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Sukiyaki Western Django

Goddammit. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Ever since the year started, I’ve been waiting for things to pick up at the multiplexes. And this was exactly the weekend I had been waiting for. The Lego Movie has been picking up some alarmingly good reviews, and The Monuments Men — based solely on its critical reception — looks like an early candidate for my 2014 Disappointments list. I was FINALLY blessed with some 2014 movies I wanted to go out and review, and what happens?

Snow.

Ever since last Thursday, it’s been snowing continuously in Portland. At least until this afternoon, when the snow was replaced with freezing rain. Keep in mind, snow is extremely rare inside the Willamette Valley. This kind of snowstorm only comes along maybe once every five years. We don’t know how to deal with this, and we sure as hell don’t know how to drive in it.

So I’ve been cooped up at home, watching as my city shuts itself down until the storm passes. It breaks my heart that I can’t get to this weekend’s new releases, so I’ll content myself with something from the DVD grab bag. I’d especially like to cover something fun and energetic, and this one looked like it would fit the bill.

Sukiyaki Western Django comes to us from co-writer/director Takashi Miike, the Japanese filmmaker with an unbelievable 92 directing credits to his name. Miike set out to make an allegory about the warring samurai of feudal Japan, portraying the confict of Genji and Heike with spaghetti western tropes. Most notably, Miike looked to Sergio Leone’s “Man with no Name” trilogy and Sergio Corbucci’s Django. And the film also name-drops Shakespeare’s Henry VI and the anime movie Akira, just because.

Funnily enough, tying western films to Japanese culture is nothing new. In fact, Japanese cinema birthed several classic touchstones of the genre, most notably Yojimbo inspiring the Man with no Name and Seven Samurai begetting The Magnificent Seven (the latter case isn’t technically a spaghetti western, since it was directed by the American John Sturges, but you get the idea). So Japanese cinema inspired Italian filmmakers to craft films set in the Wild American West, which would later inspire a Japanese filmmaker. That’s one hell of a process to come full circle.

Also, Miike sought the assistance of Quentin Tarantino, who agreed to lend his name as a supporting actor. I’m honestly amazed he didn’t go for an exec-producer credit, because this project might as well have had Tarantino’s name written on it in neon letters visible from space. In fact, Tarantino anchors the very first scene of the movie, dressed up in his finest Clint Eastwood cosplay and talking in a weird Japanese accent in front of an explicitly fake backdrop. That’s a pretty fair introduction to the tone of the whole movie, in honesty.

Our premise begins in a small Japanese town that’s inexplicably named “Nevada.” The red-colored Heike gang comes in to take the town over, lured by rumors of a vast treasure buried somewhere near the town. And where the Heike go, their rivals — the white Genji clan — naturally follow. The Heike and Genji are set up on opposite sides of the town, but things are relatively peaceful; the Genji plan to bide their time, you see, letting the Heike do all the work in finding the treasure until the time is right to steal it. And of course the sheriff is too cowardly and… well, batshit insane to interfere, so there’s no trouble from the law either.

Then along comes the Gunman.

Naturally, an anonymous gunslinger (Hideaki Ito) comes into town and makes his talents known to both factions. But before he can align with either side, he hears the story of Shizuka (Yoshino Kimura), a beautiful woman who’s shacked up with the Genji. It turns out that she’s a full-blooded Genji who fell in love with, married, and bore a son with a full-blooded Heike. But then Shizuka’s love was gunned down by the Heike’s leader (in front of his son, no less), and Shizuka has given up everything she has for a shot at revenge. So moved by this story, the Gunman moves to play both sides against each other. A bloodbath ensues.

First and foremost, the film does an elegant job of taking its western influences and making them into something unique. A lot of familiar western imagery is very creatively used and blended with a Japanese flavor to satisfying effect. The influences can even redeem a few of the movie’s faults: The characters may be two-dimensional, but they’re only ever meant to be archetypes.

Also, when this film gets to the action, the results are amazing. The shoot-outs are suitably awesome, the fistfights are wonderfully choreographed, the guns all run on bottomless ammo, and people are only as durable as the plot permits. When the film gets down to the action, it’s great.

It’s all that space in between the action scenes that bugs me.

For whatever reason, Miike decided to cast his film with Japanese actors speaking English, even though it’s obvious that none of the actors are fluent in the language. The line delivery ends up being so stilted and awkward that the audience will need subtitles anyway, so it begs the question of why they didn’t just have the actors speaking Japanese to begin with. Hell, if they wanted to keep the spaghetti western thing going, the actors’ lines could have all been dubbed by voice actors who actually spoke English as a first language.

I can’t begin to list the ways in which the line delivery hurts this movie. For one thing, it’s emotionally distancing, and that’s something of a problem when the characters are all two-dimensional archetypes to begin with. Secondly, there are so many times when the dialogue includes common American slang terms and phrases. If anyone in the cast and crew had any idea how to properly use and say these phrases, it might have worked. Otherwise, the result is awkward and unintentionally funny.

Perhaps most importantly, it throws the pacing off in a very bad way. When these actors have to carry a scene without crap blowing up, they wait forever to say their lines and then take forever to get through those lines. That slows the pacing down to a crawl, and that’s a huge problem for a film that lives and dies on how over-the-top it is.

On a related note, the film often suffers for how little music it has. The score is close to nonexistent, comprised entirely of cues taken from western classics. Again, this doesn’t exactly mesh with the fast-paced, over-the-top feel that the movie is trying to go for.

In fact, there are times when the movie gets way too ambitious with the references for its own good. For example, there’s a time in the movie when a character explicitly name-drops Akira. I’m not just talking about a reference, I’m talking about a mention of the film itself. And maybe it’s just me, but talking about a 1988 movie in a wild west setting doesn’t sit very well with me. To muddy it up even further, there’s a character who eventually travels to Italy and changes his name to Django. This implies that the film is positioning itself as a prequel to Corbucci’s Django. It makes about as much sense as any of the film’s other unofficial tie-ins, I grant you, but that’s still a laughably contrived reference.

If you asked me whether Sukiyaki Western Django was good, I’m not sure I could come up with a straight answer. It’s memorable, it’s interesting, it’s ambitious, it’s slickly produced, and it knows how to weave together influences in a way that would make Tarantino proud. But at the same time, the film has so many problems in terms of pacing and line delivery that took me out of the film in a bad way. I want to call these flaws, except they feel intentional.

Basically put, this is a weird little movie that exists in its own little world, perfectly content to exist on its own weird terms. It’s one of those movies that’s worth taking a look at (especially for Tarantino fans and those who enjoy unusual cinema), just to say that you did.

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