Sukiyaki Western Django: Reclaiming a Hijacked Genre
By Vance Ovitt
By title alone, Sukiyaki Western Django creates for itself a number of expectations by the inclusion of the genre and the allusion to the Italian-made spaghetti (or macaroni) westerns with a Japanese twist on the titular food. The director attached, Takeshi Miike, and the name Quentin Tarantino on the cast marquee, create even more expectations. Stylized action, graphic violence, eccentric characters, and theatrical dialogue are among the things a prospective viewer might easily assume they are walking into, due to the names associated, along with the typical dusty town, old saloon, and plenty of six-shooters any fan of American westerns is sure to be familiar with. Throw in the given of Japanese actors plus some geographical and cultural set-dressing, and you have yourself the recipe for what makes up, to use an appropriate metaphor, the stew of a movie that is Sukiyaki Western Django; however, there are a few surprise ingredients that bring a uniqueness to its flavor.
My goal in this essay is to highlight the makeup of this film, discussing how both the expected and unexpected collide at the cross-sections of difference, power, and discrimination, and consider how a foreign film, influenced by and paying homage to the American western, internalizes some of the issues of the white patriarchal capitalist hegemony without the same cultural context. While I believe the film has merit as a source of entertainment, I also think it’s a good case study for how American cinema culture and its dominance in the area of film media has not only a marked influence on the media produced in other countries but infiltrates and manipulates the social progress of other cultures. This is a particularly ironic choice for this thesis because, as Elest Ali asserts in one of the reviews compiled in “Directory of World Cinema: Japan”, “Sukiyaki Western Django is a deliberate play on reclaiming the genre that was effectively hijacked from Japanese cinema when Sergio Leone remade Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) as A Fistful of Dollars (1964).” (Bera, pg. 127). The ability to enjoy a movie while maintaining a critical eye that looks towards progress is, I feel, essential for students and enthusiasts of film, be it an old classic or new blockbuster, in our modern times.
The first question I intend to address is how difference is portrayed in the film, how it adheres to the hegemonic negotiations of white patriarchal capitalism, and how that is contextualized differently with the film being Japanese as opposed to American. The first, and perhaps easiest, example to point at is that of racial difference… the only actor who is not Japanese in the film is Quentin Tarantino whose race is neither addressed nor treated as out-of-place, and the only character who is ethnically differentiated is the “Native” Piripero, played by Japanese actor Toshiyuki Nishida. Piripero is notably only referred to by his race in a line mentioning “the natives”, which references a specific song that is played during the scene, and though he is not explicitly identified as a Native American (the term native is not, by itself, necessarily a racial indicator despite contextual conditioning that might result in such an assumption), though it is implied by the dress and behavior stereotypical within the Western genre. This is an interesting point to start on because it rings instantly of a similar phenomenon as Hollywood’s tendency to whitewash. Certainly, there’s an imbalance of ethnic diversity in the cast, and it is presented as a Western, which we expect to cast white male heroes, but the nameless gunman, the protagonist, while still male, is played by Japanese actor Hideaki Itō along with a primary supporting cast of other Japanese performers. Strangely, it could almost be said that the American Western is typically more diverse in casting, despite its reputation for displaying many damaging/demeaning stereotypes, with the inclusion of many Latinx, Native American, and African American actors. In America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, the authors do note after discussing the Indian Story genre and Native American participation in filmmaking with examples such as James Young Deer, that even though the American Western has had some diversity throughout its history, “Hollywood also began to hire more and more white actors to play larger Indian parts, a practice of “redface” makeup that continued well into the 1960s.” (Benshoff and Griffin, Chapter 5, Ethnographic Films and the Rise of the Hollywood Western), so while it is important not to omit the fact that racial appropriation (white actors portraying any number of the other races mentioned) has been abundant in the Western genre, it is still an interesting and significant comparison to observe that it occasions a more broad use of racial diversity in casting.
