story that is really just trying to get to a culmination so we can watch everyone kill each other, but there are some great throw backs to the old west to keep you interested if it’s a genre you care about. Entertaining stunts and some great shoot outs, there’s not really much more you need is there?