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 tangents -- characters like a schizophrenic and seemingly invincible sheriff, a castrated imitation-Indian who's 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 characterization, and the story’s mysteries and just tried to enjoy the film for what it apparently was -- a lightweight, stylized Western comicbook.
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.
Note this Blu-ray edition includes a brisk 98-minute international version of 'Sukiyaki Western Django'(compared to the 121-minute cut released in Japan). While the plot and characters remain fairly unsoiled, a significant amount of fat has been trimmed from this release. As a result, any serious fan of the film should definitely consider purchasing the Japanese import of Miike's vision instead.
The domestic Blu-ray edition of ‘Sukiyaki Western: Django’ from First Look Home Entertainment features a garish but faithfully encoded 1080p/VC-1 transfer that, in my estimation, is virtually identical to the AVC-encoded Japanese import from Sony that I reviewed earlier this year.
While the film's 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. While it's tough to complain about a product of directorial intention, I can safely say that the only people likely to enjoy this transfer are those already in love with the film itself.
‘Sukiyaki Western Django’ features an excellent English language Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track that makes up for the disc's troublesome visual presentation. 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.
I do have a pair of complaints when it comes to this domestic Blu-ray release. First and foremost, the Japanese BD import from Sony I reviewed a few months ago included a 6.1 lossless surround track -- First Look limits the film to a 5.1 lossless mix. Sure, it's not a huge issue or one that will affect most users, but every little bit counts. Second, the disc lacks options when it comes to subtitles. While I'm exceedingly happy to see an English subtitle track in some form or another (Miike's actors mainly recite the film's English script phonetically, making it difficult to consistently understand what they’re saying), the SDH component of the track includes text for sound effects and other elements of the mix. I certainly wouldn't want to forego an SDH subtitle track (as it's a nice bonus for users who are deaf or hard of hearing), but adding an additional standard English subtitle track would have been great for folks like me.
While the Japanese import from Sony didn't include any supplemental content whatsoever, First Look offers a pair of compelling features on their domestic Blu-ray edition that add some decent value to this release.
First up is a 53-minute behind-the-scenes documentary (with non-optional English subtitles) that covers the entire production, Miike's approach and style, casting, special effects, and the film's unique visuals. While it sometimes seems that everyone involved spends more time praising the director than candidly discussing the flick itself, it doesn't detract from what is an otherwise comprehensive and interesting documentary.
The other major feature is a 15-minute collection of deleted scenes that includes some additional details about character origins, an extended fight sequence, and more. All of the scenes seem to me like wise cuts, but fans will find plenty of material to keep them entertained.
’Sukiyaki Western: Django’ isn't a modern Spaghetti Western or a coherently plotted comic book actioner. In fact, the film will manage to alienate some of the most ardent Miike fans and isn't likely to win many newcomers to its cult following. Thankfully, the Blu-ray edition offers fans an impressive release that manages to outclass the Japanese import I reviewed earlier this summer. The domestic disc features a faithful video transfer, an involving TrueHD audio track, and some solid supplemental material (which wasn't available on the barebones Sony import).
The only major downside is that this domestic edition only includes a 98-minute cut of the film (in place of a 121-minute version included on the Japanese BD release). Still, even though I would recommend renting this one before settling on a blind buy or nabbing the import first, the overall release is strong enough to warrant a look.
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.