That said, there are more layers to this example. To start with, one of the central conflicts is the gang rivalry between the Genji and the Heike, a feud stemming from actual history, and the famous opening passage from the Heike Monogatari, which is the record from which modern historical understanding of that clash is derived, is recited by Quentin Tarantino’s character, Piringo. On several occasions, the original battle between the Genji and Heike is mentioned, and Samurai are brought up as the progenitors of the modern incarnation of the two clans. Despite a mostly typical, though heavily stylized, western wardrobe, the leaders of the respective gangs have accessories that are uniquely Japanese, such as a katana or samurai headgear. In contrast to an otherwise quintessential western town, the bases for each gang are also obviously of Japanese design, looking much like traditional Japanese castles/keeps/temples in their construction. All this to say there is a lot of blended imagery. I may call it conflicting, were it not presumably intentional. The next layer, which takes this blending and contrasting to its apex, is the fact that the entire script is in English, despite the entire cast, sans Tarantino, being non-native English speakers. It is evident by the presence of heavy accents, odd intonation, and inconsistent delivery of lines, that much of the cast likely spoke little to no English at all, possibly, even plausibly, coached and given phonetic scripts to get through their lines. In his review of the film, A.O. Scott, comparing spaghetti westerns with this homage, mentions, “The original spaghetti-slingers dubbed English dialogue into the mouths of their international casts, and Mr. Miike has taken the further step of allowing his performers, in effect, to dub themselves into English.” (Scott, par. 3). So, while perhaps a strange linguistic exhibition for Japanese and American audiences, both, there does appear to be a strong referential intent with this choice. That said, it’s a capstone example of the strange identity of this film that makes it ultimately very difficult to pin down the morality of difference and apt representation in this movie, though I suspect racial diversity (or lack thereof in comparison to the racial diversity of the U.S. population) in the country of Japan as a whole is also a large enough factor to merit mention before moving on.
The next issue to explore is that of power. In a film about the gang rivalry that has taken over a small, helpless, town, the concept of power is explored as a central theme, though it is very surface level, which could easily be seen as a negotiation that places an obvious moral righteousness around the hero which obscures the fact that even the protagonists display differences of power that could be seen as problematic. Sukiyaki Western Django typifies the genre’s propensity for displaying men as the accepted leaders, and women are relegated to the roles of prostitutes or highly unlikely and sensational rebels. Making a show out of how the old woman turns out to be a fabled gunslinger, a revelation that expects the viewer to see a mature woman as an unlikely character to take on such a role, may seem on its face to be an example of giving power to an underrepresented age and gender group, but the exhibition of it as a novelty relies on, and perpetuates by the contrast of its bombast, the assumptions that such a display is not typical. The idea that “strong women” are valuable because of their rarity does not empower them, but rather encodes an underlying message that the fewer there are, the better, because that’s what makes them stand out. In addition, it is shown in flashback that the character of Ruriko, while fated to become Bloody Benten, was a hapless girl eager to please Piringo, and was treated with anger and frustration at her failure to provide him with a meal of Sukiyaki meeting his specifications and standards. She wilts and stammers in his presence, and he softens to explain that the stew is an allegory for gunfighting, hugging and comforting her immediately after an enraged outburst. This is an uncomfortable scene to watch, because it appears to excuse toxic behavior and abuse/imbalance of power in a lover/mentor relationship, indicating that the behavior is well-intentioned and an expression of care. It culminates in the reveal that this was when she was pregnant with her son, Akira, further highlighting gender difference as a power dynamic, because she is made weaker and hysterical (aligning the word with its sexist origins) by her pregnancy.
