Created by japanese cult director Takashi Miike and co-produced by none other than Quentin Tarantino, “Sukiyaki Western Django” is a Western homage to the classic Samurai film genre… or is it a Samurai loveletter to the Western genre? It’s hard to tell, really. Also, there’s Shakespeare.
Back when it hit the silver screen in 1964, the Italian Western “A Fistful of Dollars” sent shockwaves through the genre. Basically the quintessential Spaghetti Western, it set the template for the artfully staged, yet comparatively violent vengeance-filled western that would pump new blood into the genre, defining the Western film for years to come and spreading its influence even back to the US. Film buffs are already well aware that Sergio Leone based his story on the 1961 film “Yojimbo” by Akira Kurosawa, so heavily in fact that most consider “A Fistful of Dollars” basically a remake of the Samurai classic nowadays. In both films, a man with basically no name enters a town torn apart by two warring criminal factions and plays them against one another in order to free its populace from their tyranny, with a widowed mother and her traumatized, mute son playing a central role in the sordid affair.
Ironically, what’s less well known is that when Akira Kurosawa created Yojimbo, he drew heavy inspiration from the American Western himself, juxtaposing the classic Japanese Samurai traditions of honor and duty with the American “lone gunman fighting for justice in a lawless country” stereotype and using typical Western filmmaking techniques – like for example framing the lone hero in widescreen shots – to redefine and revitalize Japanese filmmaking in its own right. No wonder then, that Kurosawa’s Samurai films and the Italian reimagination of Western movies worked so well together.
What’s also interesting to mention here is that only two years after Sergio Leone’s Western debut, in 1966, Sergio Corbucci also took to adapting Kurosawa’s samurai films into his darkly violent revenge fest “Django”, albeit in a much looser fashion. Django in turn would be a much-imitated template and the quintessential “dark avenging angel” stereotype that shaped many action movies for years to come, arguably to this very day, even outside its own genre. Similar to Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, the movie centered around a lone gunslinger dealing with a town beset by two warring criminal factions. It also upped the ante in terms of grit, dirt and gruesome violence – the world of “Django” is a deeply sadistic one, where all the men are criminals and all the women prostitutes, with crucification, maiming and rape going on at – for mid-1960s cinema – disturbing detail. At the time of its release, Corbucci’s film was perceived as one of the most violent movies ever made.
Enter Takashi Miike. When he started his career as a director in the 1990s, Miike quickly gained a reputation as the “énfant terrible” of the Japanese filmmaking world. Many of his films, particularly his early outings, centered around the seedy underworld: Organized crime, assassins, drug use, forced prostitution and the likes. Critics were often shocked of the extreme levels of violence in his films, to the point that Miike, like Sergio Corbucci before him, was considered to (at its time) have produced the most violent mainstream movie with Ichi the Killer, which not only features a sadomasochistic, mentally handicapped killer, but also – among other things – detailed depictions of incest, drug abuse, teenage prostitution and geyser levels of blood. These days, he is considered to be one of the greatest and most creative active filmmakers in Japan, not only for his critically acclaimed films, but also due to his immense range. Aside from violent crime thrillers and horror movies, Miike has directed anything from japanese superhero flicks, Samurai movies, comedies, drama, video game adaptations to family-friendly magic girl idol series. He’s also known for the occasional genre bending fare, most notably 2001’s “Happiness of the Katakuris“, which can best be summarized as “The Sound of Music” meets George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”.
And somewhere between shaping his reputation as an ultraviolent fringe director and becoming the most respected Japanese director alive, Takashi Miike decided to create a distinctly Japanese, but still Western-themed remake of “Django” and “A Fistful of Dollars”. A film that would retain the Western dressing, but would at the same time pay homage to the Samurai classics these movies had drawn their inspiration from. In order to do so, he enlisted the help of another “Wild Child” of mid-90s cinema, another director who made his debut with violent crime flicks and is now considered one of the most creative active filmmakers, who on top of that is also an outspoken fan of the old Spaghetti Western: None other than Quentin Tarantino, who would later go on to direct not one, but two Western movies of his own (2012’s Django Unchained and 2015’s Hateful 8).
With that kind of pedigree behind it, doesn’t that sound like an intriguing premise?
