Ah, Takashi Miike. For anyone who isn’t familiar with one of Japan’s most controversial filmmakers, Miike is notorious for frequently depicting shocking brutality, sexual depravity, and bizarre behavior in his genre-defying masterpieces. He reinvented Japanese horror with the unsettlingly perverse ‘Audition,’ delivered surreal ultraviolence in his Yakuza epic ‘Dead or Alive,’ and single-handedly invented the zombie-horror-comedy-musical with his exquisitely morose ‘The Happiness of the Katakuris.’ Yet for every challenging piece of art in the director’s canon, there are distinct duds that fail to convey Miike’s relentless inventiveness. ‘Sukiyaki Western: Django’ is certainly a lot of things -- an ode to Italian Spaghetti Westerns, a tribute to anime otakus, a nod to Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill,’ and an homage to Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy. What it’s not is a very good film.
Loosely based on Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 ‘Django,’ ’Sukiyaki Western: Django’ tells the convoluted (and sometimes episodic) tale of a nameless Gunman (Hideaki Ito) in the American West who fights to liberate a village from two rival gangs, the white-clad Genji and the scarlet-adorned Heike. The Heike are led by the brash Taira no Kiyomori (Koichi Sato), an impulsive warrior obsessed with finding a treasure hidden by the townsfolk. His nemesis is the cunning Minamoto no Yoshitsune (Yusuke Iseya), an unwavering swordsman who longs to face an opponent that can grant him a true challenge. When the two gangleaders fail to entice the mysterious Gunman to their individual causes, a war erupts between the three men that leaves a pile of bodies baking in the Nevada sun.
The moment Quentin Tarantino appeared on screen as a legendary gunslinger in the opening salvo of ‘Sukiyaki Western,’ I knew I was in for a hollow spectacle of genre nods and self-referential pop culture references. While Tarantino disappears quickly, he’s replaced by a cast of clichéd misfits and mindless henchmen who spend their screen time distracting viewers from a half-dozen remarkably well-conceived main characters. Had Miike’s camera spent all of its time on his central gunmen (and women), I would probably have responded to the flashy action, over-the-top choreography, and manga-influenced confrontations. However, the director is constantly amused by unnecessary distractions -- characters like a schizophrenic and seemingly invincible sheriff, a castrated imitation-Indian confused about his gender, and a tongue-wagging rapist seem contrived and out of place. Sure, they fit into Miike’s ever-evolving parade of cinematic freaks, but they pulled me out of the film and failed to inject any real unease into the story.
Other peculiar decisions had me shrugging my shoulders. Miike’s story changes direction more times than I care to count, a tragic widow-turned-whore is discarded after being used as little more than a cheap plot device, and the nameless Gunman transforms into an inconsistent protagonist reminiscent of a low-budget American action hero. In fact, every time I started to get a firm grasp on ‘Sukiyaki Western,’ the director would unnecessarily decide to defy genre conventions and fall flat on his creative face. It was almost as if Miike was clumsily tripping over his own notoriety. Before long, I gave up on plot cohesion, solid characterizations, and the story’s mysteries and just tried to enjoy the film for what it apparently was -- a lightweight, comicbook Western.
Admittedly, had ‘Sukiyaki Western’ been helmed by another director, I probably wouldn’t have been so hard on it. The fact that the film plays like a live-action anime is sure to please people who approach it with lower expectations. After all, at its core is a collection of engaging performances, a genuine love of old European Westerns, and a decent tale of bloody revenge. However, Miike junkies like myself will take one look at its tame tone, shoddy English dialogue, and comical action sequences, and lump this one in with the director’s less-than-stellar efforts.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Sukiyaki Western: Django’ features an ugly but faithfully encoded 1080p/AVC transfer of Miike’s heightened and exaggerated visuals. While the palette is strong and stable, it frequently falters with entire scenes of gaudy tastelessness -- shots are so regularly overblown and oversaturated that image depth and color gradations are sometimes eliminated from the screen. The skies flood with sickly yellow hues, the ground is cleansed of fine detail, and skintones take on a plasticized artificiality that undermines what would otherwise be an attractive picture. Making matters worse, blacks crush, whites bloom, and colors severely bleed, leaving the grainy image floundering beneath the director’s heavy paintbrush. Don’t get me wrong, the transfer fittingly renders Miike’s intentions from beginning to end, but it certainly doesn’t make for an impressive high definition presentation.
Technically speaking, detail is notable (particularly in “normal” shots), but textures and edges are still a bit soft compared to better transfers on the market. Likewise, landscapes rise and fall with Miike’s post-production filters, leaving rocks, leaves, and dirt at the mercy of the film’s artistry. In the end, I can’t exactly complain about the garish results since they’re the product of the director’s intention, but I can warn importers that the only viewers who will value the aesthetics of this transfer are those who are already in love with the film itself.
‘Sukiyaki Western’s video transfer may not offer viewers much to cheer about, but the English language Dolby TrueHD 6.1 surround track included on this import will bring the house down. Miike taps into the LFE channel with such ferocity that my ears were ringing in the aftermath of several shootouts. Gunfire sounds fantastic -- pistols sound like shotguns, rifles echo like canons, and a second act Gatling gun registers as a low-end earthquake. There are a few instances when the blasts sound comparatively weak, but the chaos has been deftly designed for the most part and placed neatly in the soundscape to avoid choking off dialogue or other effects. On that note, the rear speakers provide a welcome layer of ambiance and acoustic integrity to the proceedings. While more conversational scenes don’t showcase the attention to detail featured in the film’s flashbacks or exterior shots, the soundfield still adequately distributes each element to its appropriate position.
My lone complaint revolves around a fairly significant void -- the disc doesn’t include optional English subtitles. Yes, Miike shot the entire film in English, but his actors mainly recite their lines phonetically, making it difficult to consistently understand what they’re saying. As a result, the dialogue itself is pleasing and crisp, but their pronunciation is sometimes a bit muddled. While this issue isn’t indicative of a technical deficiency in the audio track, it’s still a distracting and disruptive problem that should give importers and Miike fans pause.
There aren’t any special features included on the disc.
Importing a Japanese BD copy of ’Sukiyaki Western: Django’ is a definite risk. The film itself will alienate ardent Miike fans, the video transfer is too gaudy to win much affection, and the disc doesn’t feature any supplemental content. Even a technically impressive English-language TrueHD mix isn’t a big draw since the lack of subtitles makes it difficult to understand some of the actors’ phonetic English. Thankfully, Sony has earned a reputation for releasing fairly obscure foreign films on domestic Blu-ray. I would suggest newcomers wait for this one to arrive Stateside before buying such a pricey import.
Thanks to Josh Veronee (aka Cadrian) for the disc!
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.