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June 27, 2012: Sukiyaki Western Django

June 27, 2012

I rented “Sukiyaki Western Django” (2007) directed by Takashi Miike a while back when I first decided reviewing movies for the blog. At the time I was thinking this would be a perfect movie to start with: a Japanese Spaghetti-Western directed by a modern Japanese director. How more East meets West can there be? It was just as well that I decided to not review it back then as I really didn’t understand it. I found I just had too many questions:

  • Is it a comedy or  drama?
  • What time period and location is it supposed to take place?
  • Why exactly is Quentin Tarantino acting in this? (indeed I ask that in just about every film that he acts in)

And that was just the start. I eventually went on to review more classic Japanese films done by heavy-hitting directors as Kurosawa and Ozu. That was probably just as well. When I eventually revisited SWD last week, I had a totally different attitude towards the film, in that I discovered that when I first watched it,  I had forgotten the cardinal rule of entertainment: I forgot to have fun!

As I have said before, ones state of mind when approaching a film is everything. It is probably a bad start to approach a film with any agenda other that to be just entertained. That was my problem when I first watched this. I felt I needed a solid film to start off reviewing for the blog. Having reviewed the other films I did, that burden was over. The one moment that started to change my mind this time around, was paying closer attention to the opening credits I noticed the movie title stamped on a block of tofu! Like many parts of this movie, exactly why this is so, is exactly the films overall charm: it is a weird mix of opposites: tribute and silliness; drama and humor; gravity and lightheartedness.

As for the basic story of SWD, it’s been done quite a number of times before. It’s standard spaghetti-western fare: a western town with a treasure is beleaguered by two rival gangs for control of the town. Enter a “man with no name” with a hidden agenda whose amazing skill with a six-shooter is vied for by each gang. The “man with no name” plays a balancing act by pretending to assist each gang while actually setting them up against one another while trying to protect the towns innocents. It’s “Fistful of Dollars” (1964) “Django” (1966)  and “Last Man Standing” (2001) and probably a dozen more that I can’t think of. The “sukiyaki” part of the title takes its name from the Japanese dish of grilled beef, tofu, veggies and noodles (get it?…a stew of noodles…spaghetti-western?…this is that combination of tribute and silliness I was talking about.)

There’s a fair amount of humor in SWD, albeit dark humor. The violence is mostly so over the top as to be funny. It has enough darker plot moments to show that the baddies have enough weight to be true baddies, but considering that this degree of darkness comes from the director who did “The Audition” a film so dark that it gave me nightmares for a week after viewing…Miike is letting us off easy with this film.

There are a number of visual and auditory non sequiturs in the film and wild changes in character traits that seem to come totally out of the blue. Again, on the second viewing I saw this as being all part of the fun. OH! When I said that on my first viewing that I didn’t understand it…I mean that metaphorically and literally. The movie is 94% in English, but with Japanese actors with accents so heavy that I suggest you turn on the subtitles. [the first person to speak in the film is a Japanese henchman who is struggling so hard with his English that he seems to be literally chewing the words out!] Even when Tarantino adopts his Japanese accent (more fun) he can’t be understood without the subtitles. And speaking of Tarantino…I finally decided that his character of “narrator” was perfect for this movie. Like Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, they have finally found a perfect role for this director/actor-wanna-be!

So, not Kurosawa or Ozu…not even the “masterpiece” it is advertised as, but I’m glad I finally loosened the reigns, got off my high horse, took a shot and had fun with “Sukiyaki Western Django!”

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