Miike's new movie, Sukiyaki Western Django, finds him making a slight change of pace. No, the movie is still crazy and fast and nearly unintelligible, but he has stopped for a moment to consider the work of other filmmakers. The movie is a tribute to Spaghetti Westerns, and especially Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which in turn was based on Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961). Remember Bono's taunt at the beginning of U2's cover version of "Helter Skelter"? ("This song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealing it back.") This movie feels as if Miike is doing some stealing back of his own.
But it gets more complicated. The title refers to Django (1966), which is a less famous, but equally amazing Spaghetti Western made by Leone's compatriot Sergio Corbucci. Corbucci was quite a bit more violent and downbeat than Leone, especially in his later masterpieces The Great Silence (1968) and Compañeros (1970). Django in particular contained a scene of ear-slicing that gave audiences something to remember. Years later, a filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino included another ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992) that raised similar controversy. Tarantino has proclaimed many times his appreciation for Leone -- especially For a Few Dollars More (1965) -- but never really mentions Corbucci. Of course, Miike's style perfectly compliments this mixed-up tribute.
In 2003 and 2004, Tarantino made his Kill Bill films, a brilliant combination of both Asian and Spaghetti Western filmmaking. In fact, of all the people who claim Leone as an influence, Tarantino is the only one who gets close to mimicking his giant canvas and his unique use of silence and violence. So who else could Miike have turned to for help in making Sukiyaki Western Django? Yes, Tarantino plays a role in the film and has actual dialogue, but don't start running for the exits just yet. He's perfectly tolerable, and his own personal fingerprints have mingled a bit with Miike's. With probably just a little help from QT, Miike has managed the best Spaghetti Western knockoff in years. Far and away the finest section is the final showdown, smoothly and swiftly shot with excessive violence and gore (it reminded me of the opening and closing sequences of Dead or Alive). Stretching credibility, it features six-shooters, samurai swords, and a goldurn Gatling Gun.
However, I would recommend first boning up on A Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo (as well as their uncredited inspiration, Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel Red Harvest) before going in. Miike juggles things so fast, and uses so many different tinted flashbacks and so many characters on all sides of the conflict that holding a rough template in your head is the best way to follow the plot. Basically, a gunfighter (Hideaki Ito) arrives in a small town in Nevada. Two rival gangs, the Heike clan (helpfully dressed in red) and the Genji (dressed in white) battle over gold. The gunman craftily plays both ends against the middle, gets the tarnation beaten out of him, and turns up at the climactic battle. Aside from that, we get a romantic couple who have intermarried between the two tribes, their outcast, half-breed son (Ruka Uchida), and the boy's grandmother (Kaori Momoi, who was in Kurosawa's Kagemusha), a former legendary gunfighter herself.
Tarantino appears in flashback -- and in the present, wearing old-age makeup -- as a kind of gunfighting sensei. In his best sequence, he shoots a snake that has just gobbled up an egg, slices open the snake's neck, retrieves the blood-stained egg, and (after dispatching a baddie), cracks it and scrambles it, all in one swift motion. As if to accommodate Tarantino, and to be true to the old West and the Spaghetti Westerns, Miike has chosen to shoot in English (he also shot his recent "Masters of Horror" TV episode that way). Unfortunately, barely any of the actors seem to speak it well, and the thick accents and clumsy line readings are the movie's biggest flaw. (The second biggest flaw is the annoying, comic sheriff, played by Teruyuki Kagawa.) I would have killed the nearest cowpoke in exchange for some helpful English subtitles. (According to the Variety review from Venice, subtitles did once exist.)Here's the other catch. The U.S. distributor, First Look, appears to have snipped out about 20 minutes of footage (the same Variety review irresponsibly suggested as much, adding that it wouldn't hurt the final film). I managed to get my hands on the long version, on a Region 2, NTSC DVD, thanks to the good folks at the great site Xploited Cinema, and I can't imagine how it could be improved by cutting. Nevertheless, if you have a yen to check out the movie in the theater, by all means do, and then catch up with the uncut version later to fill in the blanks. Judging by the bullet ballet and the amount of bloody butchery herein, those are the only blanks you're going to get.