So, everyone knows that Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” begat “The Magnificent Seven” and that “Yojimbo” was the inspiration for “A Fistful of Dollars.” Now, everybody’s favourite Japanese mad dog director is bringing things full circle with “Sukiyaki Western Django,” inspired by Sergio Corbucci’s Spaghetti Western classic, “Django.”
The film is set in a sort of alternate universe where the Genpei War of 1180-1185 never ended. Two warring clans: the Genji in white and the Heike in red, face off in a deserted mountain town, both gangs lured there by popular legends about a great Heike treasure hidden there. A lone stranger (Hideaki Ito) rides into town, right into the middle of this proverbial powder keg and both gangs set about trying to gain his allegiance, so great is his skill with a six shooter that the side he chooses would instantly win. Cynical bar maid Ruriko (Kaori Momoi) persuades him to wait before making a decision and fills in some of the backstory about how the stand-off got started.
“SWD” is easily one of Miike’s more accessible films: no one shoots anything out of their birth canal and the plot, while complicated, makes sense for the most part. And while it is a glossy crowd pleaser, it still has a few typically off the wall, classic Miike touches. For example, the film is in English, with the majority of the cast reciting their dialogue phonetically. Some actors fair better than others with regards to the language and the English subtitles are critical to viewer enjoyment, but the script is actually very sharp. It sounds like something Quentin Tarantino would have done on a good day, when he wasn’t as concerned about cramming in every pop culture reference he could think of to prove how cool he is.
And speaking of Quentin, guess who has a supporting role? Yup, that’s right. Someone let him try acting again.
But even that can’t sink this delirious, epic and insanely enjoyable mash-up of every samurai and western cliche you can think of. And it all shouldn’t work, but somehow it does, on virtually every level.
But it wouldn’t have worked if everyone hadn’t been completely committed to it. But they are. All of the acting is top notch, whether it is the slapstick sheriff (Teruyuki Kagawa), the delusional leader (Koichi Sato), the tragic lovers (Shun Oguri & Yoshino Kimura) or the noble fop (Yusuke Iseya). The only thing that doesn’t quite work is when Mr. Tarantino tries to imitate the broken English of the other cast members. While his southern drawl is far from authentic, the other tact verges on the offensive and is downright cringe inducing. But the one overt pop culture reference he did manage to cram in there (I won’t give it away, let’s just say it’s pretty obvious) is actually turned into one of the better jokes.
There’s no point trying to sum up the story, that could take days and it really isn’t the point. Let’s suffice to say that it has a little of everything: star crossed love, Shakespeare, revenge, swordplay, dance, folk music, slapstick and of course, shootin’. What’s really awe inspiring is how Miike is able to take two seemingly disparate genres and blend them so seamlessly. Chaps are re-imagined out of billowy printed silk to closer resemble samurai dress. Indian medicine is incorporated by including the Anasazi, an Pueblo tribe whose name sounds Japanese.
Samurai and cowboys both ride horses and live by a strict code of honour, and blood feuds are also common to both genres so admittedly this fusion isn’t a huge stretch, but it seems unlikely that anyone other than Miike could have pulled it off. And thank goodness he did. “SWD” is easily his most enjoyable film in years and quite possibly one of the most entertaining films you will ever see.