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In the area of “homage’s” and historical references Miike throws in everything but the kitchen sink.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 The historical references follow the Genpei War and the War of the Roses.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

Suicide Club/Suicide Circle (2001): Subtle Messages?

Suicide club (or Suicide Circle as it was known in Japan) was directed and written by Shion Sono and released in 2001. It stars Ryo Ishibashi (Audition, Brother, The Grudge) as a detective trying to find out the common thread between a wave of suicides that is sweeping across Japan. With leads provided by a female hacker called “the Bat” the police try to track down who is responsible for all the deaths.

The film opened with a large amount of notoriety and controversy due to its subject and the amount of gore depicted on-screen. It quickly became a cult favourite and spawned a sequel called Noriko’s Dinner Table which shows events prior to and after the first film. The film takes place over a six-day period starting on May 27th.

The film starts in the Shinjuku train station at platform 8. Being in the Japan the platforms are packed with people. The camera focuses on a large group of school girls all talking animatedly and entering the platform via the stairs. The girls are wearing a variety of school uniforms that indicates they are not all from the same school.

As the Express train’s approach is announced on the loud speakers on the platform, the girls stop talking and laughing and all line up on the edge of the platform. Watching the Express train as it pulls up to the station the girls link hands and chant, “A-one, and a- two, and a three!” On three they all jump en masse in front of the speeding train.

A Lawrence Welk count down… A one and a two…

In true Takashi Miike style there are gallons of blood and body parts a plenty. The train and the waiting passengers are covered in blood and it runs across the platform in a small wave. When I first saw that scene I felt that Sono was paying a sort of homage to Takashi Miike who is well-known for his over-abundant use of blood and gore in his films.

This opening scene still shocks, even though I’ve seen the film at least three times now. It is one helluva opening to a film that both mesmerises you and continually shocks you as the movie plays out.

The next suicide takes place in a quiet hospital where two young nurses are working late. After they both kill themselves, the security guard finds a white satchel with a “roll” of human skin that has been stitched together. Oddly enough the exact same thing was found at the train station. The police have found their first thread.

Running through the entire film is the popularity of songs and music videos by a group of pre-teen (12 and a half years-old according to the detectives daughter) girls who promiscuously dance and sing about love and (it seems) death. When Detective Kuroda (Ishibashi) comes home, he calls a family meeting in the dining room. As his pre-teen son and daughter come into the room, his daughter turns on the television and the pre-teen music group instantly take the point of focus with the two kids.

Ryo Ishibashi as Detective Kuroda

The group is called Dessert (although throughout the film the name changes repeatedly to Dessart and Desert, part of the problem when dealing with an Independent film company) and the group’s biggest hit at the start of the film is called Mail me. A song about love via the internet with the lyric, “If you don’t mail me, I’ll just die.”

As the film progresses, the group’s hit song changes to Jigsaw Puzzle where the girls sing that “their piece doesn’t fit anyone.” Erotic suggestion aside, the song points out that if they cannot find someone to “fit” their piece, they’ll have to go away forever.

Of course the viewer is immediately suspicious (at least this viewer was) of this little Lolita group (in the westernized sense versus the eastern sense where Lolita’s dress in pinafores and ruffles as a sort of role play) and we begin to wonder if their songs and videos are transmitting subliminal messages telling kids to kill themselves.

Pop group Dessert or Desert or Dessart…adolescent death?

The body count begins to escalate. There are a few more “group” suicides but there are also single suicides. Like the mother who chops her fingers off while cutting what looks like a bread roll. Or the chap who throws himself off a building only to hit his girlfriend accidently, injuring her before he expires on the pavement. Of course this incident becomes a plot point that will crop up later.

While the computer hacker, the Bat, is trying to find out more information about who is behind the suicides, she and her sister are taken forcefully by a group of young men who make her to tell the police that she has been kidnapped by the “Suicide Club.” The Bat was the person who discovered a website that appeared to predict how many suicides were going to occur. White dots were girls and red dots were boys. When the 54 girls threw themselves under the train at the beginning of the film, there were 54 white dots. This was the information that she passed on at the beginning of the film.

