Sukiyaki Western Django: For teenagers from 13 to 30
Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 29, 2007
LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY, some young Brits had such a yen for American musicians and their music they decided to imitate it for their countrymen’s entertainment. To everyone’s surprise–especially their own—the sensation they created caused other young people throughout the world to imitate them, even the Americans. How’s that for irony? Young Americans were playing music to mimic the young Englishmen they thought were cool, while the English were mimicking the Americans, whom they thought were the cool ones.
Rather than being isolated phenomena, artistic reverberations such as these are part of the creative process everywhere. At the same time as the British Invasion, modern African popular music was being fashioned by Africans imitating Cuban and other Caribbean music, which itself was a hybrid of traditional African music and that of several European countries.
Those precedents came to mind when I read this article about a new film from Japanese director Miike Takashi called Sukiyaki Western: Django. It’s loosely based on the movie Django, a so-called Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci. Miike’s twist is to use that film as a vehicle for retelling the story of the late 12th-century Taira-Minamoto war as recounted in the Tale of the Heike.
At first glance, the idea seems to have the potential to stimulate some serious miscegenation and give birth to an entertaining flick. The similarities in the way Japanese mythologized their feudal past in cinema and television and the way Americans mythologized their 19th century frontier past have been discussed for years. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was influenced by American director Frank Capra, and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai was turned into The Magnificent Seven, making the Western an American remake of a samurai film by a Japanese director inspired by an American.
The Magnificent Seven also left some other cultural progeny in its wake. The main theme from Elmer Bernstein’s score was cut and pasted straight into television commercials for Marlboro cigarettes. In those days, the company was still reworking its former brand image as a ladies’ cigarette by using a rugged Western motif for TV ads and changing the spelling from Marlborough into something more butch. Listen carefully and you’ll also recognize Bernstein’s theme as part of the horn riff in Arthur Conley’s top 40 hit, Sweet Soul Music–the title of which also became the title of a book about 60s Southern soul by Peter Guralnick.
The Spaghetti Western rode into town a few years later when the Italians, most of whom wouldn’t know a stirrup from scaloppini, got hooked on the image and started making Westerns of their own, often with the theme music of Ennio Morricone. Those films turned out to be the career break for a down-on-his luck actor named Clint Eastwood, who had gone abroad to look for work. They were so successful Hollywood made its own Spaghetti Western starring Eastwood–The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Americans imitating Italians imitating Americans.
Meanwhile, the Japanese were quick to spot the similarities between the Spaghetti Westerns and their own samurai movies, and incorporated aspects of those films into their own movie and television work, particularly the theme and incidental music. Some directors even incorporated Western motifs into movies about other subjects, such as Itami Juzo’s Tampopo, which was very loosely a story about a woman running a ramen shop.
Adding even more flavor to this international stew was Eastwood’s apparent incorporation of some licks from Japanese movies into his own films. I watched the fourth and last Dirty Harry movie in Japan with some Japanese friends, and when a backlit Eastwood appeared for the climactic scene at a closed amusement park at night, they all yelled “Yojimbo!” in unison. (And that was a Kurosawa movie inspired by Dashiell Hammett and remade by Sergio Leone.)
That’s the tradition Sukiyaki Western: Django, slated to premiere in September, could have updated. Peeling back the top layer, however, suggests a work that’s all surface with no underlying resonance–a project that seems be sinking under the weight of post-adolescent irony rather than soaring on the wings of post-modern meta-hipness.
One could also compare it to a Japanese pizza: By replacing the pepperoni with potato salad, they missed the point.
The American sense of fashionable irony is one aspect of the country’s culture that doesn’t translate very well in Japan. Many Japanese just don’t get it when Americans come across that way, and not that many like it when they do get it. (More power to the Japanese.) So it’s not surprising that Miike’s attempt to cop a feeling seems both off-key and heavy-handed:
Miike’s film, to put it mildly, does not worry about anachronisms. Set “a few hundred years” after the Gempei War’s decisive 1185 Battle of Dannoura, the movie features men with punkish hairdos who blow to bits bottles of liquor at a saloon. The film…is set during a gold rush in the dusty, barren village of “Utah” — which, in Japanese, means “field of hot water.”
Yes, a “field of hot water” is such a common expression in Japanese, not to mention English. How clever.
A gunman, played by Japanese star Hideaki Ito, arrives under the torii gate to delve into gangland score-settling.
