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Sukiyaki Western Django

First Look Pictures // R // November 11, 2008
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 3, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Sergio Leone's A
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Fistful of Dollars
-- y'know, the movie that kinda kicked off the whole Spaghetti Western thing -- was pretty much a remake of Yojimbo: a retread of a Japanese movie helmed by an Italian director, starring an American actor, and filmed in the sweltering deserts of Spain. Forty-someodd years later, controversial and hyperprolific Japanese director Takashi Miike brings Leone's seminal Spaghetti Western full circle with his blood-spattered love letter to the genre.

Miike seems like he's going to mine the same territory as Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars before him. The first thing Miike splatters across the screen after Sukiyaki Western Django's title sequence is an unnamed gunman (Hideaki Ito) strolling into some sleepy town nestled in the mountains of Nevada. (...and like most mining towns out West, it's peppered with pagodas and has a 100% Japanese population, but...yeah. You've kinda gotta roll with it.) The town's been torn apart by two warring factions in search of buried treasure -- the Heiki gang (let's just call 'em "Red") and the Genji ("White") -- and both of 'em want The Man with No Name on their side. Wait, though! Sukiyaki Western Django jumps ahead of you and lobs out some self-referential quip about Yojimbo before you even have a chance to finish that thought.

I could keep rattling off the plot, but...yeah, the story's kinda incidental. The short version...? A starcrossed romance straight outta Shakespeare. Murder. Revenge. Rape-slash-incest. Enough shoot-outs to keep Joseph Egger hammering away at his coffins for a couple of months on end. Yeah, yeah, I know that sounds bleak and depressing, and Sukiyaki Western Django is sopping with blood and has more than its share of darkly dramatic moments. Believe it or not, though, Miike manages to juggle all of that in with a batshit crazy visual style and a spastic sense of humor.

To cram this review of Sukiyaki Western Django down to three words? It's fucking nuts. I mean, one of the first things that happens in the movie is a thug's stomach blasted out by a shotgun, and as he
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stares in disbelief at the gaping hole in his stomach, an arrow zips through that opening and skewers some schlub behind him. You're lookin' at a gunslinger in the Old West decked out in leather armor like some background badass in The Road Warrior, lugging around a Gatling gun on his horse. There's an Avant-garde dance number set to a didgeridoo and some hand drum. Gravemarker-fu. A badnik who brings a sword to a gunfight and manages to hold his own anyway. A schizophrenic sheriff whose bickering personality-mark-deux smacks himself around in a squeaky, sing-song voice. An eight-armed animated gunslinger. Sticks of dynamite being chucked around like confetti at a Rip Taylor show. A, um, fetus growing inside of a blossoming rose. Quentin Tarantino pops up in a small but critical role as a legendary gunslinger, a foodie with a hankerin' for rattlesnake eggs and not-too-sweet sukiyaki who spends a fair chunk of his screentime buried under old codger makeup. A big stack of Japanese actors who can't speak a lick of English but spend the entire flick taking a stab at it phonetically anyway.

Sukiyaki Western Django can drag a bit when it tries to focus on the story -- and this is after the flick's already been trimmed down by twenty minutes and change for its release on these shores -- but it's propelled by such a ridiculous amount of action and hyperkinetic energy that it never really slows down too much. Miike's visual flair is another driving force. I'm a fan of scattering screengrabs across my reviews, and it seemed like the movie couldn't go more than a couple of minutes without something beautifully grotesque or artfully composed that I wanted to snap. I was pretty fascinated with the trailer for Sukiyaki Western Django when I first caught it at Retrofantasma a couple months back, and the movie's everything I'd hoped it'd be: a hyperviolent Spaghetti Western homage with a spastic sense of humor and just a hell of a lot of fun. Recommended.

Video: Sukiyaki Western Django's hyperstylized
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visuals don't make for a reference quality Blu-ray disc so much, but the flick still looks pretty damned great in high-def. The bulk of the movie is sharp and reasonably well-defined, ranking somewhere pretty close to average for a lower-budget day-and-date release. The level of fine detail won't really curl any toes, but it's obvious with even a quick glance that this is a high definition disc.

