How's Your Edamame, Tex?
Takashi Miike puts the Western through the cultural blender.
A lone gunslinger rides into town, ties his horse to the hitching post, and strides down the middle of Main Street. Two rival gangs come flooding out of their respective hideouts: the White Gang on one end of the street, the Reds on the other. There's a buried treasure hidden somewhere nearby, and everyone's crazy to find it, so the lone gunman stands between the two gangs and makes them an offer.
"Witch axe gonna by it. Marvy rose? What there—if tank glut treasure, no pain."
Welcome to Sukiyaki Western Django (First Look), the English-language Western by Japanese director Takashi Miike. The all-Japanese cast, augmented by Quentin Tarantino in two cameo roles, learned their English dialogue phonetically and attack their lines as if the words were small furry animals that need to be beaten into submission. The dialogue is crammed with weird, Christopher Walken-esque line readings and bizarre placement of emphases—phrases like "You old biddy," "Dang!" and "You reckon?" become hilariously divorced from meaning. But, like an alcoholic reduced to drinking sterno, the more you drink, the more brain cells you fry, and the better it tastes. Before long you not only start to understand Miike's "through the looking glass" English but also to appreciate the cadences. It's something like the dialogue in Deadwood or Cormac McCarthy's writing: stiff, alien, occasionally silly but not without a hypnotic elegance all its own.
But why? The answer is simple: It's a Takashi Miike film. The hardest-working man in showbiz, he's made close to 80 movies, ranging from the good to the bad to the ugly, and if he's going to make a Western, then it's going to pay tribute to the truth that Westerns have never been solely an American undertaking—they're an international language. With a title that's one part Japanese (sukiyaki: the everything-in-a-bowl beef dish) and one part Italian (Django: the title character of Sergio Corbucci's 1966 spaghetti-Western classic), Miike offers up an explosion of influences that mocks the idea of a monoculture that's immune to foreign influence. Sukiyaki Western Django is a blend of Buddhist philosophy, film noir fatalism, Shakespeare's Henry VI, and Japan's very own 12th-century Genpei War. It's a Wild West pageant of American history seen through Japanese eyes, reducing our entire frontier mythology to an ultraviolent grab for gold.
Heartthrob Hideaki Ito plays the lone gunman who rides into Yuta, Nev. (Yamagata filling in for the Sagebrush State), a frontier town caught in a standoff between two rival gold-hungry gangs: the white-clad Genji, led by suave and psychotic Yoshitsune (wild-eyed, crazy-haired Yusuke Iseya, sporting a chin piercing) and the red-garbed Heike led by the bestial Kiyomori (Koichi Sato, with a face like a battering ram). The gunman's attempt to pit the two gangs against each other fails because the gangs have seen the same movies that he has. "Don't get any ideas about playing Yojimbo," one of them warns him, and, as the Heike/Genji cold war heats up, thanks to generous applications of hot lead, the gunman finds himself trapped along with the local women and children in a whirlwind of escalating violence.
Asian Westerns are hardly new. Korea's The Good, the Bad, and the Weird is playing Cannes and the Toronto Film Festival, and last year, Americans finally saw the release of Wisit Sasanatieng's Thai Western Tears of the Black Tiger. Japan's Nikkatsu Studios produced their own series of Westerns as far back as 1959, and the most popular movie ever made in Bollywood, Sholay, is a "curry Western." But the most influential international Westerns came from 1960s Europe when Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, and Alejandro Jodorowsky took the Western movie from America, filched some style and story points from Japan, blasted the genre with hard radiation, then sent it back to the States, both smarter and stranger, where it influenced everyone from Sam Peckinpah to Walter Hill. There's no way to get from the square-jawed, clean-shirt-wearing cowboys of John Ford's 1946 My Darling Clementine to the stubble-jawed, morally compromised cowboys of Clint Eastwood's 1992 Unforgiven without going through Italy.
Miike's Sukiyaki Western is a way of paying homage to this cross-cultural melting pot, and he shuffles and reshuffles iconic images like cards in a magician's deck: a victim of a lynching hung from a torii gate; cowboys wearing six shooters and wielding samurai swords; a saloon keeper slinging edamame. It may not make literal sense, but emotionally it feels right. Comic-book writer Alan Moore once said that if we could really view the past it would look more like science fiction than history, and the distancing effect produced by Miike's style blows the cobwebs off the genre with a burst of machine gun fire.
While the presence of Quentin Tarantino in the cast invokes comparisons to Kill Bill, Miike's movie is far more self-assured. He speaks cinema fluently and has no need to point out his particularly beautiful turns of phrase: You'll either get them or you won't. In the middle of the movie, Miike gives his hooker with a heart of grief an interpretive dance number performed to the sounds of a didgeridoo. This is the acid test for viewers. If you're full of brittle irony, wanting nothing more than to laugh at the bizarre English dialogue and roll your eyes at his directorial excesses, then it's mere camp. But if it strikes you as inexplicably right, then it means you've tuned into Miike's freaky wavelength and for you, Sukiyaki Western Django will be one of the smartest and most satisfying movies of the summer. But Miike? Like Shane, or the Man with No Name, he don't care. He's already saddled up and rode off into the sunset. Since Sukiyaki came out last year, he's made five other films.
Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.
Still from Sukiyaki Western Django © First Look International.