When one thinks of the cowboy Western, names like John Ford, Sam
Peckinpah, Howard Hawks and John Huston might come to mind. Japanese
new wave and cult director Miike Takashi would probably be the last
person you would think of being on that list. That is, until now. With
his recent Sukiyaki Western Django Miike pays loving tribute to the
Western genre and infuses it with his own unique spin and a decidedly
Set in what appears to be a dusty post-apocalyptic wasteland, the story
deals with a bitter rivalry between two vicious clans - the brutal
Heike (whose color emblem is a bloody scarlet red) and the flashy Genji
(whose banners are a snow colored white). They have taken over a remote
mountain village in a region oddly called "Nevada" (spelled using Japanese
Both factions have learned of a mythic gold depository in the
surrounding area and have torn the village apart to find it, but to no
avail. The local inhabitants have long since fled and those that have
stayed behind have been living in terror ever since. The local sheriff (Kagawa Teruyuki) is a cowardly opportunist who has been
siding with whichever gang is currently winning the conflict.
A mysterious gunfighter with no name (Ito Hideaki) rides into town and
offers his services to the clan who offers to pay him the most. While
both clans make tempting bids, the gunfighter rejects both offers and
is instead swayed to hold off joining either faction by the town's
salon madam, Ruriko (Momoi Kaori).
Ruriko tells the stranger of how the town was taken over by the clans
and how her son Akira was killed by them. Akira was a former Heike
clan member who had fallen in love with the beautiful Shizuka (Kimura Yoshino), a member
of the rival clan. They had hoped that their union would help encourage
peace between the two clans but instead Akira is murdered by the
Heike's ruthless leader Kiyomori (Sato Koichi). Devasted, Shizuka returns to her clan with her young child Heihachi, where
she is forced to become a harlot to the clan's charismatic and
mercurial leader Yoshitsune.
As the conflict comes to an impasse both sides scheme how to gain
the upper hand. Kiyomori tells his clansmen that it is divine destiny
that they will win the conflict and sites Shakespeare's Henry VI and
the English conflict of the "War of the Roses" (where the red side
wins) as his bible. He is so sure of this that he adopts the name
On the Genji side, Yoshitsune has found the location of a hidden cache
of weapons including a functioning Gatling gun which he hopes will give
his clan the advantage. He sends his chief henchman, Benkei (Ishibashi
Takaaki) to retrieve the weapon.
The gunfighter learns of this plan from Shizuka and relays the
information to the Heike clan who send their own men to retrieve the
But Shizuka's betrayal does not go unpunished, and the
gunfighter is severely injured. Nursed back to health the gunfighter
teams up with Ruriko, who reveals herself to be the legendary gun
fighter "B.B.", who was a protégé of one of the first western gunmen in
Japan, "Bingo" (Quentin Tarantino in a cameo). The two ultimately work together to destroy the clan and
bring peace to the town.
Miike and screenwriter NAKA(Masa)MURA borrow liberally from other
westerns particularly the landmark "Italiano-Westerns" of Sergio Leone
(A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, and Once Upon A
Time In The West) and Sergio Corbucci (Django) as well as the
so-called "Acid-Westerns" of Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo). But Miike adds his own unique aspects and New Wave flourishes to create a Japanese
version of the classic western, albeit with a decidedly Japanese look
The name of the film is both a play on "spaghetti" (Italian) westerns and
an anecdote where "sukiyaki" (Japanese nabemono or "stew") combines
various elements in a pot. The idea shouldn't sound that far fetched as
the Japanese have always had a fondness for westerns and such directors
as Kurosawa Akira (Shichinin No Samurai a.k.a. The Seven Samurai ) and Buichi Saito (Guitar O
Motta Wataridoria.k.a. The Rambling Guitarist) have claimed to be influenced by classic American
Much has been said of Miike's decision to script the dialog entirely in
English but I think the cast should be commended for actually pulling
off what might have turned into a comical disaster. It also helped that
Miike had the good fortune of hiring actors who have either lived or
studied extensively abroad. Ito Hideaki (Crossfire, Limit of Love: Umizaru) plays the titular Clint
Eastwood role as the gunfighter or "man with no name". His performance is
good but one-note, as he doesn't really have much range and his lines
are minimal. The physicality he brings to the role is quite good
however and he definitely looks the part of a gun slinging hero.
Sato Koichi (Cheerful Gang Turns The Earth, Tennen Kokekko) is pure
evil as "Taira No Kiyomori", who fancies himself after Shakespeare's
Henry VI. His performance brings to mind Mifune Toshiro's Kikuchiyo
in Seven Samurai - manic, bestial, and cocksure of himself.
Fashion model turned actor Iseya Yusuke (Casshern, Memories of Matsuko, Gaichu) turns in another fantastic performance as the vicious yet
wickedly handsome "Minamoto No Yoshitsune", a man who fancies himself
as the embodiment of the Japanese Samurai spirit, and whose sword
skills border on the uncanny. Iseya is quickly making a name for
himself as an actor who goes for quirky roles, and his intensity and
presence reminds me a lot of the late Heath Ledger.
London born Yoshino Kimura (Sakuran, The Backdancers) brings much
passion, dignity and raw sexuality to her part as the tragic Shizuka.
Momoi Kaori (Bounce No Ko Gal a.k.a. Bounce Ko Gals, Memoirs of a Geisha, Kagemusha), who was
also educated in London, is clearly at home with the English dialogue and
turns in a terrific and surprising performance as Ruriko, Akira's
mother with the unexpected past. Ishibashi Takaaki (one half of 80s comedy duo "Tunnels") steals the
spotlight as Yoshitsune's sexually ambiguous henchman as does Kagawa
Teruyuki (HERO, Tokyo.Sora, RAMPO) as the bumbling sheriff who seems
almost possessed at times.
Oddly enough, it is English-speaking Quentin Tarantino in his cameo as legendary
gunfighter Bingo that I had the hardest time understanding -
especially with his odd character accent (Italian?). His appearance is
very much fan service and while humorous and funny is a bit
out-of-place in the movie as Tarantino is not really identified with
Westerns (Eastwood would have been a more logical choice).
Cinematographer Kurita Toyomichi's wonderful camerawork is interesting
and makes fine use of the Yamagata Prefecture. Kitamura Michiko's audacious
costume designs are also a great merging of cowboy iconography (chaps, vests, cowboy hats) with traditional Japanese ornamentation (tattoos, armor, emblems), creating a unique and twisted punk look.
Following on the heels of great modern Western-themed movies and like No Country of Old Men and the remake of 3:10 To Yuma, Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django is a fun attempt at the Western and
as its name suggests, it offers a clever and unique take with a Japanese bent. While Sukiyaki Western will never be on par with Unforgiven or Dances
With Wolves, it is a crowd-pleasing spectacle of action and drama.
Like trendy Asian "fusion" cuisine, Sukiyaki takes the best of both
worlds and offers up something new yet oddly familiar. Bon appetit! (JMaruyama 2008)