Sukiyaki Western Django is one of those rare gems. And I almost gave up on it.
Let me state clearly that this is not a movie for everyone. It's highly stylized, highly violent and pure popcorn in the best way. It's not gonna change anyone's world. But if you are a fan of Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci or any of the Spaghetti Western film makers out there, then you may appreciate it.
What is Sukiyaki Western Django? It's Takashi Miike's homage to those Spaghetti Westerns using a mostly Japanese cast (and Quentin Tarantino) speaking English. It's a Western set in Nevada in the Old West, but really it's a fantasy that belongs to neither a specific place or a specific time.
As another homage to Spaghetti Westerns, I have broken up my review into three parts.
Takashi Miike is a wonderfully prolific genre film maker with a distinct visual style. That style (carried out by cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita) is an important part of this film. The two warring clans in white and red garb, the lush greens of the main character's flashback scenes, the showdown in the falling snow. This was a beautiful film to look at regardless of the plot, pacing and acting. Which were all outstanding.
The film is based on the actual conflict between the Genji/Minamoto (white) and Heike/Taira (red) clans as fought in the Genpei War in Japan that occurred from 1180-1185 AD. It was fictionalized to bring it to the Old West and a mercenary stranger was introduced to act as a go-between among the two clans. Selling his services to the highest bidder. But does he have his own agenda? If you've seen Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars or Last Man Standing, then you know the story.
I love heartfelt remakes or homages to great films like those. I also love films that take a historic event like the Genpei War and turn them into something totally different. The basis in fact is there, but the stylized violence and the mythology of the genre morphs it into something totally different. I dig that. I dig that in a big way.
All the leads, and only one of them was I familiar with, were outstanding. Masanobu Ando I had seen before in Battle Royale. And I couldn't take my eyes off of him as the spiky haired leader of the Genji clan. Sadistic, intelligent, violent and human all at the same time. Kaori Momoi was absolutely fantastic as the elder woman with a shocking past. So was a subdued Hideaki Ito as a very Clint-like gunman with no name. The stick that stirred the pot, so to speak. Yoshino Kimura as the tragic, damaged woman torn between the two clans was another standout.
An extremely interesting character, almost Shakespearean in motive and depth, was the Sheriff of the town played by Teruyuki Kagawa. He had split his loyalties so many times between the two warring factions that he actually developed two individual personalities. You never knew what this guy was gonna do. He had a couple of extremely interesting Gollum moments going on, if you know what I mean. I don't believe I've seen him before, but he is a great actor rocking an over-the-top role in this one.
I thought the film started out a bit weak (I'll get to that in a moment). I actually started watching it late one night and promptly fell asleep during the first 20 minutes. Part of it had to do with the director's choice to have his Japanese cast do the film in English. And some of the accents were extremely heavy making it difficult to understand. For me, at least. But I also have some tinnitus issues in my right ear so maybe y'all will find it easier to comprehend than I did. But it did bother me. At first. As soon as the back story was developed and the protagonist was introduced, the film took off. Once I started watching it again the next day, of course. I could easily have decided not to go back to it. And that would have been a shame.
I just would have preferred watching the film in Japanese with English subtitles, is all.
Quentin Tarantino. Period.
He is awful. An awful actor, to be specific. He can hold his own when the material doesn't require him to stretch too much. But in this film he was asked to introduce the back story with a silly set piece right at the beginning of the film. A hokey piece of business with an egg. Ugh! I know these guys are part of a hip film makers clique, but c'mon!
His character, the wise mythical gunslinger, is an important one to the film. A necessary character. The choice by Miike to make him American is fine with me. Just pick someone with better chops than QT! A goofball like Michael Madsen would have even been okay. Stick to staying behind the camera, Quentin. That's what you are good at.
So that's it. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly about Sukiyaki Western Django. I can totally see how someone wouldn't enjoy this film, but if you go into it with an open mind then you might surprise yourself.
PS - Go check out Ookami Snow's review of it over on his blog. He beat me to it by a couple of days.
Note: Remember to play the Bug-Eyed Trivia Challenge every day. All the funky Ronin are doing it.