Thursday, December 27, 2012

Miike Did It First: Sukiyaki Western Django

You would think from the critical response Tarantino practically invented both Spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation in Django Unchained.  Yet, he is hardly the first director to pay tribute to Corbucci’s Django.  Takeshi Miike staked out some pretty eccentric homage territory first with Sukiyaki Western Django (trailer here), a film Tarantino must be aware of, since he appears in it.  In fact, he stinks up the joint with an excruciatingly shticky too-big-to-be-a-cameo supporting turn.  Perhaps that is why his amen chorus has doggedly ignored such an obvious comparison film.  We don’t play favorites here, especially when Miike’s flawed SWD is so doggone interesting and readily available on DVD.

Throughout SWD, Miike cranks up the action somewhere between a cartoon and a video game, with stuff flying through the air and characters occasionally blowing holes through each other big enough to stick your arm through.  Hideaki Ito is the archetypal man with no name, who swaggers into town, finding his skills sought after by the rival Genji (white) and Heike (red) clans—essentially returning A Fistful of Dollars back to its Yojimbo roots.  Listening to offers but staying non-committal, the gunslinger cools his heels at the Soba house run by Ruriki.  For the record, a Gatling gun does indeed turn up.

Red and white briefly mixed to pink when Ruriki’s son married Shizuka.  However, when her husband was killed by his own clan, Shizuka took dubious refuge with the Genji, where she most definitely catches the lone gunslinger’s eye.  While SWD is mostly a testosterone driven action movie, its most interesting performances come from women.  Yoshino Kimura is both seductive and emotionally nuanced as “the temptress” Shizuka.  Kaori Momoi (previously seen it films like Memoirs of a Geisha and Kurosawa’s Kagemusha) steals the show as Ruriki, who turns out to be more of an action hero than the wooden gunslinger.

Some of the men do not fare so well, from an aesthetic perspective.  Shocking absolutely nobody, the worst performance comes from Quentin Tarantino, who seems convinced audiences want to see he camp it up and go completely over the top.  We don’t.  This is totally annoying Destiny Turns on the Radio Tarantino, not the somewhat sufferable Pulp Fiction Tarantino.  When he is on-screen, things come to a screeching halt—quite an achievement given the hyper-kinetic energy Miike infuses into the proceedings.

Miike goes for whacked-out gonzo action and largely succeeds, thanks to the ultra-cool Momoi and a dance number from Kimura that alone is worth the price of admission.  However, the film has a mean streak that somewhat dampens enthusiasm.  Cruelty and physical humor go hand-in-hand in SWD, and often makes an uneasy fit, just as in Unchained.  It has wild look (including some costumes that would not have been out of place in a Liberace stage show) and a bizarre vibe, partly due to the actors’ deliberately unnatural sounding phonetic English.  An occasional subtitle might have helped.

Takashi Miike is the ultimate cult director, so SWD should be red meat for his fans.  The rest of us mere mortals will likely to find it wildly uneven, but never dull.  It would be about on par with Django Unchained were it not for . . . Tarantino.  Recommended for Miike admirers and those who sorely in need of perspective on Unchained, Sukiyaki Western Django is available on DVD from most online retailers.