Sukiyaki Western DJANGO (2007): Takashi Mike & Tarantino Ride…

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In the area of “homage’s” and historical references Miike throws in everything but the kitchen sink.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 The historical references follow the Genpei War and the War of the Roses.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.

Quentin Tarantino as Piringo.

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.


Masanobu Andô almost as scary as his character in Battle Royale.

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.

Takashi Miike.

From Dusk Till Dawn: (1996) Seth and Richie Gecko

Seth and Richie

Directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by Quentin Tarantino (who also played Richie Gecko) From Dusk Till Dawn is a Genre Bender. In other words it starts out as one kind of film and evolves into another.

At the film’s opening we see the Gecko brothers Seth (George Clooney) and Richie (Tarantino) and their two hostages who are in a gas station/liquor/convenience store. After they destroy the place, the film segues into the opening credits. It is apparent that the film is about two criminals who are fleeing the police.

Later in the film the Gecko’s take the Fuller family hostage so they can use their Recreational Vehicle (RV) and them to get into Mexico. Jake Fuller (Harvey Keitel) is a man of the cloth who has turned his back on his faith, Kate (Juliette Lewis) is his troubled daughter and Scott (Ernest Liu) is his adopted son.

After the entire group make good the Gecko’s escape to Mexico, they wait in a bar recommended by Carlos, The Titty Twister. Carlos (Cheech Moran) is Seth’s contact who will take him and Richie to El Rey and he has told Seth that he will meet them at dawn. Once the group are inside the club (which is in fact a strip club run by Salma Hayek where all the employees, along with Salma, are some sort of mutated vampires who feed off the clientele) everything changes.

The film is no longer about the Gecko’s escape from the law, it’s now about the two families escaping the club alive. The film, to me anyway, is beyond brilliant. It is almost the perfect ensemble of talent. Script by Tarantino, direction by Rodriguez, FX by Greg Nicotero, and George Clooney in his first starring film role. Not to mention the rest of the cast, Keitel, Lewis, Tom Savini, Michael Parks, Cheech Marin as three different characters…Well you get the idea.

But what I want to discuss today is not the overall film or the genre shift it so cleverly performs. No, I want to talk about Seth and Richard (Richie) Gecko and their dynamic.

In the opening sequence of the film we get an instant idea of who is in charge in the relationship. Seth is the mouthpiece, the leader and the thinker. Richie is the follower, he is also odd.

When Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) comes in to get some Jack Daniels and to use the toilet, he stands and talks to the store clerk Pete Bottoms (John Hawkes) before he saunters off to the restroom. Seth comes up and accuses Pete of not listening to his instructions for Pete to “get rid of the cop” and Pete explains that he is doing that.

Seth and Richie reminding Pete the clerk to lose the cop.

During this exchange Richie whispers to Seth that Pete is making signs at the cop.

*SPOILER ALERT — FROM HERE ON THERE WILL BE THE OCCASIONAL SPOILER — SPOILER ALERT*

As McGraw exits the toilet and goes to pay for his booze, Richie comes up behind him and shoots him point blank in the back of the head. For the first time since we’ve entered the store, Richie speaks out loud. He tells an angry Seth that Pete had been mouthing the words “Help me” to the Ranger.

Pete becomes apoplectic and denies this. He accuses Richie of lying. In the resulting firefight between Pete and the Gecko’s Richie is shot through the hand. Afterwards Richie has a hole through his hand and he seems detached from the whole incident.

We learn through television news flashes that Seth is a professional thief and that Richie is a psychopathic rapist/murderer. Seth himself does not seem aware of the fact that Richie is psychotic until he leaves him in charge of their hostage, bank teller Gloria Hill.

Before Seth goes to get food and to scope out their surroundings, he tells Gloria that as long as she doesn’t cause any problems and does as he says she will come out of her ordeal alive. We the audience never doubt his sincerity. He then leaves and Richie goes into the bedroom where Gloria is and asks if she wants to watch television.

Seth returns with some Big Kahuna burgers (a trademark of Tarantino’s) and information on what is going on in the area. He gives Richie his burger and takes two more burgers out of the fast food bag. He looks at the third burger in surprise and then remembers the hostage in the bedroom with the door closed.

He says to Richie, “Where’s the woman?” Richie gestures toward the bedroom, “She’s in there.” Seth goes to the bedroom door and opens it. His reaction to what he is seeing is beyond a doubt one of the most masterful moments of the film.

As Seth takes in the carnage in front of him on the bed, he starts a nervous tic of jerking his head ever so slightly, like he is starting to crack a stiff neck muscle. He also starts to slowly blink. Interwoven into Seth’s reaction are almost nanosecond flashes of the scene he is viewing. Blood, flesh, twisted gore filled bedsheets all flit past our eyes as we share the horror with Seth.

