Sukiyaki Western Django
by Jef Burnham
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Takashi Miike made his mark in the States on horror/gore aficionados with films such as Ichi the Killer and one of my favorite horror films in recent memory, Audition. What many of his fans do not realize is that Miike has made almost 80 films in a myriad of genres from the five or so horror films we hear so much about to romantic comedies. The American theatrical release of Sukiyaki Western Django will allow many fans the opportunity to see him work in another style without disappointing their lust for gore…and in English no less, so those with more discriminating sensibilities will not have to complain about having to read subtitles. As the “sukiyaki” part of the title indicates (sukiyaki is a Japanese dish made from a medley of ingredients dipped in raw egg), here Miike offers audiences a medley of styles, combining “spaghetti westerns” haphazardly with the genre that spawned them, the samurai film. But is this Japanese stew palatable?
The film revolves around two rival gangs (whose conflict is rather bizarrely elucidated in the opening scene featuring Quentin Tarantino as a cowboy in search of an egg for his sukiyaki), who descend on a small Japanese town in Nevada in search of gold. Throw in the obligatory wandering gunmen for hire and a pair of star-crossed lovers, one from each gang, and it seems you’ve all the makings of a tried and true recipe for action. However, a third of the running time is devoted to exposition, and the last hour is all unimpressive gunfights with no vested interest from the audience due to a complete lack of character development.
Although based loosely on Django, the film bears too much resemblance to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and its remake, the first “spaghetti western,” Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, to avoid that scrutiny. Aside from the aforementioned problems, the film further fails to live up to the standards of its predecessors in combining the two genres. Yojimbo is compelling thematically because we see the inherent similarities the samurai story has in spirit to westerns or gangster stories (Yojimbo was, in fact, based on Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest); the reverse holds true for Fistful. By jamming the two genres together physically, Miike loses that mystique, giving his samurais in chaps and cowboys with katanas more kitsch than content.
Jef Burnham is a writer and film critic in Chicago.
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