The Bat, whose real name is Kiyoko (Yôko Kamon) and her sister are taken to what appears to be a small bowling alley that is full of live things tied up in sheets. The sheets are all moving and the smaller ones are making noises like animals in distress. Kiyoko and sis meet Genesis (J-pop performer Rolly) who looks like a cross between a Glam-rocker and a visual Kei performer. He informs the girls that this is his house of pleasure and kills a couple of the smaller covered objects by stamping on them.

He then serenades the girls with a song about “death shining” and has one of his minions rape and kill a girl in another sheet. Genesis wants to be famous and wants to take the credit for motivating all the suicides in Japan. After allowing Kiyoko to start emailing the police about where she actually is, Genesis knocks her away from the keyboard so he can tell the police himself where he is.

Rolly as Genesis…Gackt as Gary Glitter?

The police arrest Genesis, but find that he is not the perpetrator behind the suicides. Detective Kuroda loses the plot and then everything else. The film ends quite ambiguously and does not answer any real questions about what has been going on.

Watching the film for the third time tonight, I could not decide if Sono was inferring that the internet was dangerous to our children or if idolizing pre-teen girl bands was bad for you.

Considering the Japanese’s predilection of fancying the pants (literally) off of school girls it doesn’t seem too far-fetched an idea. Take into account that the internet was just starting to come into its own in 2001, it also makes sense that the people in charge would distrust its wide open access; especially now that the US government alone is pushing for world-wide internet control equal to that of suppressed countries like China and Iraq.

My final analysis, if it can be called that, is that Sono wanted to show how dehumanized people have become. Whether it is through increased use of the internet or the worship of “sexualized” urchins who writhe suggestively and wink knowingly while singing about love and ending it all, Sono appears to be saying that we need to not only wake up and smell the coffee, but, we need to get in touch with ourselves as well.

Not to mention the sub-message about craving fame so much that you perform inhuman acts to attain it. Is this yet another form of de-humanization? Is Sono also warning us of the deadly lure of fame? It could well be, Suicide Club seems full of messages both subtle and not so subtle and this is above the actual message the the film seems to be relating to its characters, or the “plot message.”

Where the plot’s message appears to be that death will get you back in touch with everything and that  it is only through this finality that you are able to really live. With my interest piqued even more after a third viewing, I have put the sequel, Noriko’s Dinner Table on my wish list; just to see if it adds anything to the mix that might clarify the film’s overall message, or messages.

A definite 5 star film that should not be missed and a perfect example of just how good independent J-horror can be, check it out. Just for the record, I watched the “uncut” version which has quite a bit of added gore.

Both prequel and sequel…

Crows Zero (2007): A Yakuza Is Born

Cover of "Crows Zero"

Adapted from Hiroshi Takahashi‘s manga Crow’s, the screenplay was written by Shôgo Mutô and directed by the iconic Takashi Miike. I have read that this is a ‘loose’ adaptation of the manga, while that may be true, the film itself is visually impressive and the plot fairly easy to follow.

The film, except for the fact it’s adapted from the manga, could be called The Birth of a Yakuza. Crows Zero is set in the fictional  Suzuran All-Boys High School. It is said to be the “hardest” school in Japan.  It is certainly the most dilapidated. When the cameras pulled back to show a panoramic view of the school, I felt like I had put in the wrong film. The school looked like it belonged on the set of a horror film.

It seems that Suzuran is a school where the students are engaged in daily battles over ‘turf’ and who rules the entire school’s ‘turf.’ Although different factions hold different levels of power, no one gang has ever ruled the whole school.

Enter Genji Takaya (Shun Oguri) a tall bean-pole of a lad whose dad is a local Yakuza boss and alumni of Suzuran High School.  He has told Genji that if he can rule the entire school, he can take over his Yakuza gang.

