Ramen Westerns: Far East Meets Old West

What are “Ramen Westerns?”

Western gunslinger vs Samurai swordsman
Sukiyaki Western Django: Gunslinger vs Samurai Swordsman

Imagine a spaghetti western as a starting point. Samurais and sharpshooters are not all that different. An iaidō instructor compared his Japanese martial art of drawing the katana, striking an opponent, removing blood from blade, and placing sword back into scabbard in one fluid motion to the smooth, practiced movements of legendary gunslingers from the Old West. Both art forms rely on three essential skills: speed of the quick draw, precision of the hit, and unstoppable swagger and style.

Some claim that the grand-daddy of spaghetti westerns is none other than Akira Kurosawa, who directed The Seven Samurai (1954), one of the classics that inspired the American Western The Magnificent Seven (1960) by John Sturges. In turn, Kurosawa’s masterpiece Yojimbo (1961) is heavily influenced by comic-action-packed and visually stylized American westerns. The plot comes from the suspense-noir, The Glass Key (1942), an adaptation of the 1931 crime novel by Dashiell Hammett, and Red Harvest (1929) by the same author. The plot of a vagabond out-manipulating two rival gangs is shared by the iconic Western, Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966).

Indeed, it seems that spaghetti westerns and Chambara (samurai films) share a symbiosis unprecedented in film history that cuts across cultural and geographical differences between East and West. Hence, the birth of the “Ramen Westerns.”

Sukiyaki Western Django movie still
Sukiyaki Western Django: The Genji unwisely wear white, hard to keep clean with all the trail dust.

Almost half a century after the first Django film, Japanese director Takashi Miike tried to bring together the glory of two genres in Sukiyaki Western Django(2007). As the title suggests, the plot is based on Django and makes a number of references to Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s The Dollars Trilogy (1974-1966) that starred Clint Eastwood. Two rival clans, the Heikes and the Genjis terrorize a town in “Yuta, Nevata” only to be challenged by a lone gunman and a local prostitute. The film received mixed reviews. Some critics claimed that while visually and aesthetically refined, it failed to deliver on the redeemable moral turpitude of heroic masterless samurais (or rōnins) or the detached anarchist valor in the vigilantism of Western gunslingers.

Sidenote: For those disappointed by the latest in the lineup of Django flicks, all is not lost. Quentin Tarantino, who makes brief appearance as a gunslinger in Sukiyaki, just finished the script for his next film, which will be a “Spaghetti Southern” called Django Unchained (2012), which will hybridize tropes of the Old Westerns with a slave revenge plot.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird movie posters

South Korean director Ji-woon Kim’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) is the best example of “Ramen Western” to date. At the end of July, the Museum of the Moving Image had a free after-dark screening of this spectacular “Ramen Western” at Outdoor Cinema 2011. The film is an adaptation of the beloved Sergio Leone film The Good, The Bad, The Ugly (1966). The central characters are three mercenaries in pursuit of buried treasure caught in the midst of the chaos of war. This version is set in the expansive desert of 1930’s Manchuria, what was Northern China after the fall of the last imperial dynasty. The land is torn by Japanese Imperial Army and Manchurian bandits, both looking for the Chinese imperial treasure. “The Weird,” a buffoonish thief, comes by a treasure map and teams up with “The Good,” a straight-shooting (excuse the expression) bounty hunter. “The Bad” is an egotistic madman and assassin who pursues them to the X on the map. The Mexican standoff at the end of the film is one of the most memorable moments of contemporary Western films.

As is the case with most experimental genres, “Ramen Westerns” can be hit-or-miss. Nevertheless, I can’t wait to see more examples of interesting amalgamations. Whether your taste runs to innovation, or you prefer the classics, one thing is for sure: you’ll get a mouthful.


Cathy Chen brings a gun to a knife fight but forgets the bullets.

Comments

  1. Megan Frampton

    Oh, Cathy, how I am so, so happy you wrote about all these! I love this concept, and of course have seen many Kurosawa films. Sukiyaki Western Django is in my Netflix queue. Yay, more fun films to watch!
    (and I did finally see Detective Dee, and also lent to Clare, who watched as well. I liked it a lot).

  2. Cathy Zhu Chen

    Glad you love guns and noodles as much as I do. Have you seen [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tampopo]Tampopo[/url]? I think you’d enjoy it. And yes, I need to steal get Detective Dee from you when I drop by headquarters. Is it just me or has no one noticed that Andy Lau stopped aging about 10 years ago?

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