Japanese maverick Takeshi Miike has one of his wildest ideas yet — and that’s saying something — in “Sukiyaki Western Django,” a Nipponese oater based on a spaghetti-Western ripoff of a samurai movie and performed entirely in subtitled, heavily Japanese-accented English. Plus, natch, Quentin Tarantino in a cameo. Basic joke wears off after five minutes, and many bystanders will start to head out of town. But genre/Asian buffs prepared to ride shotgun for two hours will be rewarded with some classy action sequences and densely accoutred widescreen lensing that create a distinctive Miike universe between the dialogue downtime. Immediate cult status beckons.
Best sequence is the prologue, with Tarantino (in a luridly colored desert-ranch set) playing gunslinger Piringo. After doing some spectacular things with a gun, a hawk and a snake, poncho-wearing Piringo tells the story of the (red-clad) Heike and (white-clad) Genji clans, who clashed at the legendary Battle of Dannoura in 1185. Half the joke is that Piringo speaks English like a cross between Toshiro Mifune and Takakura Ken; the other half is that it’s Tarantino having a rocking good time.
Main yarn is set “several hundred years after the Battle of Dannoura” — the late 1880s, if some gravestones are to be believed — in the small, dust-blown town of Yuta, Nebada (Japanese does not have the “v” sound). Looking like a spaghetti-Western set crossed with a samurai movie, Yuta is ruled by both the Heike, led by mad, volatile Kiyomori (Koichi Sato), and the Genji, led by epicene, cool-headed Yoshitsune (Yusuke Iseya, grabbing most of the acting honors). Both clans have been lured by the promise of gold in them thar hills.
Into town rides a nameless gunslinger in black (Hideaki Ito), who takes a liking to a half-Heike, half-Genji kid, Heihachi (Ruka Uchida), whose father Akira (Shun Oguri) was killed by Kiyomori. Heihachi’s grandmother, Ruriko (vet Kaori Momoi, clearly having fun), runs the general store and hides a colorful past as a female gunslinger; his mother, Shizuka (Yoshino Kimura), is Yoshitsune’s lover and a dancer in the Genji-run saloon. Both women vow vengeance against the Heike.
Plot pretty much follows the outline of “A Fistful of Dollars” (which in turn was based on “Yojimbo”), down to the gunslinger trying to play both sides against each other and later getting beaten to a pulp prior to the final high-street showdown. Script by Miike and Masaru Nakamura (“Dororu,” plus many Miike pics) adds in plenty of diversions — including tinted flashbacks to explain the characters’ histories, some fun with a Gatling gun that seems lifted from “Duck, You Sucker!” and a finale in which Ruriko takes part, all guns blazing. But “Fistful” remains the lodestone.
Though the subtitled, stilted English quickly loses its freshness, the fractured line delivery becomes almost unnoticeable after a while, and pic gradually creates its own atmosphere. Only Teruyuki Kagawa’s shtick as the opportunistic sheriff grates, and could easily be cut, along with several overlong dialogue scenes. With 20 minutes taken out, “Sukiyaki” would be more palatable to wider auds without losing much.
Final showdown is neatly staged; ditto coda, with Miike’s usual mix of cartoony violence larded with moments of real savagery and underpinned by a melancholy romanticism.
Production shows no signs of haste, with mobile cutting by Taiji Shimamura. Koji Endo’s score tips its hat to Ennio Morricone but, like the film itself, has its own character. Fusion production design by Takashi Sasaki, who worked on the Japanese set of “Kill Bill,” and cleverly cross-cultural costumes by Michiko Kitamura give pic a substantial look and feel.