|Sukiyaki Western Django
Starring Hideaki Ito, Yusuke Iseya, and Koichi Sato
It's on the undercard of age-old arguments, not nearly the main event attraction of chicken or the egg, science vs. religion, or boxers or briefs. But the debate of style or substance can hit us right between the eyes if we're not careful.
The thing is, it's usually style over substance in the argument, because if a movie has enough substance, the style doesn't matter as much. But when the story seems to serve the visuals, then you wonder if you're watching or just seeing. Moulin Rouge! is a great example of style triumphing over substance, and the recent Max Payne a veritable case study in having too little substance to support the vision.
Enter Sukiyaki Western Django, which you can expect to be unconventional from the title alone. Director Takashi Miike has brought a lot of influences to his film, from Spaghetti Westerns to Shakespeare, and while there is a little bit of depth portrayed by two or three of the characters, this film is more about referencing other films and classic genres than it is about itself. And that's where the debate of style or substance comes into play.
In 19th century Nevada, two rival Japanese gangs - the Reds and the Whites - are fighting each other and the townsfolk caught in the middle over a rumored mother lode of gold. The gangs are inspired by, both within the story and within the film's framework, the houses of Lancaster and York in England's War of the Roses. Shakespeare makes mention of the war in Henry VI, which itself is mentioned by one the Red leader, (Koichi Sato), who after reading the passage wants to be referred to as 'Henry.'
But that's not the only familiar ground this film treads: A lone stranger rides into town, and both gangs offer him percentages of the take if he helps them win. The Gunman (Hideaki Ito) is very much an ode to Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name in the Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, which fits because this movie is a kind of Red Bull-powered remake of that film, which was only a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. And the title comes from the 1966 Italian western, Django, a film not too dissimilar from all the others.
That's about the biggest knock I can really level at Sukiyaki Western Django. The fights are great and pretty intense, where Miike goes for comic relief he usually finds it, and as a stylistic tribute, there's no question he achieved what he set out to do. The contemporary dress mingling with period dress is a nice touch, and it reminds us that the same greed and violence that were present hundreds of years ago still exists today. The music's great, the production design is original, and Miike orchestrates it all with energy and maybe a little madness.
There is a curious cameo by Quentin Tarantino, which doesn't help us understand the film or his purpose in it any better. That's the sort of thing that keeps the argument of style or substance alive. The only reason to cast Tarantino as an American drifter is to acknowledge his role as a bridge between the Leone films and this one. It's pure hubris, and without it, the film would've been much, much better. Still, I think you can score this round for style, although substance will have its day again.