About the movie
Sukiyaki is a type of traditional Japanese dish; unlike other typical Japanese meals, here many different food items are combined together in a single pot. Back when the Italowestern first paved its way onto the scene, many critics – who couldn’t believe that a Western not made in the US could be any good – took to calling films made by Italian studios “Spaghetti Western”, meaning to devalue them by associating them with a cheap food item. Takashi Miike’s intention was to make a Western movie that was distinctly Japanese in tone and style. But it’s not supposed to be cheap, otherwise it would probably be a ‘Ramen’ Western. Instead, it should be a rich, multitextured experience, with many different elements combined and mixed together. Hence, he’s calling his version of ‘Django’ a ‘Sukiyaki Western’.
The first thing a viewer is bound to notice is that the entire movie is in English, even though it was made in Japan and sports an almost entirely Japanese cast (save Quentin Tarantino). The movie isn’t dubbed though: All actors are speaking their English lines themselves. It’s not your typical high school English either, as it’s clearly laced and laden with what the director felt was “Western” slang, leading to some interesting results.
Sounds pretentious? Well buckle up, we’re just getting started.
You get the impression that it’s supposed to convey the feel of an isolated backwater town like the ones in Fistful of Dollars or Django, only instead of using a Southern accent, its inhabitants speak with an “East-Asian drawl” (said town, by the way, is named “Yuta” and lies in “Nevata”). While some manage to pull that off with relative ease and speak their lines clearly, albeit with a thick Japanese accent, others are very hard to understand. Even Tarantino himself at one point starts speaking English with an “Asian” accent, to a bemusing effect – if you thought his fake Australian dialect during his short cameo in “Django Unchained” was bad, just wait until you get a load of this. The worst offender in that regard, however, has got to be the comic relief Sheriff character, whose actor surely speaks all his lines phonetically and doesn’t really know what he’s saying. Coupled with his particularly eccentric behavior this results in an absurd performance that is mystifying to watch.
Speaking of the Sheriff, as I said before, Sukiyaki Western Django is a remake of the Westerns that were in turn unofficial remakes of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai flick Yojimbo, which itself was inspired by Western themes. In doing so, even though the movie carries the Django name in its title, Takashi Miike decided to implement scenes and characters that refer both to a Fistful of Dollars and Django alike: The “man with no name” archetype being housed by a bartender (albeit a female one) is leaning towards Django while the Sheriff character caught between the lines and acting as an advisor is more in line with “Dollar”. Elements of prositution and sexual abuse are more akin to the Corbucci style, while key plot elements revolve around the widowed mother and her traumatized mute son, which Leone lifted directly from Yojimbo. Sometimes the two Western influences directly fuse into one another, for example during one scene where one of the rivaling factions tries to acquire something special by attacking a secret transport.
These references at some point almost turn into shot-by-shot remakes of entire classic scenes. These sometimes include key moments from other Spaghetti Westerns as well…
…but also include old Samurau movies. Certain scenes invoke Kurosawa classics like Rashomon, the Hidden Fortress, or, in particular, Sanjuro (which itself was a Samurai film sequel to the original Yojimbo), like torrential rain coming down when essential truths are being revealed. These and other elements are typical tropes of Samurai film fashion.
The references don’t stop there, either. Right from the beginning, Takashi Miike frames the story of two rival clans fighting over the same stretch of land with another event from history altogether: The War of the Roses, the 15th century civil war between two noble families over the throne of England. The movie isn’t exactly subtle about that: Tarantino’s character flat-out tells us so within the first five minutes of the movie, and the rival factions are entirely color-coded accordingly, with the Heike clan (representing the House of Lancaster) clad all in red, and the Genji clan (standing in for the House of York) entirely in white. (Clans Genji and Heike, by the way, were also the protagonists of the 12th centry “Battle of Dannoura“, part of a feudal Japanese civil war, which this movie claims to be set “several centuries after”). There are also plenty of quotes by Shakespeare, most of whose dramas about kings revolved around the War of the Roses – the leader of clan Heike loves reading Shakespeare to his followers and even starts calling himself “Henry”, in accordance to Henry VI., interpreting that as a sign that his house will win. Those of you who know their Shakespeare can probably guess how that’ll turn out.
By the way, Kurosawa also drew inspiration from Shakespeare for his films, even going so far as doing an all-samurai adaptation of a classic play by the Bard in 1985: Ran, which is the feudal Japanese version of King Lear. King Lear, by the way, does not deal with the war of roses, but tells the story of a proud nation being torn apart by the fighting of two related, but rival factions, until salvation comes in the guise of a formerly rejected third party… sound familiar? Of course, in Sukiyaki Western Django the aforementioned mute child is the offspring of a Heike man and a Genji woman, when two star-crossed lovers from two housholds both alike in dignity but enemies through an ancient grudge fell in love…
So, all things considered, this movie is a pastiche of Italian Wild-West-movies injected with a heavy dose of Japanese culture and loaded with Shakespeare allusions. So, who is this movie for? Here, I’ll draw you a diagram.
