Takashi Miike is a director with a distinct voice and sense of humor. He is insanely prolific. In the same year he directed 2007’s Sukiyaki Western Django, he directed three other movies. Wikipedia tell me he has directed “over one hundred theatrical, video and television productions”. Comparing him to other directors seems like a faux pas. That said, Sukiyaki Western Django feels very much like a movie done by someone else who directed and appeared in a movie with “Django” in the title: Quentin Tarantino. Would Miike be insulted? Perhaps.
But maybe he would agree. After all… Tarantino himself is in the movie.
Tarantino is in front of a backdrop featuring Mount Fuji, while a very Wild West windmill is next to him. It’s meant to evoke a playhouse production. Or Noh Theater perhaps (I haven’t seen that many productions, so I could be wrong). The colors are highly saturated. Compared to the rest of the movie. which is more naturalistic, our introduction feels incongruous. No matter. It’s also beautiful and eye-catching.
After doing a cowboy imitation, Tarantino then puts on a self-aware crazy Japanese accent for his role. It has the gruff speech pattern that recalls Mako’s role as Aku on Samurai Jack. We see him again using that accent later and spouting nonsense anachronisms like, “What can I say? I am an anime otaku at heart.” I imagine this was some sort of cultural exchange program. Tarantino gets his shot to make his martial arts movie with Kill Bill. Meanwhile, Miike gets to make a movie about the most American genre there is: the Western.
Did I say an American genre?
Miike pulls inspiration from all permutations of the Western from around the world. From Japan, Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies. From Italy, Sergio Leone’s and Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti westerns. Quit possibly a dash of Chinese frontier wuxia, based on the architecture of some of the buildings. It’s stirred together in a big genre mashup that includes some of Tarantino’s grindhouse flourishes. Parts of it seem to be influenced by anime, too… and not just the part where, Kill Bill style, the movie just transitions to animation. One of the live action scenes seems to recall Cowboy Bebop, of all things.
Then there are the shots I can’t place. At one point, the film’s protagonist jumps out the window, as you do in a Western. The scene then freezes, and we get a jittery pan across the landscape until it lands on a galloping horse. The scene then resumes with an overhead shot, where The Gunman lands on the horse. This shot comes out of nowhere and feels slightly influenced by Tarantino… but it’s likely a Takashi Miike original.
The bold, colorful, campy world of the opening transforms into a bleak town in the middle of a dry, hilly grassland where we will spend the rest of the movie. Two warring factions —- the white Genji and the red Heike —- are dressed in a mishmash of cowboy and samurai outfits. The end result falls closer to “pirate”. They have descended upon a small town in “Nevada” to try to find a fortune in gold. (Wikipedia says it’s “Nevata”, but the closed caption mentions the name of the real-life state… so I’m going with that.) Because of the fighting, many of the locals have moved away.
Into that crucible rides the mysterious Gunman (Hideako Ito). Immediately he’s beset upon by gang members on either side. They immediately recognize his skills and identify him as a valuable asset. The demand that he choose a side. Does he side with the Red clan and their Shakespeare spouting leader (Kōichi Sato) with a penchant for heavy weaponry? Or the White clan and their younger, ambitious leader (Yusuke Iseya) who looks like a J-Pop idol and can stop a sword with his bare hands?
There is a third party, though. Caught in between the clan warfare are the remaining villagers. Ruriko (Kaori Momoi) and her grandson Heihachi have lost much. (Heihachi has two long strands of hair framing his face on either side. One is white. The other is red. Symbolism!) Ruriko’s son (Heihachi’s father) was murdered after coming to the rescue of the town sheriff. Heihachi’s mother ran to the White clan for protection, where she was forced into prostitution. As with any Western featuring a stand-in for The Man With No Name, The Gunman’s destiny is clear.
There’s one thing that separates this from a Tarantino movie and marks it as a Miike movie: the action isn’t shocking like the former’s, but is, instead, straight up Looney Tunes. In one sequence, a member of the Red clan gets a hole blown through his stomach. He turns around with a shocked expression on his face. A member of the White clan takes this opportunity to shoot a crossbow blot through the gaping hole and shoots the guy standing directly behind him. On another occasion, a man tried to demonstrate that he can stop a sword with his hands, just like the White clan leader. He gets a sword buried into his head… but he doesn’t quit, and he raises his hands in a vain attempt to clasp the blade. (I should note that none of the violence is as stomach-charmingly gross as Miike can sometimes be. You know, the kind where he can be invited to Showtime to do a Masters of Horror anthology with Tobe Hooper and Dario Argento, and then get banned for being too disturbing.)
Things come to a head when The Gunman gets a tip that the White clan plans to hijack a wagon delivering a Gatling gun. (The gun is stored in a coffin, a pretty obvious callback to the original Django.) He tips off the Red clan, playing Botha sides against each other like Yojimbo (or, like the Continental Op in Red Harvest).
Along the way, he discovers Ruriko’s secret: she is the legendary female gunslinger Bloody Benten (a.k.a. Double B). And she’s also… Quentin Tarantino’s lover from a long time ago? That cheeky introduction to the movie was actually in-canon? And which means… that Heihachi is the grandson of Tarantino?
Then it gets really weird when the closing credits come up and they reveal who Heihachi is. I won’t spoil it, though it is hinted at in the opening credits. I will say that making Tarantino the grandfather to who Heihachi really is can be interpreted as a bald-faced ego boost.
As you can guess, everything is tongue-in-cheek. That’s ultimately to the movie’s detriment. The characters all look cool, but ultimately that’s all they are: people in sweet, form-fitting Asian-inspired Western wear. Personality-wise, they’re barely one-dimensional. When they bite the bullet, or the arrow, or the pointy cross, it’s always treated like a joke.
Miike has done this before, winking at the audience that this is all just a movie, and you should really just relax. But if it’s just style and no substance, then Sukiyaki Western Django can’t help but feel a little empty and lightweight. Why should I care about any of them dying if the characters themselves are no selling guy shots and hamming if up when they finally collapse to the ground to die?
It affects scenes that aren’t supposed to be comedic, either. We get a glimpse of The Gunman’s own tragic past, when he found his parents hung off the bottom of a bridge. Yet, it’s so somber that you can’t help but suspect that this is a joke itself, lampooning the very concept of a hero with tragic origins.
Sukiyaki Western Django is a movie that loves how Westerns look, but doesn’t get the heart. Even when Tarantino’s replicating the superficial appearance of a martial arts movie, he never forgot to imbue his characters with personalities. It’s one of his unsung strengths: never letting his quirky style overpower the basics of storytelling.
Yet I still recommend this movie, because sometimes looking cool is enough. Few movie look as pretty and unique as the East Meets West fusion of Sukiyaki Western Django. Maybe this is how the West should have looked, with rival gangs in color-coordinated outfits, ladies looking good with a raccoon skin draped on their heads, pagodas mixed with frontier cabins, and Quentin Tarantino chewing the scenery like it’s a tobacco leaf. It’s the West where men were Japanese, and women were also Japanese.
Sukiyaki Western Django is available for streaming on Prime Video.