Reviews Too Late: Sukiyaki Western Django

by wjw on January 11, 2009

So what do we call this one? Soba Western, maybe?

The only thing I know for sure is that Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest gets another workout.

The gore-soaked Red Harvest was first adapted for the screen in Roadhouse Nights (1930), apparently a seriocomic version starring Charles Ruggles. Then Kurosawa stole Hammett’s plot for Yojimbo (1961), still by far the best adaptation. Then Sergio Leone made A Fistful of Dollars (1964) using the story, and Sergio Corbucci used it again in another spaghetti western, Django, just two years later in 1966. Then Walter Hill returned the story to the USA for Last Man Standing (1996), with Bruce Willis, and with Akira Kurosawa given story credit.

All of these versions— except maybe the Charles Ruggles— get plundered for the latest adaptation, Sukiyaki Western Django, written and directed by Takashi Miike, who is better known for extreme horror and yakuza films.

We open with a frame story starring Quentin Tarantino, who plays a gunfighter named Ringo living in Japan a couple centuries after the twelfth century Minamoto-Taira wars. (The film’s creators have realized that in order to get Western distribution for some piece of Asian weirdness, it’s best to get Tarantino involved on some level or other. At any rate, Tarantino is the only Westerner in this Western.)

Ringo does some serious six-gun violence to some bad guys while remarking, “the sound of the Gion Shoja temple bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that to florish is to fall. The proud do not endure, like a passing dream on a night in spring; the mighty fall at last, to be no more than dust before the wind.” (He does about as well with this line as you might expect.) Then he settles down to eat some sukiyaki brewed up by a local woman who is obviously impressed by his mad skillz. The set in which this scene takes place holds two important visual icons, a Western windmill and Mt. Fuji, which between them pretty much define the cultural landscape on which this film maneuvers.

We then move to a Western town called Utah or Yuta, which is still divided between the Minamoto and Taira clans, here using their alternate names of Genji and Heike. Genjis dress in white, and Heike are in red. Into the town rides a nameless gunslinger, played by Hideaki Ito— who in real life is a total Western freak, and who provided his own costumes for the film. (I had last seen him playing the Minamoto emperor in the supernatural thriller Omyonji.)

Red Harvest follows, along with the occasional freaky cross-cultural moment. (At one point the Heike leader points out that the sound of the Gion Shoja temple bells echoes the impermanence of all things, and that this means the Heikas are doomed. His followers are downcast, but then Boss Heike pulls out a copy of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part I. “Don’t you know your Shakespeare?” he demands. “This is the War of the Roses! The Reds win!” He changes his name from Minamoto no Yoshitsune to Henry, and his followers cheer up and charge off to battle.)

Unfortunately these goofy moments are too few and far between. Mostly the film is a standard spaghetti western, in this case with extreme cruelty and ultra-violence. The Japanese actors speak English throughout the film, and few of them are comfortable with either the language or the slangy period dialect (Imagine a samurai barking out, “What are you fixin’ to do, stranger?”) Some of the Engrish is incomprehensible: I recommend employing the subtitles.

There are some terrific manic moments, some wacky comedy, but mostly it’s a remake of A Fistful of Dollars with dollops of Buddhist philosophy.

I wish it had been stranger. I’d recommend re-viewing Yojimbo, or even better re-reading the book.

robp January 12, 2009 at 5:17 am

Re-reading Red Harvest is always a good idea; start with a death and a dame, then get to another death and another dame as soon as soon as possible, follow with loads of violence. Of course Hammett did it brilliantly so anyone else attempting will probably not tell it so well or artistically (Kurosawa’s a closet westerner and artistic genius, can’t count him toward the medium or average or mode or whatever), but the violence in Hammett’s writing always involved character and plot advancement. Love it, learn from it. Some just make movies from it, successful and otherwise.

The great thing about adapting a great novel is that most people haven’t read it, so you at least have a bunch of great ideas that some people will think are your own. Of course, you still have to do a good job with the adaptation.

Ian McDowell January 12, 2009 at 7:48 am

The big-budget Korean kimchee Western, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD, which is currently getting good reactions at film festivals, looks to be a lot more fun.

The trailer kicks ass (although it suggests Indiana Jones every bit as much as it does Sergio Leone):

Anonymous January 12, 2009 at 1:40 pm

For two or three years now, I've been living, breathing and eating Italian westerns, so that movie was a great surprise.
Re plot "borrowing", the Italians did it a lot better in the sixties, with the Oresteia (Ferdinando Baldi's THE FORGOTTEN PISTOLERO), Hamlet (Enzo G. Castellari's JOHNNY HAMLET) and Romeo & Juliet (Gianni Puccini's THE FURY OF JOHNNY KID). Check them out.

captain-button January 13, 2009 at 1:39 pm

You forgot “The Warrior and the Sorceress” (1984), with David Carradine as Kain, a cynical warrior in a generic fantasy setting.

Not that forgetting it is a *bad* thing, mind you.

Ian McDowell January 15, 2009 at 1:22 am

And of course the Coen brothers’ MILLERS CROSSING is a pretty nifty (if unauthorized) combination of RED HARVEST and THE GLASS KEY.

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