19 September 2008


While watching Sukiyaki Western Django, I was palpably aware that I ought to be enjoying it a great deal more than I was. It's a genre-bending exercise! In the shape of a western! It has garish colors and style to burn! And comically excessive gore! And a really hokey central gimmick that stampedes straight into camp! Every one of these counts as an essential good, by my reckoning, yet the combination of everything is so frenetic and confusing that I could never respond to the film with anything positive. It is messy and noisy and unpleasant, even as the constituent bits are appealing enough in small amounts.

But that's Miike Takashi for you. Not, I should make clear, that I generally dislike Miike as a filmmaker. Though I haven't seen much of his wildly prolific career, I've seen something to like or respect in the handful that I'm familiar with, including Audition and The Happiness of the Katakuris. That said, I'm fairly sure that Miike wouldn't be impressed to hear me say that; I imagine that he wouldn't give a damn if I or anybody else likes or dislikes any one particular film of his. Miike, it seems, operates in that rarefied zone granted only to a handful of visionary directors, where they are clearly not working for any end other than their own gratification - a satisfied audience being a pleasing side effect, of course, but that's not nearly as important as the filmmaker getting his very particular, usually very weird inner life expressed on celluloid or video as directly as possible. I should confess that I typically adore directors who thus bend the entire apparatus of a film crew to the expression of an exceedingly private whim.

Yet with Sukiyaki Western Django, it is not to be. Perhaps this is because the central gimmick of the film is specifically designed to be annoying and off-putting. Perhaps it's because we "get it" with far too much running time left to go, and far too little propelling it forward. Perhaps it's because the chaotic elements never really coalesce into a sensible whole beyond the idea that this is what, at that moment, Miike thought would be really cool. Whatever the case, the film is cluttered and not very fun.

It opens with a framing narrative set on a stage with terrifically false-looking backdrops, meant to evoke a drifter's camp somewhere in the American Southwest. This is shot using a technique that I don't even know the name of, but it looks somewhat like I imagine neon lights would look in the middle of an acid trip. The drifter, Ringo, is played by noted American exploitation lover Quentin Tarantino, and he proceeds to tell a heavily fictionalised version of the battle of Den-no-ura (historically, a naval battle), in which a mysterious gunman (Ito Hideaki) arrives in the town of Yuta, Nevada, where two violent gangs fight for supremacy: the red-clad Heiki clan, led by the hot-tempered Kiyomori (Sato Koichi), and the white-clad Genji clain, led by the icy, calculating Yoshitsune (Iseya Yusuke). Under the guise of letting the two clans bid for his estimable skills with a pistol, the gunman actually plans to pit the two factions against each other, letting them burn out and leaving him free to take the pile of gold at the center of their strife.

Yessir, we have here another adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's 1929 detective thriller Red Harvest, which previously served as the basis for Kurosawa Akira's samurai western Yojimbo, which was transposed virtually intact into Sergio Leone's western-western Fistful of Dollars, and later refurbished into Walter Hill's mafia film Last Man Standing, and has now at last come back to Japan, where it's being done as a true western with samurai swords in abundance. Don't think about it too hard, you'll get a headache. (Incidentally, there has not yet been an adaptation of Red Harvest under that name, or with the original setting and story intact). The new film also takes cues, including its title, from Sergio Corbucci's Django, another spaghetti western remake of Yojimbo that I've not personally seen. Toss in some of Shakespeare's plays on the Wars of the Roses, and blend.

That tortured lineage isn't me trying to prove that Miike is out of ideas; the whole entire point of Sukiyaki Western Django is that we recognise its precursors, and sit back to enjoy the surreal permutations the director has in store for the material (that this is all intentional is demonstrated by a threatening gag early on, where the gunman is warned not to play at being a yojimbo). Not being content to leave well enough alone and just make a surrealist Yojimbo remake, though, Miike comes up with a conceptually appealing gimmick that falls apart somewhat in the execution: all of the (Japanese) actors speak extremely choppy English, clearly learned phonetically, or at least meant to mimic that; even Tarantino gets in on the act, hopping between a broadly comic Engrish accent and his own natural delivery, which has always tended to sound a bit like he's speaking lines phonetically, anyway.

I'm switched if I can figure out exactly what Miike was hoping to achieve by this trick, except to showcase the absurdity of having Japanese actors recreate an American story in an American setting that's meant to evoke a milliennium-old Japanese event. And if that's all he's hoping to do with it, it doesn't take two hours to make his intent clear. I daresay this is the most frustrating single element of Sukiyaki Western Django: the inordinately stylised speech is novel and funny at first, but it descends quickly into sheer irritation, and it ultimately fails to distract us from the fact that we're watching another goddamned adaptation of Red Harvest.

At least the film looks flat-out amazing; having set up his story's metaphorical poles as the colors red and white, Miike absolutely goes to town with it, draping every surface he can find with red, white, or a combination of the two. Then he frames it all with images nearly as stylised as the acting, all full of centered compositions and lots of empty space to the sides. It looks great, I can't deny that.

But then there's the director's tendency to start throwing random elements into the film's visual scheme (much like sukiyaki, the hodgepodge dish of the title). Individually, these elements - from animated intertitles to '70s-style freeze frames - are successful and exciting. Together, they're overwhelming, in a bad way, just like the increasingly wild narrative. It's all suffocating in the end, with many wonderful ideas battering the viewer into dumbness. I found it all very tiring, too be honest. It's unquestionably the exact film that Miike Takashi wanted to make, which leaves only the question of whether or not it was wise of him to desire such a thing.

It's not all complaining, though. At least we know now how to make Quentin Tarantino seem like a good actor: surround him with Japanese performers deliberately trying to be bad.



Matt said...

The Takashi Miike movie that introduced me to this crazy world was "Dead or Alive", an inventive and succesful tour de force of zaniness. I quite enjoyed it.

Tim said...

I guess I should probably clarify that my problem isn't with Miike's zaniness per se; I loved Happiness of the Katakuris. I just don't think that it was successful in this case.