It’s no accident the cowboy and the masterless samurai are cinematic characters practically interchangeable in their native landscapes. The settling of the Americas and the breakdown of the Japanese feudal society were both frontiers, delineations into the brutal unknown where the individual ruled with right of might and lived by wits alone. The cowboy and the ronin both are forbidding, potentially dangerous and almost unreservedly tragic icons of independence in their respective worlds.
It is astride both these worlds that Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django plants itself, cleverly and irreverently between these two cultural identities. The direct references to and similarities with Italian director Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns of the 1970’s are completely intentional, but of course, Miike’s foray into this dusty field is a little crazier than Leone’s films ever were, although possibly no less passionate. He playfully pits one cultural product against the other – the arid palettes of colours of the stereotypical Western against a rich tapestry of traditional Japanese tones; recognisable samurai garb against corsets and dusters and ten gallon hats; saloons against tori.
All the prerequisite elements are present. There’s the nameless gunman (Hideaki Ito) who, like Leone’s Harmonica man in Once upon a Time in the West, comes to town on a personal quest for revenge, although his tactics are a little more like Toshiro Mifune’s in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Facing off our ambiguous hero, the arrogant and brutal bad guys – in this case the greedy warmongering clans of the Genji and the Heiki, led by Yoshitsune (Yusuke Iseya) and Kiyomori (Koichi Sato) respectively. There’s also the obligatory damsel in distress, although in Miike’s hands (as occasionally in Leone’s) this damsel is more a goddess of life and death, and in fact is embodied in two separate beings, Shizuka (Yoshino Kimura) and Ruriko (Kouri Momoi). And that’s just the main cast. There’s an almost overwhelming parade of other checks here too, and if you harbour a secret love of Westerns, you’ll get kick after kick out of the references both direct and subtle.
It’s a joy to watch when Miike has obviously done is homework. He mixes camera angles straight out of a Pekinpah film with Morricone-like leitmotifs with some classic John Ford frame composition with a little of his own personal brand of amusingly violent theatrics and what he ends up with is a hot-pot bursting with flavour. In his own frenetic style, he borrows back not the technical achievements of the Westerns of American Cinema but the unintentional stereotypes; the sometimes surreal lighting, the overly superficial sound effects, the operatic action, the gags. He parodies the sweeping American and Italian landscapes with simultaneous reference to both Hokusai and kabuki, which is in itself a nod to the operatic nature of the source material he’s borrowing from. It’s through and through a Spaghetti Western, Japanese style, and just so you don’t miss that fact, everyone, almost shockingly, is speaking English. The effect this has is both amusing and strangely nostalgic, like watching a badly dubbed version of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; a little painful and yet strangely fascinating to witness.
What the story is about under these circumstances is in the end far less important than getting to the final showdown and just enjoying the random and subtle wierdness of Miike as applied to the genre. The cast are all more than up to handling that task, despite the awkwardness of working in a language other than their native one, and the comedy (intentional and otherwise) contrasted against the action, all with that distinctly staged tone, makes it impossible to take this film seriously. That is of course until the lurch into the final showdown, which is a wholly traditional clash between the main protagonists shot in a gorgeous blend of Western and jidai-geki period finales.
Sukiyaki Western Django is the Wild West and the wandering samurai blending together in a slightly eclectic, cross-culturally appropriated stew. It’s restrained in terms of Miike but unlike no Western you’ve ever seen before. The luxurious camera pans, the occasional extreme close up, even Quentin Tarrantino’s arguably awful cameo all make for an inventive combination of the ingredients that used to go so well on their own. It’s clear that with Sukiyaki Western Django Miike is a director who’s not trying to prove he can make a Western; he’s having fun with it.