Some forty years later, the spaghetti western remains one of the most unique subgenres in all of film. As a reflection of America as seen through the eyes of the world (and the US media), it stands in startling contrast to the conservative oaters that inspired it. But even more intriguing, the multicultural facets of the format provide insight into the shared heritage and history of each creating nation. A perfect example of how this all comes together can be found in Takashi Miike’s astonishing Sukiyaki Western Django. While it may sound like nothing more than a love letter to a certain Mediterranean country and its inventive horse operatics, the infamous filmmaker’s broadened approach brings in everything from Shakespeare to standard samurai tradition. The results are ridiculously fun.
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. Believing there was gold in this dirty one horse outpost, they arrived to stake their claim. Finding no such treasure, they have since stayed, 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.
Sure, Sukiyaki Western Django is Sergio Leone on LSD. It’s every ‘60s/‘70s revisionist western riff supersaturated in stylized bombast and a purpose perversion of the motion picture mannerism. For someone known mostly for his crime and horror efforts, it’s refreshing to see Miike working outside his craven comfort zone. Yet as a student of cinema, he has clearly learned his unused lessons well. This is one of the best updates of the spaghetti 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, Sukiyaki Western Django digs deeper. It’s complete and utter context merged with vivacious visual pizzazz. Some may think that Miike is merely celebrating a category he’s come to respect, but this movie is more than admiration. It’s passion pumped up by a powder keg of crazy invention and ideas.
Miike makes every moment of his two hour running time count. Flashbacks are handled with absolute control and confidence, while symbolism is shunned for more obvious and outright metaphors. When Kiyomori decides to “become” Henry 6th (keeping in line with the film’s already obvious nod to the War of the Roses), we fully embrace the nutty 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, Leone and Corbucci (whose own celebrated series gives the film its name) 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 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 singing. It’s like Greek tragedy with 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. 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.
But it’s the man behind the lens that really stands out here. From his borrowing of post-modern obviousness (the cartoon interlude, the title card labeling of a main character) to his far more subtle - and stunning - landscape shots, Miike is making art here, and it’s hard to deny his intent. This is a beautiful film, from the way it’s composed to the way the characters fill the frame. Again, nothing is wasted. Miike collects the memories from his mental movietone scrapbook and paints them effortlessly across the screen. When we get to the last act showdown, guns blazing and blood flowing, there’s a poetry in the presentation. We aren’t watching yet another take on Once Upon a Time in the West. We are witnessing the aesthetic process that could contemplate such a film in the first place.
Indeed, everything about 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.
Perhaps the most satisfying thing about this film is its visionary look and feel. Though it taken its cues from the past, the present is all but fully accounted for in Miike’s frame. This is the kind of movie that burns inside a director like the proverbial (and stereotypical) fever dream, eventually arriving in the same sporadic fits of unfathomable joy that came during its frantic inception. We can sense the fun Miike was having while he made this movie. Bliss bubbles up from almost every piece of celluloid. Some may view this as self-indulgent silliness, a skilled auteur going out on a limb for his own maverick pleasures. But if you take the time to fall under the spell of Sukiyaki Western Django, you’ll hope he never returns to his gore-drenched Yakuza roots.