(this movie is for the month of March, but I may do another review later in the month to make up for the loss of 4 reviews)
Okay, so the first new review after the big Uh Oh - and it's...really weird! I'm sorry this isn't another typical western, but I hopefully am introducing you to something completely new. Whereas many of the "artsy" things I have before shown were things you'd watch alone, this is a crazy artsy flick that you have to watch with friends. Probably drunk. Hopefully not on acid or else you may have a very strange trip.
It's foreign. It's bizarre. It's by Takeshi Miike.
Cowboys, cowgirls, I present, for your consideration:
The Stats: Director: Takeshi Miike Cast: Hideaki Ito, Masanobu Ando, Kaori Momoi, Yusuke Iseya, and Quentin Tarantino Type: Fantasy Japanese-Western (or Sukiyaki Western, which I suppose this film has termed) Supercool Trivia: Has a J-Rock cover of the Django theme during the end credits! (though there's many other juicy trivia bits) Availability:YesAsia - 1 disc & Yesasia - Special Ed. (Region 2, Japanese - NO SUBTITLES IN WESTERN LANGUAGES)
Spaghetti Western Gunshot - CHECK! Yojimbo Plagarism - CHECK! (basic premise of 2 gangs, one town, gunfighter in the middle) Gattling Gun - CHECK! Weapon In A Coffin - CHECK! Horse Fall Stunts - CHECK! Trickshot Aiming - CHECK! (ricochet off a bell! nice!) Dynamite - CHECK! Revenge Plotline - CHECK! MWNN (Man With No Name)-style Main Hero - CHECK! Variety of Western Weaponry - CHECK! (including the Gattling, a couple of Schofields, a Remington 58-type model, extended barrel accuracy pistol, etc.) Unique Weaponry - CHECK! (crossbow!) Completely Impotent Sheriff - CHECK! Slight Homosexual Overtones - CHECK! Stage Coach Robbery - CHECK!
Japanese (and Miike) Film Checklist:
Quick Edited Action Style - CHECK! Samurai Sword - CHECK! Somewhat Based On Actual Time In History - CHECK! (Genpei Wars between Minamoto and Taira gangs) Gruesome Gore Sound Effects - CHECK! Long, Slow Pauses In Intimate Scenes - CHECK! Typical Miike Weirdness - CHECK! (homosexuality, rape, attempted rape, split personality) Extremely Wacky & Weird Comic Relief - CHECK! J-Rock Music - CHECK! Peculiar Gimmick - CHECK! (all actors speaking English) Torture - CHECK! Grisly, Long-Lasting, Painful Demise - CHECK! Bizarre Sense of Humor/Goofiness - CHECK! Interpretive Dance Sequence - CHECK! Amazing Costume Design - CHECK! Mix of European/American Visuals Filtered Through Japanese Culture - CHECK! Filmed Through A Bullet Wound - CHECK!
All Kinds Of Film Checklist: Anachronisms - CHECK! Kill Bill Reference - CHECK! Gunshot Makes Big Hole In Torso - CHECK!
(I'm sure there's tons more I'm missing - this sucker is chock-full of stuff!)
Okay, now, let's be frank. This film is another flick in the "can be considered a western" category like The Proposition, but due to how much Takeshi Miike has so intentionally tried to make this feel and look like a spaghetti western, down to even making it a complete anachronism in the first place with the storyline and weapon choices, it's pretty much just a Fantasy Western. And I'm not talking Legend Western like a very factually inaccurate John Wayne film. I mean this is just a crazy whacked-out movie that crosses so many genres, time periods, ideas, types of personalities, and archetypes into one single world that it's basically just a fantasy. It's fake. It's a comic book/graphic novel. It's a video game.
And that's also what makes it fantastic!
For those of you who do know of Takeshi Miike, you should know the score on his weirdness. For those who do not, here's a quick crash course: Miike (pronounced like Mee-Kay) is known as the Mad Dog Director of Japan. He's never interviewed without wearing his sunglasses (a very shy man), he usually makes somewhere between 2 and 4 films in a single year (this last year saw the release of 3 of his films - including this, Crows Zero, and Like A Dragon), and his movies are typically absolutely freaking insane. This man has put every single taboo on the screen. Infidelity? Check. Torture? Check. Incest? Check and check. Necrophilia? ....yes, check. However, he also makes his films full of symbolism, be it Buddhist beliefs (the evolution of the Dead or Alive series is very interesting), the necessity of a motherly figure to rebalance the family system, and so forth. Now in recent years he's been moving into more mainstream territory, including this film, which he has been hoping to do for some time. He is even quoted as saying he wanted to make a "spaghetti western" since Audition (1999). So him doing this, Great Yokai War, Crows, Like A Dragon, and other of his more mainstream "standard" films (still weird, but not as surreal) has been kind of a long time coming. And also despite the weirdo reputation of his films, they're almost always very well made, with fantastic performances, great editing, some really incredible sequences that you will never forget (even if that's a bad thing in the torture scenes' case), and every single one of them is different. He's a unique creator and one who is a must for anyone trying out Asian film. (although I wouldn't suggest Visitor Q or Happiness Of The Katakuris without first reading the plot synopsis)
So you take this amazingly odd and different filmmaker, a rebel spirit within a sometimes very stale film industry. He's now even friends with Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth (he was in the original Hostel as the Japanese Tourist) and is making more creative comrades overseas. He's starting to lose some of the superweird and go into just plain old weird 'n' fun. What happens when he decides to finally make a western?
