Filmmakers learn their art from those who came before them. In this case, there was Akira Kurosawa and Yojimbo in 1961; hundreds, if not thousands of Hong Kong chop-socky flicks; and the Japanese film industry’s obsession with the yakuza gangster flick in the 60’s and 70’s. Quentin Tarantino and Takashi Miike spent their youth and student days sponging up the masters and went to work on their own films. Before long they were studying each other. Tarantino came up with Kill Bill in 2003. Miike has delivered us Sukiyaki Western Django – a distillation of 500 years of storytelling and 100 years of movies into a dazzling surreal filmscape that is blindingly beautiful and ruthlessly violent without a wasted frame of film or line of dialogue.
Crossing the War of the Roses subplot of Shakespeare’s Henry VI with Django, Sergio Carbucci’s seminal 1966 spaghetti western – a lone gunman (played by Asian superstar Hideaki Ito) arrives in a desperate town torn apart by rival gangs. The Reds are brutal and coarse and the Whites, disciplined but merciless – both in search of a legendary buried treasure. Having to choose sides, he declares he will work with whoever offers him the greatest share when the treasure is found.
He withdraws to the White run saloon and after watching one of the whores, Shizuka (Yoshino Kimura) dance, he brings her upstairs. She recounts in flashback how she belonged to the Whites, but married a Red man and had a son with him. They raised red and white roses and dreamed of peace between their clans. She and her son watched him murdered by his own gang. Fearing for their lives, she returned to the Whites and was raped by their leader Yoichi (played by teen heart-throb, Masanobu Ando) and forced to work in the saloon.
Violence soon escalates as rumours of a Red secret weapon leak and the uneasy truce erupts to all-out war – culminating in a battle between sword and pistol.
Director Takashi Miike, who speaks no English, opted to shoot the film entirely in English. While most of the lead cast have an acceptable grasp of the language, hearing a bit-player threaten to ‘clean your plough’ spoken phonetically is disorienting. Yet, the accented English and playful soundtrack from Koji Endo which wanders from east to west and occasionally rocks out, make sense in this alternative universe. As does Quentin Tarantino in a small, but vital role tidying up the madness.
But it is the visuals that continue to play, long after the credits roll. The exquisite choreography of the fight scenes would leave Sam Peckinpah drooling, especially the final battle which takes place while snow blankets the dirty landscape. Miike plays with colour, so it almost becomes a character of its own – burning hot saturation or brought so low the world is almost featureless. I’ve been watching films since childhood and viewing over 300 films a year for the last ten years and I cannot recall a single flick that compares visually.
Takeshi Miike hasn’t been one of my favourite directors – he’s best known as a horror director who pushes the boundaries of ‘decency.’ His breakthrough film, Audition (1999) terrified audiences around the world, but Visitor Q so horrified censor boards in 2001, the film was banned in many countries, including New Zealand – though this was lifted to allow the film to screen at festivals. I am not a big fan of straight horror – I get too scared watching truly scary movies and grossed out by slasher flicks. So I’ve taken a pass on many of his flicks, though The Happiness of the Katakuris from 2001 is a favourite.
Sukiyaki Western Django is destined to become a cult favourite, one of those films that will be referenced by future filmmakers and continue to play in festivals. It’s that rare 5 out of 5 star – not to be missed.