Review — Sukiyaki Western Django

The western and samurai film genres have long been intertwined.  Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo have been re-worked as The Magnificent Seven, Fistful of Dollars, and there are many more in the same vein.

Therefore, a parodic homage to the film Django is far from unprecedented.  Sukiyaki Western Django is a Japanese version of the Italian Spaghetti Western, directed by Takashi Miike, best known in the USA for films such as Ichi the Killer and Audition.  Sukiyaki is a common, simple Japanese dish that is easily comparable to spaghetti.  Therefore, where an Italian western is a spaghetti western, a Japanese one is a Sukiyaki Western.

Sukiyaki Western Django employs the Nameless/Man With No Name character as a drifter who wanders into a town in Nevada.  The town has been driven into the ground by a conflict between the Heike and Genji clans, who are both searching for the legendary treasure the town is supposed to contain.  The Heike wear red, the Genji white–the Red/White connection is equated to the War of the Roses, including Taira no Kiyomori (of the Heike), who insists people call him Henry (as in Henry V from Shakespeare).  The gold rush is also an opportunity for the two clans to reprise their famous conflict from the Genpei war, which is depicted in the Heike no Monogatari (Tale of the Heike).  The characters in the film refer to this older conflict, as well as directly alluding to Yojimbo, where a nameless warrior (who gives an obvious pseudonym) sells his services to both of two warring clans and pits them against one another.

The town of ‘Nevada’ (written in Kanji) is a bizarrely seamless fusion of Old West and Old Japan, with raised rooves and rickety wooden houses.  The sign/gate above Nevada looks like a torii if you squint, but it’s alongside actual torii in the town.  The members of the Heike and Genji clans predominantly use guns, but Minamoto no Yoshitsune, named for the legendary Minamoto hero, is always seen with a katana.

A number of the bizarre things in the film are more easily understood when a media scholar combines genre studies with an East Asian Studies degree (which I conveniently have).  The scene where Yoshitsune shoots Kiyomori/Henry from afar evokes the legendary archery prowess of the pre-samurai bushi, who would fight duels with their long bows at great distance. The katana was really the second iconic weapon of the samurai, just the one that has become more recognized and fetishized post-facto.

One of the characters, Bloody Benten, is a violent version of the Fortune (goddess) Benten (Sarasvati in Buddhism/Hinduism).  Benten is the patroness of ‘everything that flows’ — oration, music, etc.  As Bloody Benten, she is more associated with flowing blood rather than flowing words.  Benten is also associated with fortune/riches (again relevant in the film).

Quentin Tarantino plays the Token White Guy in the film (the other Caucasian character is a one-line part as a servant of one of the characters, reversing the older stereotypical role of the Chinaman/Oriental assistant), despite that all of the characters are speaking in English.  Tarantino’s character also violently breaks the fourth wall in referring to the naming of one of the characters (Akira).  Tarantino’s character says that he was always just an old-school anime otaku — Akira being named for the manga/film, but also alluding to Akira Kurosawa.  The opening scene of the film and Tarantino’s other scenes with him at his normal age rather than being in a clockwork chair and covered in makeup to evoke the old-looking-superpowered-children in Akira are all shot on a soundstage with a painted background and a cardboard/something sun held up by clearly visible string.

Sukiyaki Western Django is probably too dense, too post-modern and intertextual for most audiences, and is a failure on that level.  Intertexuality should never come at the cost of understandability, and Miike cannot expect viewers to all already know the following texts:  Heike no Monogatari, Django, Yojimbo, Fistful of Dollars, Akira, etc. as well as having a genre knowledge of westerns, samurai dramas and Japanese history/culture, the War of the Roses and Shakespeare.  Without the touchstone knowledge, the film is confusing at best, an incomprehensible bizarre mess at worst.  However, if you know more than half/three-quarters of the above references and some others to go with them, you might enjoy it for the gloriously bizarre mish-mash that it is.

One thought on “Review — Sukiyaki Western Django

  1. fantastic review, its one of my fav miike films.

    I actually just opened up a movie blog, check it out if you have the time! I was actually going to review this film in the coming weeks!

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