Returning to the idea of difference just touched on, because these ideas can never be wholly separated, there are only two credited women in the cast, and the rest are men, which makes power at times less noticeable, but on the whole, far more evident because there is a binary comparison between the two representations of female roles in this fiction. The second woman in the film is the widowed lover of Akira, and mother of Heihachi, a young boy who is the mixed-blood product of his parents’ cross-faction affair. Her inability to stop her lover’s death or protect her son from witnessing the cruel horrors of the wild west results in giving her body to the clan she turned her back on as her only means of seizing power. This sells the dangerous idea that a woman’s most reliable bid for power is through the utility of sex. Not only is her only chance at survival through giving her body away, she does so as she flees from an attempted rape, framing the surrender of her sexual agency to a group of individuals as the sole alternative to sexual assault. In other words, in the case of one of only two women, the film asserts that the choice of a woman is to give herself willingly as a sex object to the most convenient choice, or be vulnerable to the violent sexual aggression that is to simply be expected of men, because of their uncontested position of power. Further still, the film goes on to show that when she uses this position to undermine the people she has given herself to, she dies. The insinuation that she made a noble sacrifice is a distraction from the indication that the price of choice and power is adjacent to suicide. When Shizuka makes the decision to betray the Heike, start a battle of mutual destruction, and give the gunman the upper hand in saving the village, it is displayed as an integral disclaimer when the gunman questions her that, unlike the implicit resentful subservience with which she usually carries out the duties of her occupation, she wants him sexually. This again attempts to put a mask of righteousness over the protagonist despite previously showing that his approach of the Heike leader, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, was to inquire about her services without regard to her preference of his company, and he wins the right to her through physical domination over the member of the gang that would have otherwise won the lottery to be with her. Beyond the examples of power difference between genders, there is also a lot of emphasis on the cowardice of the local sheriff and his inability to protect the town in the way the gunman is able to, and while this has a message about the corruption of authority that can be seen as quite relevant in 2021, thirteen years after the film’s release, it reinforces the notion that to have power requires not authority, but stoic masculinity. By positioning an expectation of perhaps toxic masculinity as noble by its adjacency to a more obviously profane example of corruption, a hegemonic negotiation occurs where it is posited that we should be glad for one because it is better than the alternative shown, presenting a false ultimatum.
With difference and power discussed and exampled at length, it follows that I should address discrimination. This is, perhaps the trickiest of the three concepts to discuss in regards to this film because of the limited variety of archetypes and the fact that sensibilities are altered by the differences of culture. That said, culture may determine the manifestation and reception of discrimination, but the definition does not change, so while there will be considerations and comparisons for the following examples, there certainly are instances of discrimination within the film. Oddly enough, Quentin Tarantino himself is an example of internalized discrimination, wherein he speaks in a very strange accent that seems to be a poor attempt at blending in with the odd speech of the rest of the cast, since he’s a native English speaker, and while it sounds derivative in an almost derisive/racially insensitive fashion that mimics the accents of the English-speaking Japanese, it must be considered that this was encouraged by the Japanese director and accepted by the cast. In addition to the accent, there’s a joke that breaks the fourth wall when Piringo, or perhaps Tarantino himself, reveals that the name of his son, Akira, is because he is an “Anime otaku at heart.” While there is no shortage of knowledge that Tarantino himself is a fan of Japanese film (otaku is a Japanese term that has taken on the meaning of obsessed interest in a subject), there is a certain pejorative connotation to the word “otaku”. Even though there is a counter-culture reclamation of otaku as a word denoting pride in one’s interests, it cannot be ignored that filmgoers in Japan may hear that line and see it as an example of a commonly held view that many Americans do not fully appreciate Japanese culture, and are typically only enamored with Japanese pop culture. This is an ironic stereotype, because much of Japan’s popular culture stems from western influence, and is viewed by some to be a regrettable loss of traditional Japanese culture as their identity in foreign eyes is dominated by these borrowed and adapted memes. The author of The Crisis of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Film : Personal, Cultural, National says something along these lines when discussing the current generational divide among Japanese families, “That this should be the case is hardly surprising given Japan’s contradictory stance of embracing the modern, western world while still maintaining an image of itself as insular and enjoying an unbroken traditional heritage stretching back over more than two thousand years. It is this duality of national vision, I will argue here, that places on Japanese intellectuals a burden of conceiving of themselves in two essentially oppositional ways.” (Iles, pg. 30). Through all these layers, who is the racially discriminated party? It’s hard to say, but that is precisely the reason it’s important to address because it reveals the complexity of race dynamics and how American culture has a fallout with difficult-to-navigate consequences.
