First Look Pictures // 2007 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // November 24th, 2008
An epic tale of blood, lust and greed.
Here's the story: In 1961, director Akira Kurosawa released Yojimbo, the seminal '60s samurai flick. In addition to being fiercely entertaining, the movie (which was inspired by Kurosawa's love of John Ford's westerns) kicked off a conversation between Eastern and Western filmmakers that has been going on for over four decades now. Three years after Yojimbo hit theaters, Sergio Leone remade it as A Fistful of Dollars, the seminal spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood. Hong Kong got in on the act in 1995 with Ka-Fai Wai's loose adaptation, Peace Hotel starring Chow Yun-Fat. A year later, Walter Hill executed another Hollywood remake in the gangster/noir mode as The Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis in the lead. And these are just the major players. Countless schlocky, low-budget films have lifted Kurosawa's plot about a skilled warrior who plays two corrupt powerbrokers against one another on behalf of their oppressed underlings (Gun Crazy: A Woman from Nowhere, for instance, has the distinction of being a cheesy Japanese chick-with-guns flick that, oddly enough, is more influenced by Leone's remake than Kurosawa's original).
Now Kurosawa's story returns to Japan with all the international baggage it has acquired. Director Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer) joins the decades-long conversation with Sukiyaki Western Django, a hyper-reflexive live-action cartoon that pays homage to Kurosawa's fine action film as well as...well...just about everything else you can imagine.
Set against a cartoonish desert sunset backdrop, a badass gunslinger named Ringo (Quentin Tarantino) tells us the tale of a war waged between Kiyomori (Koichi Sato, When the Last Sword is Drawn) of the Heike clan and Yoshitsune (Yusuke Iseya, Memories of Matsuko) of the Genji clan over a cache of gold beneath the hills of a modest little town. Into the fray comes the Gunman (Hideaki Ito, Onmyoji). He offers his services to both clans, but is secretly determined to end the conflict once and for all by destroying them both. He finds unlikely allies in a widow (Yoshino Kimura, The Suicide Song) abused by both clans, and a tough female gunslinger named Bloody Benton (Kaori Momoi, Love and Honor).
Sukiyaki Western Django is mostly interesting as a collection of references to the action movie touchstones that have rippled from Yojimbo through countless other films. Takashi Miike throws himself headlong into this convergence of American, Japanese, and Italian film sensibilities, working the material with the excited, insular fervor of an otaku. He shoehorns in references to everything from previous adaptations of Yojimbo, to Sergio Corbucci's Django (a spaghetti western about a gunslinger played by Franco Nero who hauls around some heavy weaponry in a coffin), to the self-conscious film style of Quentin Tarantino, to the general visual tackiness of most anime and manga. On the few occasions when he can't think of an appropriate moment to lift from another flick, he throws in some flashy gunplay and gallons of arterial spray. Unfortunately, all of this cheeky playfulness distracted Miike from his larger duty of delivering a coherent story and compelling characters (he didn't help himself by making his mostly Japanese cast deliver their lines in English, reducing otherwise decent actors to rank amateurs). It's as if Miike was so fixated on exploring the cinematic phenomenon of Kurosawa's film, and how its influence has rippled through many of the international genres that inspired him, that he lost sight of the reason that Yojimbo has been so often adapted: It's a really great story.
Sukiyaki Western Django is not a really great story. It's a convoluted collection of stories within stories within stories -- some with satisfying payoffs, some not. Watching it is the frustrating equivalent of reading a James Bond novel written by James Joyce...or, rather, a college undergraduate aping Joyce. All the elements of a good story are there, but they're disordered, subverted, and deconstructed in an effort to give us a clearer view of the components of storytelling stripped of the logical, emotional, and visceral context that blinds us to the artifice of a well-told yarn (or maybe Miike's purpose was simply to affect an intelligent hipster stance). The movie might still have worked if Miike's offering of reheated and repackaged tropes had a purpose deeper than expressing his own gushing love of '60s samurai and spaghetti western style. Kurosawa's film couched its action in an exploration of the cultural changes afoot in Japan at the time Yojimbo was made. Miike's film is a garish and shallow (albeit beautifully shot) collection of cool action clichés, full of sound and eye-popping color and signifying very little. By that measure, it's of a kind with his vastly overrated Ichi the Killer.
Due to Miike's aggressive and patchwork visual style, Sukiyaki Western Django's digital transfer is all over the map. Color is overblown in some sequences and naturalistic in others. The image is sometimes as smooth as silk, and sometimes crawls with coarse grain. All of the looks are by design and the Blu-ray handles them with aplomb. Given the over-the-top vividness of the source, I can't imagine that DVD does the movie a full measure of justice. The Dolby TrueHD audio mix is spacious and bombastic. There's also a Dolby Stereo Surround mix that's not nearly as fun. Both are in English, of course. Spanish and English subtitles are provided.
The Blu-ray release of Sukiyaki Western Django is billed as a two-disc Special Edition, but there's nothing all that special about it. There are indeed two discs, but only one of them is a BD. The other is a DVD with a digital copy of the film that you can copy to your PC. In addition to the feature, the BD contains a deleted scenes reel (14:28) and The Making of The Sukiyaki Western Django (52:40). Both featurettes are rough-around-the-edges 480p presentations. A BD-live feature contains a featurette about the visual effects, a gun guide, a location map, a number of Q&As, trailers, and other goodies.
Sukiyaki Western Django looks and sounds great on Blu-ray. The movie itself and the slim offering of extras on this "Special Edition" are a major disappointment.
Guilty as charged.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* BD Live
* Digital Copy
* Official Site