You get Sukiyaki Western Django. A Japanese-made spaghetti-style western set in the 1100s (with 1800s hardware), starring a near-complete Japanese cast, set in Japan, featuring Italian western cliches, an American director in a small role, and all the dialogue (except one line) spoken in phonetic English. The combination is so artistically outrageous that it's either gonna be the worst movie ever made or some of the most fun you'll ever have watching a movie. (thank God it's the latter)
As far as Miike's weirdness factor, the film is quite tame aside from one scene that many will find unsettling/disturbing (I won't mention). Aside from that, there is an attempted rape, a weirdo who dresses like a woman at the end trying to gain the love of his leader, a very odd Gollum/Smeagol-esque split personality character (who does some VERY strange uhm...contortion...), some sacreligious imagery (hanging a man from a Shinto gate - which got controversy in Japan), and so on. Overall, don't worry. None of the weird of Visitor Q. Which some may dislike, but I think would be completely out of place in a western like this film. And although I mention torture, it's more just the standard "hero gets beat up by the bad guys" which you'd see in any Franco Nero movie. Even though there is violence and oddity in the film, it's not like it's a completely depraved perverse flick. So fear not!
The story is basically Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars. Two gangs (the Heike and Genji - Red and White respectively) are battling it out in a town where there is a fabled old treasure. Stranger with no name other than "The Gunman" enters town, a lone gun for hire, but is quickly pulled to the sidelines and hears the long tale of the town's history and the history of a family that has been torn apart by this war. Although the basic plot structure is the old-school Yojimbo (and it's so obvious that even one bad guy character says The Gunman should not try "to be like Yojimbo" and play the two sides against eachother), the film takes a great many tangents (some good, some bad) that help transform the story into a very interesting point against racism, abusive prospectors stealing land, and generally how stupid/bad/etc. conflict is. I know that sounds like an incredibly cliche idea, but Miike makes the idea work through an amazing sense of surreal symbolism. By the time the action of the film kicks in (and holy crap does it kick in the third act), you've actually got quite a lot of interesting ideas shown, some thoughtful scenes that provoke a reaction out of the viewer, and all that cool "hey, here's our message" stuff out of the way. The conclusion of the story is very Yojimbo/Fistful, but it has its own way of handling things, which is cool. Storywise, it doesn't bother much trying to "re-explain" the whole story. We know the basic premise - two gangs, one guy in the middle, excrement hits the fan, lots of entertainment to be had. So he takes time to focus on the various characters' reactions to the situation.
Which is, perhaps, also one of its failings. Although the lone gunman in this archetypal story is the main hero, I have to say, I was surprised the Gunman in SWD was actually more of a "window" character for everyone else. Far more screentime is given to the two leaders of the gangs, the grandmotherly Ruriko (who has a mysterious past that's best left seen in the film), and the woman & child of a mixed-Heike/Genji marriage (the man, of course, was killed). Although this does mean you have to go in with the expectation of more an "ensemble" type picture, the result is actually somewhat rewarding. Rather than focusing a great deal on a main hero we're not gonna learn much about anyway (he "has his own reasons"), we get to focus on characters who actually go places and develop throughout the film. It's just one thing to keep in mind on the story-front. And even with the lack of a real 100% "main hero" of the tale, everyone is a fascinating character that's a blast to watch onscreen. From the impotent sheriff with the split personality disorder, to the Heike leader's obsession with Henry VI and War of the Roses, to the mixed motivations of the Genji woman (and mother of the half-breed child), and especially Quentin Tarantino's mysterious gunslinger/arms dealer with a love for sukiyaki (who's named Ringo). And every performance has its own touch, flavor, and style. The fact some of the actors know English a little better than the rest of the cast also helps to make it a diverse experience.