Black levels are deep and dense -- Takashi Miike really seems fascinated with shadows and silhouettes here -- and the palette tends to lean more towards a sunbaked gold with an emphasis on particularly striking reds. Miike indulges his visual style in flashbacks with blown-out contrast and hypersaturated colors, and the scenes with the younger version of Quentin Tarantino's gunslinger are shot against painted backdrops and look the most like a gritty, vintage Spaghetti Western. Film grain is pronounced in those heavily stylized stretches, although the texture throughout most of the movie tends to be fairly smooth.

So...yeah. Sukiyaki Western Django isn't the sort of startlingly detailed high-def disc you'd grab off the shelf to show off your home theater rig, but the movie still looks pretty slick on Blu-ray and is definitely worth picking up over the DVD even though you miss out on the whole steelbook thing. Sukiyaki Western Django is presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and has been encoded with VC-1. The movie and its extras fit pretty comfortably on a single layer Blu-ray disc.

Audio: Sukiyaki
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Western Django
is packing a 24-bit Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, and it's a pretty aggressive mix with a hell of a lot of directionality. One moment that grabbed my attention early on comes when the Man with No Name shoots the gun out of the hand of some schlub in a bar. The crack of the gunfire is bolstered by a tight, punchy low-end, and the sound of the badnik's pistol is sent flying into the left surround channel. Sukiyaki Western Django is teeming with those sorts of effects as bullets whiz through the sky and bodies are flung around like ratty ragdolls.

So many the effects scattered throughout this movie sound brilliant, particularly the collision of a sword against a pistol and the harsh scraping sound as the blade slo-o-o-wly slides against it. The lower frequencies can be pretty devastating thanks to the constant shootouts, clattering hooves, fistfuls of dynamite being chucked around, and the meaty thuds of punches, kicks, and even a shovel to the head. The movie's dialogue is rendered cleanly and...kind of clearly: it's technically solid but can be tough to make out since so few of the actors are actually fluent in English, with pretty much all of 'em delivering their lines phonetically. It's a pretty great track, and hopefully this sort of lossless audio will be standard issue for First Look from here on out.

An English stereo track has also been tacked on along with subtitles in English (SDH) and Spanish. Sukiyaki Western Django is predominately in English as it is, but there is some Japanese text and dialogue, and only a small portion of it is subtitled in the movie itself.

Extras: The "2-disc Special Edition" banner on the cover is kinda misleading -- there's really only a little over an hour's worth of extras here, and the second disc is nothing but a digital copy of the movie.

A fifteen minute reel of deleted
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scenes is mostly anchored around additional snippets of dialogue, such as Bloody Benten spelling out what drove her to roll back into town. There's also a picture-in-picture version of a bar brawl serving up different angles of the fight.

The disc also includes a nearly hour-long making-of featurette, presented in its original Japanese with burned-in subtitles. It seems like it could've been twenty minutes lighter if the cast's admiration of Takashi Miike had been dialed down a couple notches, but there's still a pretty impressive amount of ground covered here: peeks at storyboards, Miike's collaborative and sometimes unrelenting approach, staging the fight choreography and putting the actors through a shoot-'em-up boot camp, working with horses, struggling against harsh and unpredictable weather, and stepping into the recording booth to hammer out some ADR. Miike touches on how Sukiyaki Western Django fits into the recurring themes throughout his work, although he admits that this isn't really a movie that screams out for deep critical analysis or anything, and he explains why he opted to shoot the movie in English even though hardly anyone in the cast actually spoke it.

The deleted scenes are letterboxed in standard definition, and the disc's making-of featurette is presented in 4x3 standard-def. The switch hasn't been flipped on for Sukiyaki Western Django's BD Live functionality as I write this, so I can't really say what First Look might be cooking up there. Rounding out the extras are four standard definition trailers for other First Look releases.

Conclusion: Look, you don't need to trudge through this long, rambling review: we're talkin' about blood-spattered slapstick in a Spaghetti Western filtered through Takashi Miike's borderline-psychotic visual eye. If you read that and your kneejerk reaction is "well, yeah", then...congrats! You'll get your twenty dollars or whatever's worth outta Sukiyaki Western Django. If not...? 'Sokay. I won't hold it against you. Pinky swear. Recommended.
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