When Tarantino’s Django Unchained opened last December the first thing I thought of was his appearance in the 2007 film Sukiyaki Western DJANGO. This is a film that I had mixed feelings about when I first watched it so I popped it back in my laptop to revisit the film and see if my opinions had changed any. We’ll talk about those opinions a bit later, but for the minute, let’s talk about the film’s bona fides and the opening scene.
Co-written (the other writer was Masa Nakamura) and directed by the iconic Takashi Miike based on characters created by Sergio Corbucci‘s spaghetti western Django, Sukiyaki Western DJANGO is a mix of styles; a clash of homage’s; and has a sly tendency to laugh at itself. Miike has all his characters speak English with English subtitles for a sort of “camp” clarity. The film has an added bonus of Quentin Tarantino in the role of Piringo.
In the area of “homage’s” and historical references Miike throws in everything but the kitchen sink. His deference to the spaghetti western genre is very apparent with his attention to details of the original Django film: the Gatling gun in the coffin, the death of the sheriff. But his main protagonist (and to a large degree Tarantino’s character) Miike has decided to follow the lore of the Dollar’s trilogy by Sergio Leone; most notably the plot of Fistful of Dollars taken from the original Japanese jidaigeki film Yojimbo. The historical references follow the Genpei War and the War of the Roses. The film itself is set a “couple of hundred years” after the Genpei war between the Genji and the Heike clans.
In the film the clans become gangs (reminiscent of the plot of Fistful of Dollars) and the “lone” gunman who rides into their town pits both sides against the other.
The beginning of the film shows an upward angle shot of the sky and what looks (and sounds) like an eagle. To the left of the bird is a windmill water pump whose vanes seem to be gold-plated. The camera changes angles and we see a dead man lying just outside a building. The camera zooms in for a close-up of the dead man and the bullet hole in his forehead. We then see a snake slithering through a row of chicken’s eggs, the camera then zooms out for a long shot of the body, chickens moving around it. The eagle drops onto the snake and grabbing it with its talons, takes off again flying over the man in the serape sitting on a log. Just as the eagle flies over him the man fall backward off the log drawing his pistol and shooting it as he falls. We see feathers and the snake fall down to the man.
In a swift couple of movements (accompanied by the ubiquitous whoosh sound) the man catches the snake and cuts out the egg it had just eaten. Just as he liberates the blood covered egg, he realizes he is not alone. We are then treated to the first scene of Sukiyaki DJANGO and are introduced to the Japanese actors speaking English with English subtitles and Tarantino speaking English also with English subtitles. He sounds like a poor man’s Elvis impersonator right up until he relays the story of the Genpei war; he then speaks like his Japanese co-stars and it adds to the strangeness of the opening scene.
After a long-winded recounting of the war, Quentin’s character Piringo throws the egg up into the air and dispatches the men surrounding him. He finishes off the leader with a second shot, holsters his gun and catches the egg on its return to earth. He then cracks the egg into a bowl, pulls out some chopsticks and “beats” the egg. A young woman shows up proclaiming her love for Piringo and we see him eating a bit of meat that he has dipped into the raw egg. After chewing and swallowing he leans back and sort of howls at the sky.
Only after this do we get the title screen and the opening credits begin.
I will admit that this film initially caught my interest. The incongruity of the western garbed Japanese gunmen intermixed with characters in traditional Japanese dress was a great mishmash of styles and cultures. The moment I heard the single solitary shot from Piringo’s pistol, that spaghetti western version of a gunshot, I knew that Miike was going to do his best to emulate the Leone style of making movies; from the extreme close-ups and “authentic” soundtrack the film looked to be a winner.
Despite having all his actors speak English, Miike’s plot is a bit hard to follow at times and his inclusion of so many different elements in the film tends to hurt the films cohesiveness. But the film has a brilliant cast, with the obvious exclusion of Tarantino as his acting has never been his strong point: Masanobu Andô (Battle Royale), Kôichi Satô (Gonin), Kaori Mamoi (Geisha), are among the many experienced actors that Takashi cast in the film.
But the film does look fantastic and the gun fights and sword fights all have been done with a panache that can be breath-taking. I enjoyed the film and although I have kept it as part of my Takashi Miike collection, I’ve not watched it too often. Mainly because of the dialogue and the (sometimes) un-necessary subtitles and because of Tarantino’s ham-fisted acting. I love Quentin’s films but only the films he directs. The only performance of Tarantino’s I loved was his Richie Gecko in From Dust till Dawn; in that film director Rodriguez kept Quentin’s dialogue short.
The film is worth a look for at least a couple of reasons: 1) because it is Miike’s first, and as far as I know his only, foray into the western genre; 2) despite having Tarantino in a speaking role, it’s not too bad.
So there you have it, a film worth seeing that is definitely better than The Happiness of the Katakuris but is not on par with Audition. Hey, it’s Takashi Miike! His films always deserve a chance even when that chance doesn’t result in a favourable review. This film is a “renter” most definitely and a “keeper” only for the most die-hard Miike fans.
- Movie Review: Django Unchained  (twscritic.com)
- Django Unchained: Tarantino Frees the Slaves (entertainment.time.com)
- Django Unchained draws deep on Quentin Tarantino’s favourites (metronews.ca)
- Django Unchained – review (newstatesman.com)
- Review: Django Unchained (cihannarin.com)