For a cinephile such as myself, it seems only logical that Asian filmmakers are making so many Westerns these days. After all, the genre that was born in America had been influenced so strongly by Japanese samurai films that it’s no wonder the genre is making it’s way back to the orient. Every kid in film school knows that the Japanese Akira Kurosawa ripped off American John Ford, and that Kurosawa in term was ripped off by Sergio Leone, the man behind the Spaghetti Western. So while it’s certainly a fascinating sight to see arguably the best Western director of the moment, Quentin Tarantino, appear in a Western by arguably the best Japanese horror director of the moment, Takashi Miike, Taranatino’s cameo doesn’t seem all that out of place.
What is strange, on reflection, is that that a culture which existed for maybe fifty years in the south of California had such a profound influence on the the century to come. There are many theories about why the Western has turned out to be so timeless and universal, with most theories zooming in on the enigmatic figure at the heart of the genre: the gunslinger. That mysterious loner, who prefers to let his gun do the talking, who comes and goes as he pleases, and who can’t be messed with. That man, who might have a girl waiting for him somewhere, but otherwise doesn’t have an allegiance to anything or anyone but his own conscience. He is basically a collection of every single stereotype about men: strong, resilient, capable, detached, dangerous.
From a filmmaker’s point of view, this character is a dream. He is such a blank slate that he can go anywhere without it seeming out of character, since he doesn’t really have one. Give him a sword, and he’s a samurai. Give him a plasma rifle, and he’ll kill aliens. Give him a ship, he’s either Captain Nemo or Captain Ahab. He will show up, talk the talk, walk the walk, shoot a bunch of people, clear out, and rock a sweet hat as he goes.
But this theory only explains why the gunslinger is such an universal figure. It doesn’t explain why it’s specifically Asian directors who are so drawn to the Western genre these days. Once again, there are many theories to this, but I think it has something to do with that other central ingredient of a Western: the landscape. The classic image of a cowboy is him riding across the wide-open fields into the sunset, and there is a reason for that. Thematically speaking, Westerns are about two things: resistance and endings. More specifically, resistance against the new, in a land that we know from history will eventually succumb to just that.
In classical American Westerns, the cowboy figure is the last upstanding guy in a small town that is at the point of being overrun by big-city developer types. For the true cinephiles amongst us: why do you think railroads are such an important image in these movies? Because they will A). bring civilization to the place and B). make the horse redundant. We know that the gunslingers struggle will be futile in the end, which adds a touch of melancholia to the whole enterprise. And what is a better metaphor for this pointless, futile struggle against the world than one man in the middle of the sprawling prairie?
This pointless struggle is one that we see back very strongly in Asian westerns. Although open fields are rare, their place is taking by the sprawling concrete buildings that make up the skyline in so many modern cities in the East of Asia. In the middle of these massive urban wastelands, a generation of children is raised who are under immense pressure to preform academically. It means that they are not only pressured to be good, but also to be better than everyone else. Them against the world.
Westerns are sometimes said to exist on the edge of history, but these Asian westerns seem to exist on the edge of life itself. A place where the individual morphs into a monotonous bland, so that a primal scream of life becomes an act of resistance all of itself. Or perhaps these filmmakers just think that shooting stuff is neat. Whatever the reason, don’t be surprised if the next great Western doesn’t come from America, but from China.
How The West Was One, Part Two, 26 October 2012, Theater Kikker