TL;DR: a very campy and confusing affair but worth it for Tarantino fans
After watching the recently released 'DJANGO' at the cinemas, I decided to go back and have a look at one of Quentin Tarantino's greatest influences outside of the original Django film, Miike Takashi's 'Sukiyaki Western Django' (スキヤキ ウェスタン ジャンゴ).
I guess I must have gone into this with too high expectations because I was really disappointed. Although I knew it was a gimmicky film, I still thought it would be an enjoyable ride and be highly original. I suppose the initial idea must have been to dress up the usual western tale of a mysterious gunslinger coming in to save a troubled town from corruption. Apparently the storyline follows very closely with the plot of the original Django film. I was hoping however that the eclectic mesh of Japanese Samurai with Spaghetti Western styles would follow into the story to make the visuals and the plot tie together better. Whilst it did have it’s moments (the odd scene with Tarantino eating Sukiyaki with an edo style mount fuji print in the background of the desert was probably the highlight), overall there seemed to be very little coherence to the world and hardly any reason for the stylistic choices. Even in terms of art direction some things were just too glaringly stylized (the half Heike and half Genji boy having one white and one red hair extension) and the some of the gang members looked like they’d fit in better in a boy band than a vicious mob.
The thing is, I really wanted to like this film. After the opening scene with Tarantino and Katori Shingo (香取 慎吾) I was in love with the idea and excited for more. I hate to say this, because I’m sure the actors put a lot of effort into learning their lines and by no means did a bad job, but one of the main problems I had with it stemmed from the fact it was all in English.
I don’t want to draw away from the fact that this is an achievement by the scriptwriters and actors (many of which are really prominent actors and actresses in Japan). I found it a problem in Memoirs of a Geisha because there was no need to have it in English and it drew away from the atmosphere of the story (not to mention the fact that Memoirs had a higher budget and could have easily had the script translated). But here, where it might have been appropriate, due to the odd mesh of worlds created, the problem was simply that it was really distracting.
Not because the English was necessarily bad (each line made sense on it’s own) or because the pronunciation was too hard to understand, but because the lines didn’t fit in with each other. When the characters spoke it didn’t sound like they were having a conversation with each other, rather it sounded like they were just saying things out loud to no one in particular. I don’t think this was a problem with the acting but rather a prime example of the difference between fluency and memorized language and between English and Japanese.
On top of that there were several lines which would have sounded really badass had they been in Japanese such as Kiyomori’s ‘I won’t die until I’ve killed you’ (お前を殺すまで死なねえ). Probably because Japanese can portray a lot more aggression due to its different levels of politeness (and subsequently rudeness) whereas in English ‘I won’t die until I’ve killed you’ just sounds a bit lame. Kiyomori’s rough voice would probably have sounded really domineering had it been in Japanese but in English he just sounded like the cookie monster.
Having said all that, there were a few moments which really picked things up. Kiyomori telling his gang to call him Henry was one of them, the grandma turning out to be a kickass gunfighter was another. Not to mention the final fight scene in the snow (and all the fight scenes that involved guns and samurai swords clashing together for that matter) where the moral of the story seemed to be ‘Don’t throw your gun away just so you can look cool with a sword’.
If you’re a fan of Tarantino style violence then that may just make this movie worth it for you, because they do think of some pretty creative ways to have people killed. I didn’t mind the violence so much because it was over the top in a humorous way. However I found it hard to sit through the sexual assault parts (any scene with Shizuka, played by Yoshino Kimura, in it), partly because it felt like that was all her character was (someone to be assaulted) and partly because it seemed like it was being used to show how ‘tough’ the gang leaders were in a glorifying kind of way. Even the supposed hero of the story earns his right to sleep with her by winning a fight against Yoichi, a Genji clan member.
I’d recommend it as a movie buffs kind of film just because of the Art direction and the numerous familiar faces. As far as coherence and continuity go however it just didn’t cut it. If you are after something to put on in the background at a house party with friends with quirky visuals and no requirement to listen to then this could be perfect though.
Also, the theme song from Django (which Tarantino also used in Django unchained) is pretty awesome in general and just as much so in Japanese. Maybe I should add it to my Karaoke repertoire….