Friday, September 21, 2007

TIFF 2007 Review: "Sukiyaki Western Django"

(Midnight Madness)
(Japan, 2007, 121 minutes)
Written by: Takashi Miike and Masa Nakamura
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Cast: Hideaki Ito, Masanobu Ando, Koichi Sato, Kaori Momoi, Yusuke Iseya, Yoshino Kimura , Shun Oguri, Quentin Tarantino

By now it’s clear that there are few genres left for Midnight Madness staple Takashi Miike to subvert or deconstruct--did I say deconstruct? Disembowel might be the more appropriate term. And then sploshing around the innards until a story takes a raw, messy shape…

Arguably contemporary Japanese cinema’s most prolific filmmaker--at the very least its most consistently fearless in upsetting sensibilities (his Faber & Faber biography is aptly entitled Agitator)--Miike has merrily assaulted the crime film (the Dead Or Alive trilogy), the violent gangster saga (Ichi The Killer), the “Fatal Attraction” stalker melodrama (Audition), the prison drama (Big Bang Love, Juvenile A), the superhero yarn (Zebraman), even the musical (The Happiness of the Katakuris), and the epic children’s fantasy fable (The Great Yokai War). And Imprint, his first foray into American cable television? Banned! (and not for Billy Drago’s performance…)

With the Western having been granted its latest short-lived resurrection on North American screens this year--the festival gala The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Seraphim Falls, James Mangold’s solid remake of 3:10 To Yuma, hell, even BloodRayne 2!--how appropriate is it then that Miike’s latest (actually, his second of four films this year) dares to stare down the most American of genres? SWD is a saddle opera bonkers enough to make less-adventurous filmgoers pining for more conventional fare like, oh, Jodorowsky’s El Topo or George England’s “psychedelic western” Zachariah (costarring Don Johnson. Dick Van Patten, and The Eagles’ Joe Walsh!)…

Unable to attend the screening (he’s working—what else?), Miike provided a video introduction in which--shades of I’m Not There—the surprisingly jovial director expressed his gratitude for the long-time support of programmer Colin Geddes and the ever-loyal Toronto audience via a series of text cards.

Opening on what looks like a Death Valley campfire set designed by Waiting For Guffmans Corky St. Clair, we meet Quentin Tarantino as “Ringo”, a chatty cowpoke who, over a bowl of sukiyaki (beef stew), spins for us a yarn of "The Genpei Wars" of the 1100s, when during a gold rush the town of Yuda was besieged by the rival gangs the Genji Whites and the Heike Reds, until a mysterious “Gunman” (Ito) wandered in to set things right.

He befriends the defiant, hard-drinking Ruriko (Momoi), who runs the general store and raises her mute grandson Akira whose father—her son—was murdered by Kiyomori. He also wins the attentions of Shizuka (Kimura), the local prostitute who was once the bride of the vain, preening Kiyomori (Sato), the leader of the red-clad Heike gang who readies his followers for a violent turf war with the white-clad Genji clan, under the command of the flamboyant Yoshitsune (Iseya). The Heike have taken over the town after killing the mayor and enlisting the services of the traitorous sheriff (Kagawa). Playing each side against the other, the Gunman empowers the locals to take back their town, blasting, slashing, and bursting through any ornery cuss who gets in the way…

Yessir, it’s another bullet-ridden stampede through Yojimbo territory (and, of course, the 1966 Sergio Carbucci classic that provides part of the title), or rather, its Western remake/homage A Fistful Of Dollars. But, remember, Kurosawa based Yojimbo on the American short story “Red Harvest” by Dashielle Hammet, and since Yojimbo was remade by Walter Hill as the gangster yarn Last Man Standing—well, it’s safe to assume that somewhere along the line all of the cultural debts have officially been squared.

And if that’s not strange enough—and oh it is plenty strange—it’s also one of the wilder revisionist riffs on Shakespeare, specifically his Wars of the Roses dramas, with Kiyomori rechristening himself after Henry VI (“Hen-Ray”) and quoting it in garbled iambic pentameter (take that, Baz Luhrman!). And then there’s that hybrid rose bush…

As whacked-out as the production design and anachronisms are (A Buddhist temple next to the saloon, stetsons and leather dusters amidst samurai swords and crossbows, a Gatling gun right out of The Wild Bunch)SWD goes off the rails from the very first appearance of an Asian cowboy, who utters his knowingly clichéd lines in phonetic English, complete with affected Southern drawl (a perfectly ordinary quip like “you be whistlin’ Dixie” gains about three times the required syllables). So does the entire cast. Hell, even Tarantino soon gets in on the shtick; speaking his lines as if the English language is entirely alien to him (you can insert your own mocking one-liner of his much-debated thespian abilities here). Imagine a lengthy feature where everyone speaks Esperanto (Incubus) as delivered by the backwards dwarf from Twin Peaks, and you’ll have some idea of what you’re in for when and if you can ever track this one down in your neighborhood. Thankfully, the entire film is subtitled, and I “reckon” you’ll need ‘em.

Surprisingly, this is not the first of its type—in the late 50s, Japan’s Nikkatsu Studios conceived of the mukokuseki film with a sprawling, multi-film saga ala Zatoichi with Wataridori (Birds of Passage) which starred Akira Kobayashi as a contemporary cowboy complete with trademarked horse, guitar and bullwhip.

But while there’s little deadwood (or Deadwood for that matter), the film is far too self-referential and satisfied with its own cleverness for its own good (and ours). The film is overstuffed with clever and spectacular slapstick—and splatstick—action gags shot in Leone-patented widescreen. As with last year’s The Great Yokai War (reviewed here), SWD exhausted me by the end of the first half (and stops dead when a major character degenerates into Smeagol-mode), but regained its footing for a rousing climax—still, I couldn’t help but wonder what someone like Steven Chow could’ve done with this.

Still, while this is the kind of film that celebrates its unevenness, the presence of Tarantino reminded me that his own Kill Bill and Robert Rodriguez collaborations (From Dusk Til Dawn, Sin City, Grindhouse)—which owe much to Miike’s demented sensibility—were far more accomplished at playing fast and loose with genre conventions while remaining grounded in emotional reality even as their characters defied the laws of gravity, time, space, and whatever the hell logic is....

Sukiyaki Western Django will open in Japan this fall, but there’s been no North American release date set at this time.

©2007 Robert J. Lewis