When you think of Japanese maverick and all around iconoclast Takashi Miike, the wild Wild West is not the first thing that comes to mind, right? Blood splattered horror and grim crime thrillers, yes, but spaghetti westerns forged out of a faithfulness to the two Sergios - Leone and Corbucci? Not very likely. Yet few realize that Miike is more than the sum of his carved up body parts. He's a practitioner of film as an art, not as pure commerce. He makes the movies that inspire him, and it's safe to say that when he decided to go horse oater epic with Sukiyai Western Django, he was truly motivated. Like a homage filtered through a certified love affair with the form, and just a tad of Miike's typical unfathomable flare, this is an outstanding addition to his oeuvre, and one of the most satisfying visual feasts of the year. Too bad then that the DVD is missing almost 30 minutes of his vision.
It's the 1880's, and in the small Japanese/Nevada town of Yuta, the red clad Heike and the white dressed Genji are at war. Once they believed there was gold in this dirty one horse outpost, and so they arrived to stake their claim. But after finding no such treasure, they decided to stay, fighting among themselves in a feud that fails to settle the issues long standing between the gangs. Both leaders fancy themselves as much better than their men. Kiyomori sees himself as rarified royalty in red. Yoshitsune carries an elegant blade and believes in the warrior ways of feudal Japan. Into their bickering bullet ballet comes an unknown gunslinger in black. His purpose and persona are unclear. Taken in by an old lady, he learns of the woman's dead son, her mute grandchild, and the daughter who is now a concubine for the Genji chief. All vow vengeance, and with the help of this stranger, they may finally get it - or die trying.
At first, it's easy to see why fans wouldn't flock to see Takashi Miike 'mangle' the old fashioned horse opera. After all, here's a filmmaker forged in gore, given over to fits of incoherent excellence and over the top triumphs. Why would anyone want to see his take on the spaghetti western, especially one where his all Japanese cast (with the exception of visiting icon Quentin Tarantino) are gabbing about in incredibly broken English? It sounds like a joke, albeit one from the mind of one of international cinema's strongest artists. Perhaps this is why Sukiyaki Western Django ends up among the best updates of said formalized '60s style since a retro rock act took their Morricone-inspired music and made The Legend of God's Gun. While that independent masterpiece was all glorified greatest hits however, Miike digs deeper. It's complete and utter context fused with bubbly visual zing. It's passion pumped up by a powder keg of crazy invention and ideas - in essence, Leone on LSD!
Miike makes every moment of his two hour running time count (sadly, this version appears to be cut by more than a half hour - more on this later). Flashbacks are handled with absolute control and confidence, while symbolism is shunned for more obvious and outright metaphors. When Kiyomori decides to literally "become" Henry 6th (keeping in line with the film's already obvious nod to the War of the Roses), we fully support such an insane bow to the Bard. Similarly, Yoshitsune's love of samurai code and culture gets turned backward, then broadsided, becoming more of a burden in modern confrontations than a skill set benefit. All the way through, the homage remains heavy, those notorious Italians (whose own celebrated efforts provide the film its twisted title) ever-present in the pastiche. But this is not to accuse Miike of artistic laziness. Instead like all great impressionists, he takes the best bits and bathes them in his own unique combination of substance and sizzle.
Perhaps the most unusual element applied here however is the use of English by the decidedly Asian cast. With many of the actors speaking their lines almost phonetically, the dialogue takes on an unusual cadence - reminiscent of oration, or perhaps even singing. It's like Greek tragedy with cracked accents substituting for kabuki masks. The performers provide wonderful emotional and psychological heft, but there are still times when you can't help but laugh at the poorly pigeoned vocabulary (we see a few self-deprecating smiles among the cast as well). Miike also tosses in a few recognizable repeaters all his own. The sheriff character is a practically immortal sycophant who changes sides as often as he avoids the Grim Reaper. His weasel whine is one of the film's most memorable bits. So is the appearance of Miike student and supporter Quentin Tarantino. Doing his best Lee Van Cleef, his narrator character/catalyst provides a perfect contrast to the rest of Sukiyaki's frequent pretense. Thanks to these, and many other intriguing factors, this represents some of Miike's best work. It's as phony as it is fun.
While it can't compare to the grandeur of this film on the big screen (or in the also available mandatory Blu-ray transfer), Sukiyaki Western Django looks amazing on DVD. First Look Studios 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean, colorful, and loaded with carefully controlled contrasts and details. On the other hand, First Look should be scolded for releasing this film in an unnecessarily truncated format. The original running time was something close to two hours (120 minutes, give or take five). This one clocks in at a mere 97. For those of us lucky enough to see it uncut, the missing material is obvious, and makes a DVD purchase problematic. This review will assume a lack of overall availability, and while championing the image, will take issue with the version.
One the positive side of this release is the ability to play Sukiyaki Western Django with subtitles. Wait, you say, this movie is in English, right? Why the translation. Well, for many, the dialogue definitely gets lost in the actor's lack of ease with something outside their native tongue. Also, some of the scenes move by with lightning speed. The onscreen words help us keep up with the action. Elsewhere, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is excellent, evocative without going overboard. In addition, there is a simple stereo option if you want to keep things sonically simply.
First Look also gets a less than gold star for the lack of bonus features offered. The deleted scenes only last about seven minutes, definitely not making up for the more than 30 missing from the movie. Also, the Making-of featurette is fun, if a tad flat and uninspired. Add in a few trailers, and that's it. Of course, if the company can't see fit to release the original director's cut of the film, why should they go overboard on the extras?
Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, this is one of 2008's undiscovered delights. Even in a shortened version, it's well worth experiencing. And that's because everything in Sukiyaki Western Django is about purpose - even if it's not clear to the viewer initially. And when you consider that Miike borrows heavily from A Fistful of Dollars, which itself was fashioned after Kurosawa's classic Yojimbo, the karmic connections start to make sense. Soon, one sees beyond the spaghetti stresses to witness the director's own take on the type. Even his title gives his own insular conceit away. By the time Tarantino returns as a wheelchair bound blob of his former self, Miike has managed to do the unthinkable - he bests Leone and the like at their own game. While the Italians loved their ancillary oddness, his Japanese counterpart can't help but go just a bit crazier. While it will make Sukiyaki Western Django unwieldy for some, most film fans will fall instantly in love. Now here's hoping the WHOLE thing gets released some day.