Sukiyaki Western Django also discriminates against homosexuals in one of the strangest ways, and it is not readily evident, because the nature of this discrimination is a deleted scene. The domestic version of the film had a scene where a Heike gang member’s testicles are removed due to a bullet injury, and he is subsequently seen approaching their boss and complaining about the lack of attention given, as if he is a scorned lover. In effect, the scene implies that the character is turned gay due to the loss of his testicles. When released outside of Japan, because of criticism, this scene was removed but can be viewed in the special features section of the home version. The reverse effect of this scene is the assertion that homosexual men lack manhood. Among the examples I have given, this may be the most damning, were it not for the fact that the error of this scene seems to have been acknowledged to some degree. The fact that it was retained in the Japanese version gives some significant insight into the contrast between cultural sensibilities surrounding homosexuality. My own frequent imbibing of Japanese media has informed me of excessive use of the pansy trope for homosexual men that persists in works being produced even in 2021 as I am writing this essay. There is often an implied infatuation with these characters that can be seen at surface-level as an appreciation for queer identities, but there is a stereotyping and commodification of homosexuality that is problematic in spite of other positive connotations, and may even be more so due to the way positive-angled context subverts attention from how this perpetuates generalizations. This is not to say that there has not been progression towards normalizing alternative lifestyles, but it is certainly the case that there are conspicuous contemporary examples of stereotyping in even the most beloved modern works.
In consideration of all these things, what can be concluded about Sukiyaki Western Django? Is it entertaining? Is it offensive? I would certainly not deny either of these entirely, and I would conclude that it is ultimately a very unique film worth seeing for whatever reason a person may gain from it, be that to witness its shortcomings, like those I have outlined, or enjoy the things it does well, such as exciting the watcher and appealing to personal indulgences. Perhaps, on occasion, we can, or should, forgive ourselves for how admittedly base this hedonistic infatuation may be. I don’t feel like the fantastical form of escapism offered is inherently bad, because excessiveness in entertainment is what allows it to be framed as fiction and helps us dissociate for two hours so that we can decompress from the stresses of our lives. The cautionary disclaimer is that when a film creates this kind of extreme environment for its fiction, we have to remain at least subconsciously vigilant of what is wrong with that artificial reality so that it is not internalized, and instead becomes a humbling example of how we can make reality better than fiction.
In a way, having these things present among over-the-top violence and rampant death is a comforting way of interacting with ugly things that are glorified on-screen, but would be horrific to live through. There’s a vicarious venting that occurs through such films, which I believe to be efficacious in the release of tension, that helps stressed individuals to be far better humans than the examples in the film, since, while it is indulgent, it is also cautionary. The danger doesn’t come in empathizing with the characters within the given context, but rather in idolizing their behavior or motives outside of the film. It is unfortunate, but there are those who subscribe psychologically to the latter, and in such cases, the issues I have discussed throughout the body of this essay become a much larger detriment. That is why it is important to be able to identify these issues even if we are compelled to enjoy the film like I am, because we must be able to hold films accountable for the effects they might have, even if unintentional. This is not so that we can invalidate a film’s worth as a source of enjoyment, but so that we can improve upon the formulas to achieve the same effect, while simultaneously being more inclusive and progressive.
Benshoff, Harry M.; Griffin, Sean, America on Film : Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies” John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated (2009), https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/linnbenton-ebooks/reader.action?docID=819377&ppg=1
Berra, John, “Directory of World Cinema: Japan ”, Intellect (2010), https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/linnbenton-ebooks/reader.action?docID=3014871&ppg=1
GurnBlenston, “IMDb Mini Biography” of Takeshi Miike, IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0586281/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm
Iles, Timothy, “The Crisis of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Film: Personal, Cultural, National”, BRILL (2008), https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/linnbenton-ebooks/reader.action?docID=468155
McVeigh, Stephen, “The American Western”, Edinburgh University Press (2007), https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/linnbenton-ebooks/reader.action?docID=286992
Miller, Cynthia J., Van Riper, A. Bowdoin, International Westerns: Re-Locating the Frontier, Scarecrow Press (2013), https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/linnbenton-ebooks/reader.action?docID=1574425&ppg=1
Peary, Gerald, Quentin Tarantino: Interviews, Revised and Updated, University Press of Mississippi (2013), https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/linnbenton-ebooks/reader.action?docID=118192
Scott, A.O., “MOVIE REVIEW | ‘SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO: Sergio Leone Meets Reservoir Dog in Japanese Pastiche”, The New York Times (28 Aug. 2008), https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/29/movies/29djan.html