And when Ito rides into town, a man has already been lynched and is hanging from the torii with a rope around his neck, dripping several quarts of WD40 irony.
Miike…shot the film entirely in English, forcing some of the Japanese cast members to head for a crash course. “I couldn’t speak English, so it was difficult,” Ito said of being presented with the script. Kaori Momoi, one of the film’s female leads who also appeared in Hollywood’s Memoirs of a Geisha, said she finds it more difficult to ad lib in English.
“If the way Japanese actors speak English comes to be accepted, then it will add to Japanese actors’ range,” she said.
She means it will add to their range of available employment without them having to do any work to earn it.
Miike said he told the actors to speak English as best they could. “For this movie, we used Japanese English, not the English perfectly spoken in the United States or in the UK,” he said. “If this is accepted, then Japanese English will come to be known as something very cool.”
Sure, podnuh, in the same way the Japanese English on t-shirts is already known worldwide as something very cool.
All your unbranded cattle are belong to us.
The cherry on top of this tongue-in-pierced-cheek sundae is a cameo appearance by director Quentin Tarentino playing a character called–what else?–Ringo.
Tarentino’s appearance in Sukiyaki Western: Django is a perfect fit because his own films have become so increasingly ironic and packed with obscure references that the last one (the two Kill Bills) is unwatchable for anyone other than really cool people into movies so bad they’re really cool.
I have no idea what Tarentino does in the movie, but if Miike wanted to carve some notches on his six-shooter, he’d have cast him as a masterless samurai in Utah, complete with topknot and speaking phonetic Japanese written out in the Roman alphabet.
“To be such a cool character, doing fast draws, wearing a cool costume, it just doesn’t get any better than that,” the Pulp Fiction director said. “There’s a childlike innocence to it. We could all be eight years old and doing this in our backyards and just having a whale of a time.”
I think Tarentino is selling the project short when he says it was like being eight years old. From what we know so far, I’d raise the age a bit–it seems to be much more down the alley of a high school renegade intellectual who spends too much time alone in his room.
For example, take a look at the trailer at YouTube. Give Miike credit for his visual sense, but the swordplay on the saloon staircase, the guy with the pearl in his pierced lip, the body hanging in a noose from the torii, and the machine gun suggest this is little more than a sardonic snickerfest for international otaku who grew up on video games and manga.
That would explain the English dialogue. The enjoyment of a video game doesn’t depend on good acting from the animated characters. Humans aren’t even necessary–a machine-generated voice will do.
The manga connection is a real one, by the way. The first of 10 installments of the serialized version of the movie came out earlier this month in Shogakukan’s Big Comic Superior.
But one has to wonder if Miike’s lariat fell short of roping a few strays. If he’s going to go this far, why not go all the way? We know from his stated intention of making Japanese English cool that fluent dialogue is not a priority. If the objective is to create a northeast Asian Spaghetti Western, why not have the actors deliver their lines in Italian and dub it into English, just like the originals? It’s going to have to be subtitled or dubbed in Japan anyway. (My money’s on the former. It’s more cool and ironic that way, and besides, the trailers are subtitled.)
If he really wanted to play hipper-than-thou, he’d have released it domestically in Japanese English as is, suggesting to his audience that they’d still understand it, and if they couldn’t follow the dialogue, it wouldn’t make any difference. Then he could demonstrate that he does reside in a dimension of irony far beyond the rest of us.
And surely he could have come up with a better title. Telling people up front that it’s a Sukiyaki Western is like having to explain to someone that you were joking. If the joke were funny, no explanation would be needed.
That’s not to say that whatever Sukiyaki Western: Django turns out to be will be without merit. Some will enjoy it as entertainment, and entertainment is usually harmless. For millennia, people everywhere have been wearing silly costumes and outrageous makeup while playing pretend on stage, so it’s not going to herald the end of the world as we know it. It’ll just be the end of the Sukiyaki Western.
But that doesn’t mean we have to pretend it is what it isn’t: entertainment for adults. This simply isn’t grown up enough to be placed in the same company as Kurosawa, not to mention The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone, or even The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly at its best.
And if Miike were to try to convince us otherwise, then the irony would be on him–even if he recouped the investment because enough geeks rented the DVD some Friday night when they didn’t have anything else to do.
This entry was posted on Friday, June 29, 2007 at 2:17 am and is filed under Arts, Films, Popular culture, Social trends. Tagged: Japan. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.