Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sukiyaki Western Django

Sergio Corbucci’s Django is one of the greatest spaghetti westerns of all time. Only the Man With No Name trilogy and a select few others are even in the same league. It is also rumored to have spawned somewhere between thirty to one hundred unofficial sequels depending on who you believe. Seriously, everyone is up on the Django train, and in 2007, Japan’s reigning auteur of violence, Takeshi Miike, climbed aboard with Sukiyaki Western Django.

Miike is most known for, and his best movies are, his blood-drenched crime epics, like Ichi the Killer and the Dead or Alive trilogy, and his horror/suspense movies, like Audition. He also has a tendency to go slightly bat shit fucking crazy, and the end result is a movie like The Happiness of the Katakuris, a sort of surrealist horror comedy musical with claymation.

Spaghetti westerns as an institution are an interesting proposition. They are the reimagining of the myth of the American West through the eyes of a foreign consciousness, taking a piece of Americana, something already wildly romanticized and largely fictional, and then translating and recontextualizing it to fit into another framework. Sukiyaki Western Django does this one better. Not only is this a reimagining of the myth of the American West, but it is a reimagining of the myth of the American West that has already been filtered through the Italian consciousness, and which is in turn run through the gaze of a wing-nut Japanese hipster. Miike tries to connect the Italian image of the ultraviolent American frontier with Japan’s feudal history and the culture of the samurai.

There are a lot of things I want to like about this movie. The prologue is a nod to the panoramic, Monument Valley, Technicolor films of John Ford, the ones where every color brilliantly contrasts with every other color; there are star crossed lovers; betrayal and vengeance; and the overall level of violence that we have come to expect from Miike’s films. I want to like Sukiyaki Western Django, but it falls incredibly flat.

The story is bland, spaghetti western fare. A stranger comes into a town where two factions battle over treasure. There was a couple, one from each clan, who tried to buck the system and marry, only the man is betrayed and murdered, and the woman falls into an alcoholic stupor while waiting to exact revenge. There is some shooting, some double-crossing, you get the picture.

The biggest problem with the story is not that it is uninspired, the problem it is that it is unfocused. There is no discernable protagonist. In theory, the black clad stranger is the primary locus of the story, that’s how the formula goes. But here the narrative bounces around from one character to another. Is this the history of the twos warring families? Is this the search for treasure? Is this the story of doomed lovers? It tries to tell a wide array of stories, only to fail to tell any of them entirely. You never fully care about any of the characters or their ultimate fates.

In the most successful spaghetti westerns, The Great Silence, the original Django, and The Man With No Name movies, there is a strong central character, and through that perspective, you learn what you need to about the world. That single consciousness filters the periphery. In A Fistful of Dollars we learn the plight of Marisol, but we learn it through Clint Eastwood’s character. His story is the primary concern, everything else is secondary, and you only learn about the rest as it relates to him. In Sukiyaki Western Django, however, each of these storylines is given equal weight, and the film suffers for it.

And for as many guns that fire in this movie, the result is surprisingly dull. I spent long sections of the film waiting for them to get on with it. The pacing is wildly uneven, and there is a lot of attention paid to things that don’t ever play a role of much importance.

So, this is a Japanese movie, in English. And I don’t mean that it is dubbed or subtitled. In a movie populated exclusively by Japanese actors (with one exception), everyone speaks English. It is really distracting, and at times off-putting. Some of the actors speak fluidly, but many of them sound like they are simply saying syllables, like they learned their lines phonetically. This leads to awkward, stumbling dialogue, and jarring moments that take away from the movie. Quentin Tarantino (when will people learn not to put him onscreen?) even does his lines in an accent, as if he was a natural Japanese speaker who learned to speak English. It is a really strange decision. Subtitles, or even dubbing, would work much better.

Sukiyaki Western Django seems like a good idea, but it isn’t. It doesn’t work as a spaghetti western, and it never quite gets to the level of frenetic chaos that it wants to achieve, which could have saved the movie. When I saw the guy with the lip ring and afro, and the mob of bad guys with dyed red bangs, I anticipated some seriously nutty shit. What I got instead was meh, M-E-H, meh.

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