The main competition is Tamao Serizawa (Takayuki Yamada) who so far has the toughest gang, but they do not rule the school. There are several factions that control different year groups and different areas. There is even one faction that is made up of just one member, but he is the size of a barge and has never been defeated in a fight.

On the first day of school a local Yakuza lieutenant, Ken Katagiri ( Kyôsuke Yabe) comes on the school grounds with several men to dispense punishment to Serizawa for beating up one of his men. Genji is mistaken for Serizawa and Katagiri is told by his men that they will take care of this kid while he goes to get sodas and ice cream.

Genji proceeds to mop the floor with the Yakuza tough guys. Meanwhile the real Serizawa has been chased back to the school by the police. This has the effect of ending the Yakuza attack. Later, Katagiri catches up with Genji and realises that they were after the wrong teenager. Katagiri likes Genji and tells him that he can help Genji to rule the school.

In this fictional world, there is no time or need for school work. Instead it appears the only requirement for graduation is to show up to  school. In this setting the teen criminals have all the time they need to recruit different gangs to support them in their fight to “rule the school.”

The film is enjoyable, if not typical Takashi Miike fare. It felt like the genre hopping director wanted to try his hand at entertaining the teen demographic for a change. Everything about the film felt tailored for the younger film goer up to and including the minimal amounts of blood shed in the fight scenes (well, minimal for Takashi Miike at any rate).

The fight scenes are choreographed well and look fairly realistic, if you can overlook the fact that if the kids had really fought that hard the fights would not have lasted nearly so long. The shooting schedule for the final big battle at the end of the film must have been Miike training for that big battle in 13 Assassins . It must have taken weeks to film, but it was worth the effort because it does look great.

My only complaint was there seemed to be too much time spent watching ‘J-rock’ bands perform and letting Genji’s love interest Ruka Aizawa (Meisa Kuroki) sing a couple of R&B songs. The time spent on the music in the film was a dead give away that the film was aimed at a younger market and it slowed the film down.

It is a good film if you enjoy watching young Yakuza “wanna-be’s” beating each other bloody. It does have Miike’s stamp all over it at any rate and that alone makes it a film worth watching.

Ichi The Killer (2001): The Way You Make Me Feel

Cover of "Ichi the Killer [Blu-ray]"
Cover of Ichi the Killer [Blu-ray]
Based on Hideo Yamamoto‘s manga and directed by the iconic Takashi MiikeIchi the Killer has a cult statusthat very few other ‘cult’ films enjoy.

As popular with audiences now as it was in 2001, Ichi has lost none of it’s power to mesmerise, horrify and shake-up the viewer.

Starring Tadanobu Asano (Thor, Zatoichi, Battleship, and in 2013 Thor 2), Asano is the closest thing Japan has to a superstar. His work on Ichi as the sadomasochist Kakiharo enabled him to “steal the show” and  made him a cult favourite with fans.

Nao Ohmori (not as well known to western audiences, but a jobbing actor who has been working since 1997) played Ichi. Ichi is mentally unbalanced and finds violence sexually arousing. He has been brainwashed by Jijii – Shin’ya Tsukamoto (TetsuoTetsuo II: Body HammerBullet Balletinto believing that he witnessed a rape when he was younger and not only did he not help the girl, but he was aroused by it. Jijii convinces Ichi that he must kill the boys who perpetrated the rape and he points them out for Ichi.

The first ‘perpetrator’ is Anjo a Yakuza boss whose enforcer is Kakiharo. Ichi using the razor sharp blades in his boots, cuts Anjo into pieces and Jijii disposes of the body parts. Kakiharo wants to know where his boss is and suspects a rival Yakuza gang of killing or kidnapping him.

Jijii makes sure that Kakiharo suspects the rival gang in the hope that they will kill each other off, with Ichi’s help of course, and then he will run that area of town.

Ichi The Killer is typical Takashi Miike. Gallons of blood. Violent acts that the camera shows unflinchingly. And of course black humour crops up in every other scene.

