Miike, known for such ultra-violent actioners as Ichi the Killer or outright weird shit like Visitor Q or The Happiness of the Katakuris, must have been one of those young filmmakers who fell in love with the spaghetti Westerns early on (born in 1960, he probably didn't see any of them during their first theater runs). It's actually a genre known for attracting talented-but-misunderstood outsiders, and Miike - who likes to toss some really head-scratchingly-odd stuff into most of his cinematic efforts - certainly fits that description. And while he's no Leone, you gotta admit it: the man's got skills, and can film an action sequence that will take your breath away.
SWJ is yet another remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, about the deadly loner who comes to town and pits himself between two warring gangs. If that sounds familiar, it should: the storyline actually originated with Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest from 1929, from which Kurosawa plundered it; but he in turn was plundered by Sergio Leone for A Fistful of Dollars.
The twist here - well, one of several twists - is that the story is played out as if it were a Western - and onscreen signs indicate it takes place in Nevada (or in one instance, 'Nevata'); but nearly the entire cast is Japanese, and there are Japanese elements strewn throughout the film. The two gangs are represented by two historical Japanese clans that made war on each other, the Heike (red) and the Genji (white). One of the villains carries both a six-shooter and a samurai sword.
One terribly weird aspect of this production is that, although 98% of all the actors are native Japanese, the entire film is in English! And apparently without overdubs, because much of what the cast says throughout the film is nearly unintelligible. This is unfortunate, because sometimes the viewer is left wondering what the hell is supposed to be going on; and often it's embarrassing, as otherwise talented actors are seen spouting lines which would be corny under the best of circumstances - think Tarantino when he's on a roll - but coming out of the mouths of non-native English speakers, it's all just nonsensical.
Speaking of Tarantino, he appears as a character in the film, first in a weird prologue at the beginning of the film (complete with theatrically-obvious fake painted backdrop) and later on in a brief but memorable cameo. Miike is either friends with him or at least respects the American's work, because influences from Kill Bill can be seen - or at least felt - throughout. (This is particularly true in a brief sequence that introduces a female gunslinger which incorporates a bit of Japanese-style animation and a trailer-within-a-film moment a la Grindhouse.)
But Miike's inspirations aren't just contemporary. Overtly, references are made to such spaghetti Western classics as (most obviously) Corbucci's Django and The Great Silence, as well as Leone's Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More. Stylistically, Miike seems to have been particularly influenced by Corbucci; and why not? Both men are very competent filmmakers with their own uncompromising visions. Leone may get more of the press and certainly had a sweeping cinematic vision, but Corbucci's the one who makes student filmmakers seethe with envy.
Should you see it? Definitely, if you can stomach the silly weird crap at the beginning. Get past the opening sequence and you'll be rewarded with an engrossing, unique action film with a solid love of pure cinema at its core.
Let's hope Miike continues to mine his early influences if it continues to produce entertaining films like this one.