December 22, 2008

Sukiyaki Western Django


Reviewer: Alan Hogue
Rating (out of 5): ****

As someone who has seen all of the famous western-samurai remakes too many times to count, I can assure you that the last thing I was looking forward to was yet another remake (Japanese or American) of Yojimbo. That, of course, was because I never thought to wonder what it might be like if Takashi Miike, notorious madman-filmmaker extraordinaire, made one. Now I know; this is one of Miike’s most entertaining movies, an absolutely gonzo gem of irrational, exuberant style.

Akira Kurosawa set the whole thing rolling with his 1961 Yojimbo, in which the incomparable Toshirō Mifune plays a swaggering ronin who wanders into a dangerous gang war and proceeds to play each side against the other. The movie was beautifully done, and as with all of Kurosawa’s samurai movies the scenes of carnage were breathtaking and at the same time felt very real. But in essence Yojimbo is light-hearted, the audience entertained watching the savvy, insouciant Yojimbo outwit the brutes who would control him for their own gain.

Perhaps it was something about that wry sense of humor combined with a sense of realism that inspired Spaghetti Western pioneer Sergio Leone to adapt Yojimbo to 19th century America. This, of course, was A Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood, the first of what would be a revisionist western trilogy with an irreverent sensibility. A Fistful of Dollars was among the first westerns to have characters who were realistically dirty and gritty. There were no white hats in Leone’s westerns, and they had a blurry morality to match. But these were no works of hard nosed realism either, they were exuberant exercises in style, exploding generic conventions even while gleefully employing them in a grotesquely amplified way.

Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django is much more in the spirit of Leone’s thrilling but somewhat loony aesthetic than that of the rather conservative Kurosawa (although Kurosawa fans will spot a number of visual references to his films). In fact, it’s fair to say that Miike’s film is Leone turned up to eleven. Instead of translating the story from the American old west back into medieval Japan (which would have been pointless and probably boring, even in Miike’s hands), Sukiyaki Western Django – the title an obvious play on Spaghetti Western – is a random mashup of Western and samurai film conventions. The story is set in Japan, but it’s also some twisted version of the American west as well; the characters are half-samurai, half-gunslinger; the actors all speak their lines in heavily Japanese accented English, and straight out of an American western. Gatling guns are pitted against samurai swords. You get the idea; it makes no sense at all, and for that reason it’s irresistible fun.

Visually, Sukiyaki Western Django is full of style and wit and at times stunning. There is no real content here, at least not in any traditional sense of the word, but it doesn’t lay claim to any. If anything, the odd, extremely stylized prologue starring an especially weird Quentin Tarantino makes this perfectly clear from the start.

Movies are rarely this fun. Smart without making a show of it, flaunting convention with alacrity but not haughty about it; there aren’t many filmmakers out there who can offer such an exuberant and unpretentious exercise in pure cinematic experience. This movie flaunts genre conventions as if they never existed in the first place, and that is very rare.

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Posted by cphillips at December 22, 2008 4:57 PM
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