Thank God for English subtitles. Yes, the latest from Japanese cult icon Takashi Miike, his spin on the spaghetti western, is technically already in English but thanks to the vast majority of his performers speaking no English at all and having to deliver their lines phonetically trying to watch this film without subtitles would have been an exercise in pain. With them, however, the film is a loopy explosion of energy, the most overtly crowd pleasing effort from the prolific cinematic freak show since Zebraman. Bright, brash, violent, and intentionally camp Sukiyaki Western Django is that rarest of things: an intentional cult film that succeeds on all fronts.
Miike begins by tearing a page out of another brilliant Asian western - Wisit Sasanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger - giving us a prologue placed on a hyper-stylized sound stage. The painted backdrops are obvious, and intentionally so, designed to play up the extremities of what is to follow. It's as though Miike's letting us know that he's in on the joke. Yes, it's all very fake and very silly, he's saying, but by god we're going to have a good time with it. In the middle of this painted setting, with the cardboard cut out sun and a completely two dimensional mountain in the background, is a cowboy in full western garb cooking a pot of sukiyaki over an open fire. The cowboy is none other than Quentin Tarantino, an outspoken fan of Miike's work here returning the favor Miike paid him by appearing in Eli Roth's Hostel, and his part is far from the self indulgent wank many feared when he appeared on set. Instead it falls to Tarantino to establish the basic story, a spin on England's War of the Roses, and the tone of the piece through a ridiculous piece of ultra-bloody violence and also by gradually altering his accent away from his natural tones and into the stilted rhythms that come from delivering lines you don't actually understand but have had to learn by sounding them out. Yes, just in cased you missed the point from the sets and the initial blood spray spattering all over the painted back drop Miike is letting you know once again: he knows the English language thing is supremely silly, he's in on the joke, now stop whining about it and have some fun.
And fun you will have.
Here's the story. Two clans - the Red and the White - have been at war for centuries. Their numbers are seriously depleted, the clans reduced to little more than wandering gangs, but the battle rages on. Drawn by rumors of an enormous hidden treasure both gangs have set up shop in a remote western town to search while sniping at each other from a distance, a potentially explosive situation that the vast majority of townsfolk have wisely fled. Into the midst of this powder keg rides a nameless stranger, a taciturn quickdraw artist who prefers to shoot first and ask questions later. So skilled that his addition to one side or the other would permanently tip the scales and end the long running clan feud, our wanderer offers his services to whichever clan is prepared to offer up the largest share of the treasure, once found.
Beyond this there isn't much point in talking about story. It's not that there isn't more there, it's that there are so many extreme characters and set pieces that going any farther would quickly devolve into a list of favorite moments. There's the unexpected Shakespeare fixation, the woman caught between clans, a crossbow, dynamite, a Gatlin gun, and rampant, stylish bloodshed. As is the case with virtually everything Miike has ever done there are lulls from time to time, moments where the story threatens to bog down, but he more than redeems those moments with his manic energy, inventive action set pieces, sudden bursts of gore and some hysterically funny sight gags. Miike has a very gifted cast here - one of the leads is currently shooting an English language feature with the director of City of God - all of whom clearly get the joke and relish the chance to be involved.
Sukiyaki Western Django captures Miike in his glossy, crowd pleasing, supposedly mainstream mode - this is far more the Miike of Zebraman and The Great Yokai War than the Miike of Ichi the Killer - and it is one of the very best examples of the type, a near perfect fusion of the raw energy that made so many cultists fans in the first place and the technical polish that has become increasingly evident in his more recent work. It is stylish, surprising, occasionally shocking but mostly just very, very fun.