Sukiyaki Western Django Review

Sukiyaki Western Django has been cited by many to be the first Japanese Western, not entirely true but it is certainly the first western of its kind. Back in the sixties films like Fast-Draw Guy made by Nikkatsu were Japanese made Westerns. but Miike’s approach is somewhat different. Miike’s vision of a Sukiyaki Western is hyper-real, referential and also slightly demented.

Visually Sukiyaki is full of over-saturated colours, with clearly fake backdrops and flourishes in cinematography and editing in almost every scene. There is even one sequence that is made in the style of a trailer, perhaps a spin-off film for one of the central characters. This stylistic excess has been seen before in Miike’s work, Ichi The Killer an obvious example, but even that did not have the same kind of forth wall busting evidenced in Sukiyaki.

The plot is in a similar vein to the style, pulling various elements from Spaghetti Westerns and Samurai films and situating them within Miike’s own unique vision. Although the film’s title references the Django series of Spaghetti Westerns it is not totally apparent why until the last scene, with a a rather wonderful gag. There are similarities between Sukiyaki and the genre of films often termed Spaghetti Westerns but it also owes a debt to the Chanbara genre and even the scattershot excesses of Japanese Anime.

The film begins with the much discussed appearance of Tarantino, intended as something of a prologue to the story but playing more like a tacked on introduction than part of the film. The film then plays like an alternative reality Western in which cowboys fight samurai, Japanese speak English, gang leaders love Shakespeare and characters obliquely reference films.

The main protagonist Ito enters the village to be greeted by the two rival gangs, the reds and the whites. But before the Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars plot comes to mind one of the gang members quips “Get no ideas about playing Yojimbo”. The protagonist in question, the nameless wandering gunslinger, is played by Hideaki Ito, who bears a slight resemblance to Franco Nero, the original star of the Django films.

He is not really the star of the film though and such an impressive supporting cast it is many of those that steal the show. This is perhaps the biggest subversion of Sukiyaki’s roots as the main wandering gunslinger fades into the background as the stories of the other characters come to the fore. Particularly notable are the performances by Koichi Sato as Kiyomori, the head of the red gang, and by Yusuke Iseya as Yoshitsune, the leader of the white gang. Yusuke Iseya has the chance to shine, gracefully wielding a samurai sword in scenes that mix Dodge City bar brawls with ballet. Koichi Sato as Kiyomori heads the red gang with crazed menace and truly strange behaviour, at one point requesting that his gang call him Henry after reading Shakespeare’s Henry VI. He also excels in spitting out his lines with intensity and uglier physical movements that contrasts Yoshitsune’s grace.

Most of the cast struggle with the English dialogue, which is mostly delivered phonetically and slightly clumsily. This is clearly a deliberate choice by Miike who would have seen Spaghetti Westerns dubbed in Japanese, films which often started out their lives with pitifully poorly synced sound. Many Spaghetti Westerns had a mixture of actors from various countries and the lack of a common language led the filmmakers to dub later for ease and to save some money. The DVD release in Japan actually features a very poor Japanese dub, which seems a real shame as it detracts from one aspect of the film’s style. As an English speaker watching the film without subtitles did not really present a problem, although there were a few lines that will probably be clearer upon re-watching. The Western cinema release is cut and is subtitled and this seems a real shame as there does not seem to be anything that needs trimming down and an English dub is really not needed.

At times the film feels like a Philip K Dickian alternative reality in the vein of Man In The High Castle but instead of the allies losing the war and the victors splitting America, Sukiyaki beat them to it with Japan founding America and even the implication that they fought the Native Americans to state their claim. Unlike Man In The High Castle, which creates a truly believable alternative history of America, Sukiyaki makes no sense –  how can, for instance, the gang members reference Yojimbo and how can Tarantino’s character name his son Akira because he is an Anime Otaku. Are we in the future? How is it that the Sheriff appears to die and behaves as if he has split personalities? One of the greatest joys of Sukiyaki is this disavowal of logic and without this baffling insanity it just wouldn’t be Miike.