Some of the violence is almost unwatchable. In one scene, Kakiharo is questioning another gang’s boss. They pierce the skin all along the back of his body and hang him face down from the ceiling. When Kakiharo does not get the information he wants, he pours boiling oil on the bosses back. The combination of the smoke, sizzling sounds and the victims screams make this one of the hardest scenes in the film to watch.

Yet Miike’s humour pervades the film. Whether it is Ichi gleefully telling a girl that he has saved from being beaten to death, by her boyfriend by killing him,  that now he can beat her. She is, somewhat understandably, not thrilled by the proposition.

Or when one of Kakihuro’s minion decides that he doesn’t want to look for the missing boss Anjo any longer, Kakihuro slams a board with a nail in the end onto the minion’s foot. This action changes his mind and he decides he does still want to help Kakihuro and they all walk down the street, with the minion dragging the board that is still impaled in his foot.

And of course the most amusing of all is the reason that Kakihuro wants to find his boss. It turns out that no one else can give him the pain he desires like his boss.

This is classic Takashi Miike and one you definitely need to see, if you haven’t already.

Audition (1999): Pins and Needles

Audition (film)

Made in 1999 and directed by Takashi Miike, Audition  (Ôdishon)  was Miike’s ‘break-out’ film. Already quite prolific with his output, Miike had yet to garner world-wide recognition. Audition changed all that and Miike (pronounced Meekay) became synonymous with all that is weird and wonderful in Japan.

Miike cast Ryo Ishibashi as the lead character Shigeharu Aoyama. Ryo is something of a legend in Japan. He is, in essence, Japan’s version of Mick Jagger. He was a rock star first and foremost and as he got older he branched out into acting. More successfully than Jagger, whose random foray’s into the acting world have been, mercifully, brief.

Ishibashi Ryo
Ishibashi Ryo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The film opens with the death of Shigeharu’s wife. He and his son, Shigehiko both go through a period of mourning. They soon set up a routine and life marches forward.Widower Shigeharu starts getting lonely and wonders how he can find someone to be a companion.

He is very hesitant to start searching despite his now 17 year old son urging him to find someone. He explains his situation to his friend and colleague Yasuhisa Yoshikawa who is a film producer. Yasushisa decides to help his friend by setting up a ‘fake’ film audition. This, Yasushisa  explains, is the easiest way to meet and date prospective girls.

Although Shigeharu is reluctant at first, he soon gets into the swing of it and finally finds one girl who catches his eye. She is Asami Yamazaki (played brilliantly by Eihi Shiina in what was only her second film) Although Shigeharu is quite taken with Asami and is keen to build a relationship with her, Yasuhisa and Shigeharu’s personal secretary don’t like the girl. Both people urge him to slow down in his pursuit and Yasuhisa has even had the girls past investigated.

Shigeharu disregards their well meaning advice and continues pursuing Asami. But the words of caution do worry him as is evidenced by the dream he has where he introduces Asami to his dead wife. He makes up his mind to make love to Asami on a romantic weekend away and to confess his feelings for her.  Once they arrive at the hotel, Asami reveals that she was abused as a child. She also states that if Shigeharu does really love her, he can love no-one else. After sleeping together, he falls asleep. The hotel phone wakes him up, the front desk is calling to see if he will remain in the room as Asami has left.

What follows next is a knuckle biting, nerve wrecking, and cringe worthy journey. Shigeharu attempts to find Asami and when they are re-united it is not a happy event.

Audiences have for years hotly debated whether what happens after Asami and Shigeharu re-unite is a dream or not. I have my own opinion, although it took a lot of “to-and-fro-ing” to get there. The entire film is at turns sad, hopeful, uneasy, scary, uncomfortable, weird and perverse. In other words a typical Takashi Miike film.

Photo of Japanese director, Takashi Miike, at ...
Photo of Japanese director, Takashi Miike, at New York Comic Con 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If this film is not on the top 100 films to watch before you die, it should be…and it should be at least number 2.