Sukiyaki Western Django
Academics teaching postmodern culture courses should offer credit to their students for watching Quentin Tarantino films. You want implosion of boundaries? Simulacra abounding? Deconstruction? Though each of his films tends to borrow liberally from numerous genre tropes and conventions, his style is at this point quite defined and stable. He’s a reliable prestige director and producer, and his name is prime marketing material for studios looking to sell something exotic that smacks of exploitation.
Takashi Miike, though he is often compared to Tarantino, is an entirely different sort of directorial animal. He has made everything: children’s films, graphic horror, video game adaptations, bloody samurai films, introspective dramas, and Sukiyaki Western Django, the ultimate culture-clash movie. Though Miike has earned his share of acclaim both in Japan and in the West, his own work is far more sincere and committal than Tarantino, who, regardless of his many and varied talents as a filmmaker and screenwriter, cannot count sincerity as one of them. Over the last decade, Miike has averaged more than a film per year, working with minuscule budgets and more creativity than means. This means that he is more like one of the innumerable directors and genre filmmakers Tarantino is liable to quote than the Tarantino of Japan.
In regard to Sukiyaki Western Django, however, we have a picture that valorizes hybridity in theme, construction, and content. The basic plot is a riff on the conflict between the Genji and Heike clans, a well-established story in Japanese history that has been the subject of song and story for centuries. To this aged premise this film adds another and another: it makes reference to the War of the Roses and Shakespeare, its aesthetic combines Japanese jidaigeki with American spaghetti Westerns, and, most notably of all, its Japanese cast members speaks all of their lines in English. Suffice to say that none of them are fluent, which can make the film’s dialogue far more difficult to understand. Fortunately, however, the film’s plot is a straightforward “man with no name” Western/samurai film and everything is colour-coded in stark white and red, representing the two sides. These two sides, the Genji and Heike, are fighting over the treasure reported to be buried in an old run-down Western frontier town, complete with torii gates and Chinese characters painted all over the wooden structures.
The basic message of Sukiyaki is embodied in a young child, the sole survivor of his family, who is the product of a union between the two clans. He is represented by a white and red rose blooming in the mud, indicating the level of subtlety we are working with here. Like the entire film, this practically exhorts the viewer to reject simple oppositions and embrace mixing and heterogeneity. It’s classic postmodern moralizing in some ways, though it probably has more weight to it in a country where over 95% of the population is native Japanese than in a so-called “nation of immigrants.” It’s also a fascinating commentary on how the cultures, economies, and entire societies of these two Pacific Rim countries have been entwined since World War II. Consider that Japan’s constitution was written in English first–by American lawyers–and only later translated into Japanese, imposed by an American military occupation on a ruined nation.
So is Sukiyaki Western Django a defiant celebration of the strange nation Japan became under American tutelage and in its furious economic competition with America after the war? Or is it more of a sighing resignation? The boisterous energy of the film would seem to suggest the former, though there is an undercurrent of sadness and decline as well, and the onset of industrialization looms heavily over the proceedings. Let’s just say a Gatling gun plays a significant role in the plot. And while the film’s attempts to recreate the spirit of its original forebears by “otherizing” its tropes using the bizarre language barrier are mostly successful, it never makes for anything elegant. In this intentional awkwardness, this purposeful kludge, we see how drawing cultures so closely together reveals the gaping chasm that still remains there even after globalization has supposedly erased many meaningful differences in the pursuit of market efficiency.
Underneath all of the genuinely entertaining weirdness and creative spark in the film, we see that it speaks to its time and place with some aptitude. It doesn’t have many if any profound or correct political insights, but it has its own virtues nonetheless. I have a great deal of affection for Miike’s swiftness and efficiency as a filmmaker, both in his compositions and the frantic pace at which he creates material. Sukiyaki Western Django’s excesses can be both energizing and profoundly enervating, and it doesn’t fulfill its entire potential, but it’s an enjoyable watch and a fascinating conversation piece nonetheless, one that in some surprising ways genuinely reflects the relations between two of the world’s most important capitalist powers.