It is a turning point in the film for the two brothers. Seth suddenly realises that his beloved brother is a monster. The professional in him reacts angrily. He confronts Richie and loudly berates him for what has happened. Richies says that she tried to escape and she became threatening. Seth reacts angrily and says, “That lady would not have said shit if she had a mouthful.”

He starts banging Richies head against the motel room wall and Richie, disheveled with his glasses falling off his face, starts crying. Seth pulls himself together and then starts to calm Richie telling him that when they reach El Rey everything will be better and that he’ll get help for Richie.

Just a quick note on El Rey. In the “making of” features on the DVD both Tarantino and Rodriguez talk about El Rey. Wikipedia says this about El Rey:

El Rey is a fictional Mexican village that acts as sanctuary for expatriate American fugitives, first used by author Jim Thompson in his 1959 pulp novel, The Getaway, and again referenced in the 1996 Robert Rodriguez film, From Dusk till Dawn. In both stories, El Rey possesses a near-mythic reputation and represents the protagonists’ ultimate objective. But in truth, it’s a hellish community where inflation runs free and all new arrivals are enslaved and ultimately executed when they can no longer work.

On the DVD commentary, writer Quentin Tarantino reveals that the city is in fact hell.

The next time we see Richie he has asked Jacob Fuller if he can borrow their ice bucket. When Jacob agrees, Seth comes in and tells Jacob and his son that they are going to be their hostages. Daughter Kate returns from the pool in a bikini and Seth immediately takes full control. He now knows that Richie cannot be trusted around women.

Richie getting in the mood.

This fact is rammed home when Richie has a conversation with Kate and she asks him if he will, “Lick my pussy.” When Richie starts to reply Seth snaps him out of his mental reverie and we realise that the conversation never really took place, except in Richie’s mind. It is another scene that shows just how scarily “out-there” Richie is.

Later when the Fuller family and the Gecko’s are in the RV, Richie. Kate and Scott are in the back. Richie leans forward and tells Kate that, “What you asked about in the hotel? I’d be glad to help you with that.” Kate clearly has no idea of what Richie is talking about and her face shows her confusion and her realisation that Richie isn’t the full ticket.

If we needed any more indications of just how uncontrollable Richie is, we find out when the group and their RV is stopped at the Mexican border. Just before a border guard comes into the RV to search it Seth takes Richie and Kate and they cram into the RV’s tiny bathroom. Richie takes offence at something Seth says and starts to throw a tantrum. Just as he starts raising his voice, Seth clocks him with his elbow and knocks him out cold. Kate looks at Seth and says thank you.

These scenes and the interaction of the two characters spells out for the viewer exactly who the Gecko’s are and what their relationship is. Seth, despite the fact that he cannot understand Richie and his revulsion at what Richie does, loves his brother and tries to “save” him.

The entire film is just brilliant and perfect marriage of cast and crew and script. A lot of film references are in the movie, mostly of horror films and icons. But in closing the best film reference is the duo of the Gecko’s. That they were inspired by the Gorch brothers (Ben Johnson and Warren Oates) in The Wild Bunch is beyond doubt.

If you don’t think so, just watch the start of the movie again and listen to Seth’s dialogue when he is warning Pete the store clerk.

Django Unchained – A Western Tarantino Style

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I got quite  excited when I heard that Quentin Tarantino had written and directed a new film. I got even more excited when I found out it was going to be a western (my favourite type of film). Add to the mix that it is a ‘homage’ to the spaghetti western and its multiple Django films and I was in heaven. But the real icing on the cake is that Tarantino will be working with Samuel L. Jackson again.

Samuel L. Jackson at the San Diego ComicCon 2008

He’s also got a few other actors who have worn  spurs before. Leonardo DiCaprio (Lonesome Dove), Franco Nero (just insert the Django title of your choice) and of course the stalwart of  western bad men Bruce Dern. It is interesting to note that he is using Don Johnson, perhaps Don is hoping that Tarantino will revitalize his career. John Travolta‘s sagging career was given a booster shot when he did Pulp Fiction, so I guess Don has nothing to lose.

He also has his “childhood hero” Tom Savini and Christopher Waltz, who is becoming a Tarantino regular. Of course the real surprise is his casting of Jamie Foxx as Django. Not because he is black, but because his build is nothing like Franco Nero’s. Nero pretty much built a career out of playing Django and I would have thought that Quentin would have tried to match him at least in build.

I do think that Jamie Foxx will bring a lot to the role. He is a damn fine actor and I believe this will be his first western. Looking at the story line on IMDb, it looks like the story will feature the ubiquitous bounty hunter that most spaghetti westerns are built around.

