Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sukiyaki Western Django

At first there were American Westerns. Then there were Spaghetti Westerns (Westerns made in Italy). And now, choosing an equally stereotypical genre name, there are Sushi Westerns.

Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django is the Sushi Western. The plot of the movie is that there are two rival clans, the Red and the White, battling for control of a town and the hidden treasure the town supposedly contains. In enters a stranger, a Man With No Name, if you will, offering his services as a sharp shooter and treasure seeker to which ever side will reward him more handsomely.

This stranger, however, is not really the main story line of the film. The main story line, of which there are a few, and the most interesting one in my opinion, is that of a woman from the White clan who had married and had a child with a Red clan member. For the betrayal to the clan, the leader of the Reds took out the husband, with his wife and son present to witness it, and the wife consequently returns to the White clan in a plot to exact her revenge. When all-out war erupts between the two sides, the wife, her son and the husband's mother try to flee the town but are dragged into the battle at a dire price.

Solid performances are all around in the film, but especially but the main characters of this particular story line. There is such pain and hardship suffered by the mother and son that it's almost impossible not to root for them, and they're probably the only characters in the film worth rooting for. The other characters in the film are pretty cool and badass, but the mother and son are truly sympathetic, and I only wish there had been more of them in the film.

Considering that the film features Quentin Tarantino as a bit player, who is also a friend of Miike's, it's no surprise that the film takes influences from so many diverse places and piles them together. Japanese influences, such as samurai films like those of the great Akira Kurosawa, and Japanese anime, are spliced together with the Western influences, especially the Spaghetti Western stylization of battle scenes and tense gun duels.

Even the language reflects the internationality of the film. It's a film with a Japanese director and writers, and aside from Tarantino the entire cast is Japanese, yet the film is made in English. Miike had directed the Masters of Horror episode "Imprint" in English, so he's familiar with directing in English. But, in that film, there was an American character, so there's a reason for it being spoken in English, and the strange accents added to the uneasiness of "Imprint," it being a horror movie after all. Here, that effect is not achieved; the film isn't really meant to make you uneasy. Instead you just wonder if the actors really knew what their dialogue meant or whether they were just taught how to pronounce the lines, particularly when they used Western jargon like "a day late and a dollar short." That doesn't mean that they're performances suffered--Ron Perlman did the same thing when he spoke French in The City of Lost Children and he was just fine in that film. But the language does add an awkwardness to the film that probably wouldn't have been there if it were made in Japanese.

The film is undeniably exciting and lavish. The art direction is superb; the mixing of the American West and Medieval Japan costumes was done very well, and the sets, from the painting of Mount Fuji in Tarantino's flashbacks to the ending showdown in the falling snow, were simply beautiful. Not to mention how simply cool the dramatized gun slinging and epic battle scenes were. Gatling guns, dynamite, and sword fights. Oh my!

Tarantino's films, that also take influences from everywhere and combine them, always seem to add to a nugget of intelligence, a philosophical idea that grounds the film and explains the characterization. It's why I have a great respect for his films. This one, however, doesn't seem to find that theme quite as well. There are messages toward the end of "shit happens," of living life without fear and dealing with whatever life throws at you. These are cool ideas that wrap up the movie nicely, but I wouldn't say they carry the film or press the action the same way the ideas in Kill Bill (or a similarly strong film) do.

Despite the film's lack of a strong philosophy, the film is still definitely worth seeing. The action sequences are epic, the costume design is really cool, and the film is just inherently watchable. As long as you don't expect a deep, moving film, the spectacle is a lot of fun.

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