A brace of Takashi Miike films this time, doubled up for this SFF missive because they are both parodies, albeit of radically different stripes. Sukiyaki Western Django is a hot, sticky mess, percolating Sergio Leone’s famous trilogy backwards through Yojimbo, Mad Max, Johnnie To, and Mel Brooks. In this “sukiyaki” western, the man with no name (Hidaeki Ito) arrives in the two-horse “Nevada,” which is spelled out on a weather-beaten signpost in kanji characters. He puts his services up for bidding between two rival gangs: the “Heiki” reds and the “Genji” whites, both dressed like they’ve wandered out, dazed and battered, from some entropic steam-punk future. The whites hate the reds, the reds absolutely loathe the whites, with both vying to control this dead-end backwater and then…what happens next is a little fuzzy—something about a gold rush, a secret treasure, a child born to end the feud, a Gatling gun, and a mess of violence that trips the light between slapstick and brutality. It’s America…but it’s Japan…and I just saw a shotgun blast put a hole—a literal hole a goodly fist in diameter clean to the other side—through someone’s chest. Sweet mercy, what in the holy fuck is going on?
Nothing short of fever-pitch attention will suffice when watching Sukiyaki, and it’s not merely the mental fog that comes from watching five festival movies in one day that leaves me utterly befuddled. Miike makes his Japanese cast deliver their lines in English, with varying degrees of competence, so crucial plot points remain a little vague. But though his actors speak English as through a mouthful of marbles, even the worst of them outstrips Quentin Tarantino, whose delivery, supposedly ironic, actually makes one wonder if he’s been permanently concussed. He positively butchers the opening, a surrealist pasteboard prologue, in which he dispatches some cowboys under an electric blue sky, and then returns right before the climax, to stumble through a wincing cameo of the same gunfighter, now crippled and aging. I understand Tarantino’s presence in the film—he’s given legitimacy to guilty film pleasures (which is what Sukiayki desires to be), and let’s applaud him for that. But lordy, we ought to take up a Uwe Boll–style petition to ensure his Neanderthal countenance never mars the screen again.
Not that it matters; this flick is all about manic self-indulgence, with the merest narrative thread spooled out to bind together ferocious set pieces flecked with comedy. A digression where the Genji leader compares the Red-White feud to the War of the Roses, and insists on being called Henry after Shakespeare’s Henry IV is madcap genius, on par with the mayor from Blazing Saddles. Indeed, so prevalent is the Brooks influence that I half expected to see Count Basie sitting in the desert surrounded by his orchestra. And then, as if on cue, Miike cuts to a Native American trumpeter on a mountaintop, bleating out the film’s baleful theme. There’s humor, intelligence, and an encyclopedic generic knowledge on display, but it doesn’t all hang together. It’s not idiosyncratic or hokey enough to be reckoned a true cult film, and the moments of kinetic violence are spread too thinly by weak humor and perhaps too far apart to captivate a casual audience. In terms of western viewers, I wonder where it’s pitched.
The best bits of Sukiyaki Western Django, then, have to do with language. “You gonna do something, or are you just gonna stand there, whistlin’ Dixie?” when lightly mangled by a samurai henchman, undercuts the bristling one-liners that litter popular American genres. The simple gestures manage to send up the spaghetti western with more potency than any extended fight choreography could. But that’s rather churlish, because Miike has never been a subtle director; chiding him for excess is like criticizing the crown jewels for being gaudy. It’s his entire reason for being.
Of course, he has another: straight-up cruelty, from Ichi the Killer on down. Crows Episode 0 is awash in carnage and bloodshed, but the way it’s effected makes for an incisive critique. John Stewart (or is it David Letterman?) has a recurrent skit on late-night TV where U.S. government transcripts from, for example, a House Oversight Committee are re-enacted by children. Stewart invariably selects scenes showing congressmen and women at their worst, suggesting that the public is liable to tolerate petulant discourse in adults that we wouldn’t dream of were it coming from the mouths of babes. Crows Episode 0 is the cinematic equivalent, transposing a yakuza power struggle to a high school. With teachers almost wholly absent, Crows High School’s only purpose is to beget violence, with packs of impossibly stylish teenagers vying for control of the school by beating each other, again and again to a bloody pulp. Why? For one new transfer, Genji Takaya (Shun Oguri), it’s a self-motivated quest preparing him to take over his father’s yakuza business. For everyone else, the question seems to be: Well, why not? Miike puts a lot of heavy, heavy violence on display, which, when synchronized to chest-rattling Foley work, packs a visual and physical wallop. To a point. With so much repetition, the brawls become numbing and highly unsexy and mechanical, like fisticuffs porn, especially by the time the interminably long final clash rolls around. All of Miike’s efforts are part of a strategy to destabilize the genre and undercut its glamour. The hottie from the grocery store is the gangster’s moll, a rival’s weakness is that he’s unable to meet girls, and testaments to loyalty (“I’ve known him all my life”) become laughably hollow. Against such callow kids, the gangster flick is reflected as a dead end, irredeemable genre; Takashi Miike bleeds it dry, leaving it a desiccated corpse for anyone with the temerity to follow. —JAMES CRAWFORD