Since we got plot and characters out of the way - how are the visuals? Gorgeous. This is easily Miike's best-looking film (and Yokai War was pretty gorgeous too) and has some of the best cinematography I've seen from a Japanese film in a long time. The sets and costumes are outstanding, well deserving of an award. Every single character is dressed in an artful way, with a specific color palette for the "present day" sequences (we spend a lot of time in flashback) that is made up of old-fashioned Keoma-style browns for the enviornment, bright Django reds for the Heike, and very Asian whites in the Genji clan. Then the characters in the middle of it all, seem to always wear black or darker colors. Cool choice, also, of the Gunman wearing brown, as he fades into the background and feels like he's just part of the world, just like the dirt or the fields or the wind or the trees. This beauty is also matched in the angling and composition of shots, along with the astounding locations that show a side of Japan that even many Asian film fans probably have never seen. There's some incredible locales, especially one during the "hero has to recuperate" portion, that are just amazing to look at and you wish you could vacation to immediately. Even the trailer above shows you that it's a beautiful film to behold and every frame is filled with character, texture, great backdrops/locations, and well done action. I'll focus on the action sequences in a moment, but just to note - this is a gorgeous film and anyone looking into art design, costume design, or cinematography in movies should definitely watch this film in its entirety for it. There's also a really well-shot/executed interpretive dance number from the woman in the Genji clan that should feel completely out of place, but hey, if you're gonna have "the chick dancing in the saloon" sequence in your western, you gotta do it right. Miike does it right, giving the film a unique scene that's indicative of the original and creative spirit of the film.
Music-wise, the movie has a nice blend of very classic spaghetti western horns as played by "the old natives in the hills" (basically the movie's version of Native Americans), some rockin' guitars (plus the J-Rock cover of the Django theme that closes the film), melodic flute playing from the mute child, some Japanese wind/drumming instruments, and so forth. It's an eclectic score that fits the pictures and images pretty perfectly to me. You can't have a typical score for a very atypical movie! I wish I could go into more depth but I was just trying to understand the broken English so much that I didn't have the time to really enjoy the score. I guess you can find it at Amazon.com as an import, btw. The soundtrack CD. Ahem.
And okay, enough messing around. You know all the good artsy stuff, the dramatic stuff, the weird stuff, you wanna know the real score. How's the action scenes? Answer: Really Good.
I will say the movie does spend its first hour with violence, but no real "shoot-outs" for you to savor save for an amazing moment of "hole through the torso" with a combination of Crossbow use. This allows you to pretty much get all the character drama and symbolism out of the way so that when the stage coach robbery, Gattling Gun, and whatnot show up, the film starts to speed up its pacing quite a bit. The final 20something minutes, aside from a poignant scene with Ruriko and another of the townspeople, is pretty consistently exciting and gives you an amazing payoff on what is sometimes a very sluggish film in the first act. (more on that later)
Although you'd expect a far more Japanese-based influence, with samurai swords and the like, the film is surprisingly free of any martial arts save for a demonstration of the samurai sword in one sequence. In a lot of ways it's a representation of "what if American culture had influenced Japan far earlier?" and shows the Genji leader looking at the Bushido as "samurai bull-shit" aside from the philosophy of the warrior, who wears so little clothing that he has to be down to his bones a master of combat. This character, Yoshitsune, holds the sword a lot (and looks cool doing so, he's Casshern after all!) but never uses it. What makes this cool is that it allows the combat of the film to be good old-fashioned spaghetti western gunplay, with explosions all over the place from dynamite, hand-held Gattling Gun action reminescent of Django/Companeros, and lots of two-handed almost John Woo-like gunplay from the heroes and villians during the final showdown. The only really "Japanese" aspect is the editing and timing of the action scenes, which is fine as it's done very well and not as stylized as someone like Ryuhei Kitamura who makes your head hemmorhage from the speed and style. Miike knows when to pull back and when to just let the staging, choreography, and blocking do its thing. The stunts are great, with a couple of pretty good falls, and the horsefall stunts during the dynamite scene were the kinds of things that made even a hardened action junkie go "whoa!" It's nothing like an over-the-top John Woo film during the late-1980s, but it's definitely a lot more accomplished, polished, and satisfying than the very average and standard shoot-outs of many old spaghetti westerns.
There's also a brawling sequence that's shot just like a fight scene out of a Kinji Fukasaku film from the `70s, which brought a humongous grin to my face. (not that the rest of you are gonna care, but hey, it was cool!)
