Jan 7, 2009

Ramen Western

It's very rare that I get blown away by a movie that I was looking forward to. The film usually doesn't live up to my expectations. Occasionally I will see a film that exceeds my expectations, but those are films that I usually just happen upon. Not a film that I had been eager to see.

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.


pure evyl said...

Being a fan of the Spaghetti Westerns and the Kurosawa flicks that inspired them, I must check it out. Thanks for the heads up.

Verdant Earl said...

Evyl - sure thing. Enjoy!

Avitable said...

I might have to check that out. I'm a huge Kurosawa fan, and this sounds like it might be an evolution of that.

Slyde said...

i need to stop hearing about this movie! i just need to check it out. gotta see if amazon has it for tivo download...

Jennifer and Sandi said...

Holy Moly you have yourself a very fancy new blog format.


I don't think I'd like that movie? Is it like Bruce Lee stuff??

- Jennifer

That Hank said...

Thanks for the heads up! I've added it to my netflix.

Heff said...

I've always wondered about Tarantino's acting abilities. Every time I've seen him in a film, I've said "Hey, did he suck, or is it just me?"

Verdant Earl said...

Avitable - Takashi Miike isn't the in the same class with Kurasawa, but it is a fun movie that honors Kurasawa in a way.

Slyde - yes, you need to see this.

Jenn - yeah, I got bored with the old template.

DG - I watched it online with Netflix. I love that "watch instantly" feature!

Verdant Earl said...

Heff - it's not just you. He sucks.

Michelle said...

Hi b.e. i probably will not view this film, but i just wanted to tell you that i think your reviews of films are spot on and greatly written. In other words your a rockin writer!!!

Why i probably won't see this film is because its just not my thing.

Hey did you ever see Dr. Strangelove? It's 99 cents rental on itunes!!

Ookami Snow said...

I didn't mind QT that much, I figured he was just as much of an "over the top actor" as the rest of the cast, so his performance was acceptable to me.

Did you see that the actors also dubbed over their lines in Japanese? That means that if you get the right version of the movie, their mouths could be moving in English, the words you hear are Japanese, and you can get English subtitles (or French subtitles is you want to go all out.)

Also your movie review is way better then mine. All I have is a trailer.

Verdant Earl said...

Michelle - Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director and Dr. Strangelove (or A Clockwork Orange) is my favorite of his films. So dark, so funny. If you haven't seen it yet, then do so immediately!

Ookami - The overdub would have been a much cooler homage given the dubbing of the original Spaghetti Western. I watched it on Netflix online so I didn't have the subtitle options. Something Netflix is supposedly working on.

Bruce Johnson said...

If I found this somewhere on the net to download I might check it out, but it sounds a bit on the outlandish side and since ultra violence and Tarentino aren't really my thing...I think I will just stick with a re-run of Seven Samuari.

Verdant Earl said...

Bruce - you can never go wrong with a re-run of The Seven Samurai. One of my favorite all-time movies.

Candy's daily Dandy said...

Spaghetti Westerns? I have heard much about them but never really watched one. Your loving prose here just may have convinced me to watch this one.

Candy's daily Dandy said...

BTW-I was watching Blazing Saddles the other day and the scene where Mel Brooks plays the wacky Gov. He was yelling at some guy in his office-looking for a "harumph" out of him.
Made me instantly think of you.;)

Verdant Earl said...

Candy - that's EXACTLY where I got it from. Well done!

Michelle said...

Dr. Strangelove sounds good but i looked up A Clockwork Orange and that sounds even better!! Is it??

Either way i will view them both!! Sounds like i've been missing out on some good films!!

Thanks dude!

Anonymous said...

O.M.G!!! you used the words spaghetti westerns and cinematrograhpher almost in the same paragraph ~ i think i have a small crush!