Sukiyaki Western Django スキヤキ・ウエスターン ジャンゴ, cult fave Miike Takashi 三池崇史's 2007 film. Actually I have to admit this is my first Miike film - I'd always been turned off by rumors of the extreme gore in his films. And this has it, but it's still a brilliant movie. I want to see more.
I'm glad I went into this knowing basically nothing, because I was utterly unprepared for the Heike monogatari references. When guest star Quentin Tarantino opened his mouth and, in his best rawhide drawl, recited the opening lines of the classic medieval war tale, you could have knocked me over with a feather.
So, to be clear, this film is a classic Edo-style naimaze, thoroughly intertwining two separate and distinct story-worlds. Miike is combining an homage to Kurosawa's Yojinbō (complete to the calligraphy style of the opening credits) with a retelling of the Tale of the Heike. Actually it's a little more delightfully weird than that, because he approaches Yojimbo through its unauthorized spaghetti-Western remake, A Fistful of Dollars. Django is, then, a Japanese appropriation of the Italian appropriation of the Hollywood Western. (Why sukiyaki? Because, I think, the the more natural Japanese analog to spaghetti, ramen, had already been taken by Itami Jūzō's Western pastiche Tanpopo.)
As such it's a delight: if you love these disparate cinematic and literary traditions, you'll be endlessly entertained by picking up on the references.
As a J-lit person I was of course most interested in the Heike references. The blog post I linked to above (by A Man With Tea) runs some of them down. Not only do we have the obvious, the great red army of the Heike led by Kiyomori and the great white army of the Genji led by Yoshitsune, but Miike brings several lesser characters from this cycle into his movie: Yoshitsune's lover the dancer Shizuka, his brawny retainer Benkei, and the great Genji archer Nasu no Yoichi; Kiyomori's sons Shigemori and Munemori.
There's a bit more to be said, though, I think (and I'm sure somebody somewhere has already said it). I'm pretty sure that the character of Ruriko, i.e. Bloody Benten, the female gunfighter played with such indelible charisma by Momoi Kaori, is based on the legendary Princess Jōruri (Ruriko = Jōruri), with whom Yoshitsune had an encounter early in his career (like Shizuka, she isn't part of the Heike monogatari proper, but comes up in other tales in the Heike cycle: Miike did his research).
Why is Miike overlaying Princess Jōruri with the goddess Benten, though? I haven't figured this one out yet. It seems that there's some hints of a historical connection, either because Jōruri sought to woo Yoshitsune with music and Benten is the goddess of that art, or because there's a shrine to Benten within the precincts of an old shrine in Tōhoku which is said, in legend, to have been where Jōruri died, having chased Yoshitsune up to the wild Northeast. And of course the wild Northeast is where Miike filmed this...
Another aspect of the way Miike plays with the legends here deserves mentioning. This is that he's bringing together figures from all stages of the Yoshitsune cycle. If you know the literature you'll know that Kiyomori and Yoshitsune never share the stage, so to speak: Kiyomori dies before Yoshitsune arrives on the scene. Shigemori dies, too. And, as I've mentioned, Shizuka and Jōruri don't figure in the battle narrative at all: Shizuka is only introduced after Yoshitsune has defeated the Heike and become a hunted man himself, while Jōruri is a figure from his youth, before he has ever proved himself in battle. Miike is kaleidoscoping all this together. Why?
Partly because it's fun. Okay, maybe mostly because it's fun. But I think there's more. The key is that he has Kiyomori saying (screaming), "This time I win!" The characters in this movie are conscious that they're reenacting battles that have already taken place. It's as if all the characters in the war tales have been brought back to life in a new setting to play it all out again. Which, of course, is true, in that Miike has brought them back to figure in his sukiyaki Western. But interestingly there's a provision for this in the legend, as well, in the concept of the asura, the Warring Demon that constitutes one of the Six Realms of Buddhist existence. These are creatures, just lower than humans, who spend their eternities locked in endless bloody combat, and to the medieval mind of course they provided an irresistible metaphor for, and object lesson on, the fates of warriors. Professional killers: doomed in their next incarnations, possibly, to never know peace. Certainly this is the theme of more than one Nō play, as for example Yashima, which summons up the ghost of Yoshitsune himself to present the specter (pun intended) of a warrior condemned to endlessly reenact his battles.
What Miike is doing, then, is nothing less than taking us to the Asura Realm, to see the Heike and Genji locked in eternal mutual slaughter.