Unfortunately, for all this cool stuff, I do need to mention the film isn't perfect. The ending does absolutely make up for the films problems (especially the dramatically strong finale of the final scene), but there is an extremely sluggish and plodding pacing to the first act. There's tons of flashbacks used to set up the backstory and there are some elements that even to the end are a bit ambigious (best I could tell is the child looking at the hanging couple under the bridge is the Gunman remembering his dead parents) and these do slow the story down a bit. Don't expect a fast-paced adrenaline rush. It's more an exploration of ideas that eventually completes itself half-way through and says it's time to have fun blowing stuff up And when it has fun, it's a freaking blast. But don't be fooled, it's a strange and sometimes slow film. Not always, but sometimes. However, as said before, the ending payoff is worth watching it to the end. So don't be thrown off too much when you realize, "wow, this is taking awhile."
On top of that, the English is extremely hard to understand. You're bound to only catch around 20-30% of the dialogue and if you can, get a version of this with subtitles in your respective language. I barely caught the Yojimbo line (my dad did not) and it wasn't until the end I realized the boy was saying "love" when pointing at the rose. So you do gotta be patient and kinda bear with the film. It's a strange, artsy decision movie where you're kind of at the whim of the director. So I do understand if some of you try it and don't like it. But it's worth trying in the first place, just because it has so much that I doubt you'll find nothing to enjoy at all in the film.
I'm not sure what else there is to say except that when it comes down to it, this is a strange hybrid of spaghetti western, symbolic drama, period piece, fantasy film, and exploitation picture. I think likening it to a comic book is the best thing since you sometimes find those odd western comics (like Iron West - a western with steampunk robots) and that's what this is closest to. I mean, c'mon, interpretive dance? J-Rock music? Insane by our standards, but that makes this film all the more interesting and worth checking out.
As for release, hopefully it should be hitting western territories this year. It's done very well in Asia, is slated for a small arthouse release in the US, and probably will hit DVD in the fall. You can import it if you have a Region-Free player or watch films on your computer. But I do say, for those that find this kind of idea interesting, I highly suggest it. It's a blast, something that I think would make a memorable night for having your buddies around to watch or would be worth catching with friends when you have nothing else to see and want something interesting. It's not the best movie I've ever reviewed, but so far it's the weirdest and I don't even think Djangokill is gonna defeat it.
And with that, I say thank you for your time reading this rambling. Don't worry. More normal movie next time.
Last edited by EvilFutsin on Wed May 07, 2008 12:53 pm, edited 1 time in total.
WOW! Must have taken you ages to do this review. Definately looks like it would be a good "Let's order pizza & drink beer" movie for sure. Which I intend to do once it's available at Netfix. It's in my "save queue" to alert me when they have it. Love that last screenshot. Looks like it would make a beautiful SG map. Excellent review as always Futs!
As always, an excellent and very professionnal review Wouahhhh ! I never thought such a movie could exist, even though I loved these kind of movies.
It is like a mix of japanese chambara movies, spaghetti western movies (of course), a bit of Yojimbo "flavor" ... For me, a good recipe to spend excellent moments ... and I was never deceived by Takashi Miike's movies.
Lettin' y'all know that the pictures for all the reviews are back now! Oh and *bump*
Nothing much on release news, except that a supposed limit release will hit August 29th in the US (source here), but I'm sure it's hitting Europe here and there, at least on DVD. Keep an eye out for it if you're up for such weirdness the likes of which have never been executed before on-screen!
Next review (sorry I missed April - got a volunteer internship gig) will probably be a certain well-known film about a certain milkshake-drinker that may get a little controversy on "is it a western?" but I have my defense ready for that one. I also have 6 more spaghetti westerns waiting on me. Sigh...
It should be in limited NY/LA release this weekend and then it'll expand after that a little bit (probably not THAT far, unfortunately) and then hit US DVD. I think the R1 US release is due in...mid-September?
I'll go check the Twitch release list and get back to that.
I just bought this in Steel Book Edition(Nice package). I have to say, I am 50 years old, have a 17 year old daughter that has me watching Narato, and this film has bridged the "Teen Gap" with her. She has watched all her father's "Old Spagetti Westerns" and this film really took her by surprise! It was fun watching this together and I think this will become a "Cult Classic". Be Seeing You!
"At some time, in some place, all of you held positions of a secret nature and had knowledge invaluable to an enemy. Like me, you are here, either to have that knowledge protected or extracted."
Thanks for the suggestion (and for the loooong review), EvilFutsin. I watched Sukiyaki Western Django yesterday night, and I have to say I spent a fun couple of hours (absolutely not the boredom of Tarantino's Django unchained). A true Spaghetti Western, rich on moments of irony and funniness.
BTW, EvilFutsin, you should add a "boilerplate" in your Western checklist