Japan’s most recognizable modern symbol of cinematic controversy, Takashi Miike, is a hard man to nail down. Since 1991, he has directed a staggering number of films (totaling in the 70’s at this point), and while there are common threads between most of his movies*, one would be hard-pressed to successfully argue that he sticks to one genre. Sure, he loves his Yakuza– most notoriously portrayed in the Dead Or Alive trilogy, and the infamous Ichi the Killer— but you could travel from the former and latter films to something familiar like Full Metal Yakuza or Fudo and still come upon completely different films like the hysterical and surreal The Happiness Of The Katakuris and the breathtaking The Bird People In China in between.
And if that’s not enough for you, Miike has recently taken his first steps into the realm of children’s movies with 2004’s The Great Yokai War. Whatever one thinks of Miike’s aesthetics and cinematic fetishes, or of his skill as a filmmaker, it is undeniable that Miike stands out as a man who will not submit to the constraints of working in one genre.
With his penchant for genre-bending in mind it should be no surprise that his 2007 effort Sukiyaki Western Django is more of the same, a mish-mash of different genres, a cinematic Frankenstein’s monster stitched together with the various parts of other types of movies. I could keep this analogy going all day, but I’d rather now take the opportunity to point out that Sukiyaki Western Django‘s genre sensibilities actually pair together perfectly; after all, what two genres have more in common than jidaigeki films and Western films (ranging from spaghetti Westerns to John Wayne flicks)? Westerns have often aped classic jidaigeki films for decades; the most obvious and famous examples would be The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful Of Dollars, remakes of Akira Kurosawa’s seminal classics Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. (The latter of which itself draws a great deal of inspiration from Western novels.)
So really, with Sukiyaki Western Django, Miike is taking a much-delayed foray into the tradition of the samurai-Western genre blend. Instead of simply making either a Western-influenced jidaigeki, or a jidaigeki-influenced Western, Miike has chosen to literally mash the two genres together, creating something that echoes of its predecessors and influences while standing on its own as a fresh and wholly unique film.
In the lone hero tradition of many Western and jidaigeki pictures, Sukiyaki follows its protagonist, a mysterious gunman garbed in black, as he travels to a village torn apart by a gang war between rival clans (ostensibly during Japan’s Muromachi period). The white-adorned Genji and the red-streak Heike have rent the small mining town they inhabit asunder with their bloody conflict, jockeying for position in a struggle over the town’s treasure– a mother lode of gold. The gunman toys with both sides, offering his pistols to their respective services; eventually we learn that there’s more to his involvement than just money, and as flashbacks reveal how the heroes of the story have been personally effected by the Genji’s and the Heike’s greed, the story slowly builds up to the final conflict– the classic shoot-out in the center of town.
The above could very well be used to describe any number of classic Western movie plots. The gunman could easily be mistaken for Clint Eastwood’s iconic Man With No Name; the plot is eerily similar to that of Yojimbo. But Miike is too smart, too skilled, and most of all too creative to simply give his fans a rehash of classics that they’ve seen before, and he’s far too sensible to simply make Sukiyaki into an exercise in tongue-in-cheek detachment, winking at the audience behind his lens as he rewards his audience for understanding the references and influences inherent in his work. Instead, he delivers a wildly successful piece of genre entertainment that’s replete with all the touches that make Miike stand out; ever-present here, as in most of his work, is the wry, black humor that the director finds in a man having a whole the size of a basketball blown in his chest. Miike is the kind of man who finds laughter in the image of a low-level Genji thug trying, and failing, to catch a blade between his hands before it is planted firmly into his skull, and he expects that his audience does as well. At the same time, he’s contemplative enough to admire the beauty of the small rose garden tended to by the son of the town prostitute; he captures the final confrontation between our heroic gunslinger and the leader of the Genji gang as it unfolds beneath softly falling snowflakes in a visually striking sequence that’s as poetic as it is violent. (Blood splatters across the snow like a daguerreotype forming.) There is a kinetic energy that builds over the course of the film and finally is unleashed in the aforementioned shoot-out, a manic rush of over-the-top violence married with unbridled silliness in a way that only Miike could pull off; it’s a celebration of the strange (like a sheriff with split personalities, or the Heike boss naming himself Henry after Shakespeare’s play Henry IV) and the extreme (said Heike boss gunning down the Genji clan with a Gatling gun), which could probably be used to describe the majority of the director’s oeuvre.
If any element of the film threatens to throw off its audience, it is the choice to assemble a Japanese cast and have them speak in American English. The only native speaker in the film is Mr. Grindhouse himself, Quentin Tarantino– appearing in a bit part where he attempts to crib a Japanese accent, while the rest of the cast endeavors to do just the opposite. It’s not a negative element, but one that I question the necessity of: Sukiyaki is a combined jidaigeki-Western movie, and since the two genres tend to influence and borrow from each other so often it arguably makes just as much sense for the cast to speak Japanese as it does for them to speak English instead. Ultimately, the cast makes their own imprint on the American dialog, and provides a unique language for the film that is both distinctly Japanese but also undeniably old West. (You will fully appreciate the idea of a Japanese man using the phrase, “whistling Dixie” after seeing Sukiyaki.)
Miike has been making movies for almost two decades, and in that time period he has produced a body of work that dwarfs those of many of his contemporaries. Sukiyaki shows that over the course of his long and busy career, he hasn’t changed much in his sensibilities and proclivities; excess is still his game, and here he’s in top form. Sukiyaki won’t be remembered as one of his most graphic and controversial movies, but it could easily stand out as one of his most unabashedly fun and entertaining ones.