Foxx promoting Stealth in July 2005

I’m also keen to see if Tarantino will use a dubbing system that will emulate the sound of a Spaghetti Western a la Mickey Knox. And of course I am expecting all the guns to sound like howitzer cannon with screaming ricochets. Tarantino is a film fan first and foremost. He loves a range of genre films and has always, where ever possible, paid several homages to his love of the Spaghetti Western.

So even though we are not scheduled to see this film until January 2013, I’ll saddle up and ride down to the local cinema to give it a look see. Yee Haw!

Battle Royale (2000): The Original Hunger Games

Set in the future, Battle Royale is a law that has been passed by the Japanese government. The law allows for a lottery process which picks a random class of ninth grade school children. This class is then flown to an island, given numbers and are issued with two bags. One bag contains water, food, a compass and a map. The other bag can contain a weapon or a “booby prize” like toilet paper or a pot lid for example. After receiving their bags the children are released onto the island and told that they must kill each other off. There can be only one survivor or winner. The results are followed by the media and the winner is mobbed by reporters at the end of the game.

In order to insure that there is only one winner, each student is fitted with an explosive collar which their  Battle Royale instructor demonstrates with  curiosity and amusement. The collar can be used the kill students who stray from established “kill zones” and anyone who attempts to cheat the game out of it’s required solo survivor.

Based on the novel by  Koushun Takami  (published in 1999) this film was roundly criticized in Japan when it was released. Condemned as being too violent and focussing on school children killing each other.  The film’s tag line was “Could You Kill Your Best Friend?”

Directed by  Kinji Fukasaku when he was sixty-nine years old, Battle Royale is nothing short of a masterpiece. Of all the forty-two “school children”  most had never acted before, one – Tarô Yamamoto wasn’t even a young teen, he was twenty-nine years old and an established actor. Kinji had a brilliant rapport with the mostly  inexperienced cast, getting the most out of them.

There were some members of the young cast that were professional actors,  Tatsuya Fujiwara (Shuya Nanahara) – who is perhaps best known for the Death Note films,   Aki Maeda (Noriko Nakagawa),  Chiaki Kuriyama (Takako Chigusa) better known for playing  Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill Vol 1, and Tarô Yamamoto, mentioned above as Shôgo Kawada .  Both Fujiwara and Maeda won awards as best newcomers after working in the films.

The games are overseen by the military and the ninth grader’s old teacher, Kitano-sensei. Kitano is played by the iconic multi-talented Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano aka Beat Takeshi. Kitano is huge in Japan and has quite a following worldwide. He started as a comedian but moved into acting with the film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983). Kitano’s being  cast as the children’s old teacher was pure genius as his dead-pan delivery and still face, punctuated with nervous tic’s, help make him both a kind and stern character, one that we like immediately.

This film was destined to become a classic, it has a devoted world wide fan-base . Battle Royale and it’s sequel Battle Royale II have a film website. These ‘film sites’ and other websites have provided Battle Royale themed merchandise for the many fans.

Kinji masterfully got the actors  to project the mixed emotions, reactions, and motivations of the students forced to kill each other. Disbelief, denial, excitement, anger, reluctant participation and subterfuge just to name a few. Three students are very active participants in the battle. Mitsuko played by Kou Shibasaki kills her opponents with a mixture of deceit and deadly savagery. Kou impressed Quentin Tarantino so much with her performance, that she was who he originally wanted to play GoGo in Kill Bill Vol 1. Shôgo Kawada is one of two ‘ringers’  brought in from outside the ninth grade class. Kawada is a winner from a previous Royale and is methodical and cool.  Kazuo Kiriyama is the other outsider. He is nothing short of terrifying. Kiriyama, who volunteered to play the game, is a homicidal machine, cold and deadly he very much enjoys the killing.

The film follows all the students to a degree, but the main protagonists are Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa. These two band together and vow to survive the game that they have been forced into. Shuya is a very reluctant participant in the killings and stays with Noriko  to help her. These two then bump into Kawada when Noriko falls ill and Shuya tries to help her. After Kawada helps Noriko the three form an alliance and work to find a solution that will see them all ‘win’ the game.

Battle Royale is a masterpiece. The screenplay was written by the directors son Kenti Fukasaku and he deserves full credit for adapting the book. He managed to lose a lot of the political statements that were in the book, which could  have slowed the film down.  The film contains many scenes and images that have become almost iconic in cinema. Chigusa’s track suit with it’s yellow and orange colour scheme was reproduced in the film Kill Bill as the outfit that ‘the bride’ wears in both volumes. Also keep an eye out for the lighthouse scene, it contains one of best cinematic shoot outs in the history of cinema.

If there could be only one  world cinema film that I could suggest that is a must see, Battle Royale is that film, hands down.