Quentin Tarantino’s character states right from the beginning that he’s “an anime otaku at heart”. Consider those words a warning: if they mean nothing to you, you and this film probably won’t get along. In case it wasn’t clear, this isn’t just a regular homage to the Spaghetti Western. This is a movie made by massive film nerds, for massive film nerds. Those just looking for some gratuitious violence need not apply. Oh don’t worry, there IS plenty of that…
… but everything else will just leave you scratching your head.
Is describing the plot at this point still necessary? Anyway, here goes: A mysterious gunslinging stranger arrives in Yuta, a town torn apart by the ongoing violence between two rival factions, the Heike and the Genji. Two of the only remaining neutral people living there, an aging female bartender and the cowardly Sheriff, tell him the story of the place, including the fate of a young mute boy in the bartender’s care, whose father was killed in the ongoing conflict and whose mother, after being abused by the Heike’s, is now forcably kept at the Genji’s place. Claiming to offer his services to whomever pays the most, but truly driven by an unknown personal agenda, the stranger decides to play the two factions against one another. He starts by killing a few Genji men, as they are presumably the presently stronger clan, and offers to help out the Heike – for appropriate pay, of course.
From then on out, the film pretty much follows the same plot points as Yojimbo or Fistful of Dollars/Django did: He finds out about a Heike plan to aquire a weapon that would give them an advantage in the ongoing conflict, betrays them to the Genji, gets caught trying to free the widowed mother from their grasp, gets brutally injured, but escapes, and tries to get an advantage in the final conflict despite his massively weakened state. All these plot points heavily invoke corresponding scenes from the aformentioned movies, with occasional references to other Spaghetti Westerns and/or Samurai movies thrown in here and there.
On top of the references to the other films mentioned the film possesses an additional framing device. It revolves around Quentin Tarantino’s character (the only Westerner in the story, a gunslinger called “Piringo”, which is probably a reference to famous Pinkerton detective and frequent Western movie character Charles Siringo), who serves both as some kind of narrator setting the scene and introducing the setting – not unlike the role of a Chorus in a Shakespeare play. He also plays a small part in the overall story as the mentor and trainer of a mysterious and legendary gunslinger only known as “Bloody Benten”, which does in fact impact the story in a small way not present in the original source material.
Another notable difference is the fact that female roles possess a bit more agency of their own in Sukiyaki Western Django. Don’t get me wrong, the story is still very much male-centric; you can count the numer of female parts in the story on the fingers of one hand, and there is also plenty of cruelty and uncomfortable, even sexualized violence against women depicted. But at the very least, the women in the story don’t (solely) serve as victims and mere assets to the heroe’s journey, and are allowed to have the occasional badass scene of their own. One in particular could arguably even be the secret true hero of the whole affair.
This movie clearly isn’t for everyone. I don’t say that because of the violence, or because of the adult themes. They may be a factor; though the violence in the action scenes in particular is very cartoonish most of the time, there are a few more brutal scenes in there that might be a bit harder to swallow.
The major reason is that Italowestern and Japanese cinema clash in this movie in a manner that isn’t very palatable to the casual audience. This is a film stuffed to the brim with references to Spaghetti Westerns, Samurai movies and Shakespearean themes and motifs. If you aren’t familiar with them, then these references might not only be lost on you, but genuinely confuse the casual viewer. Japanese Cinema is quite different to Western culture in many regards, and this freeform remix of vastly different styles is not very accessible if you are not a film nerd at heart who at least shares some sort of deeper interest in at least two of the three core elements of this movie.
If you are, then you’re in for a treat: This film is a loveletter to both the Spaghetti Western and the Samurai film gerne, and you can tell that there is a lot of heart in it most of the time. But if you’re not, you’re not going to have a good time, as this film will probably just strike you as weird.
Do check it out if you love Spaghetti Westerns and have at least a passing interest in Japanese cinema (or vice versa), as this film provides a unique mix of both elements that’s pretty much without equal. If you don’t, better give it a wide berth. This film lives and thrives off of the many references to other Western and Samurai movies. Take these out though, and it doesn’t have much leg left to keep standing for long.