Unforgiven (Japan, 2013) [Japan Cuts 2014]

Unforgiven is Lee Sang-il’s remake of Clint Eastwood’s classic 1992 Western of the same name. It stars Ken Watanabe, who has been seen in such Hollywood blockbusters as Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), The Last Samurai (2003), Inception (2010) and more recently Godzilla (2014).

The film opens with a prologue set in 1869 where the samurai still loyal to the Shogunate were mercilessly hunted down by the new government of the Meiji period. Fast forward about fifteen years and we see one such former samurai, Jubei (Ken Watanabe) who is now a poor farmer trying to feed his two children. His old friend Kingo (Akira Emoto) arrives offering Jubei a chance to make some money. A young prostitute (Shiori Kutsuna) in the town of Washiro has her face slashed by two men but the town’s Chief, Ichizo Oishi (Koichi Sato) has refused to take action against them. The other girls in the brothel have offered a reward to anyone who would kill the two men. Jubei initially declines the offer. He had promised his wife (who has now been dead for three years) that he wouldn’t kill again and wants to be left in peace with his children. When their crop comes up rotten and inedible, Jubei follows Kingo and they ride to the frontier town in Hokkaido.

Along the way the two men pick up Goro Sawada (Yuya Yagira), a young Ainu man with a temper. We see the subplot of the imperial government’s methodical attempt to exterminate the indigenous Ainu, viewing them as sub-human and backward. When the men arrive at the town they are immediately disarmed by Oishi, who is ruthless in his quest to keep order. Prior to their arrival, Oishi mercilessly beat a samurai (Jun Kunimura) who was travelling with a writer. The writer stays behind when the old samurai is escorted out of town. Oishi attacks Jubei, recognizing him as the infamous “Jubei th Killer”, and leaves him for dead. Jubei, Kingo, and Goro are hidden by the prostitutes and eventually decide to carry out their mission of revenge.

I have to start by saying that when it comes to remakes, I’m not a fan. That being said, I actually loved this film. For one, it is visually stunning, thanks to cinematographer Norimichi Katsamasu and his wide shots capturing the picturesque landscape and mountains in the background. Second, Lee has competently incorporated the turmoil of this particular period of Japanese history in which the past of the Shogun, the samurai, and the native Ainu violently clash with the more modern European view of the Emperor and men like Oishi. This is one of the more striking differences between Lee’s Unforgiven and Eastwood’s original. Where the Old West of America basically grew up with the progression of modernity, Japan was dragged kicking and screaming from a way of life that lasted for centuries.

The acting here is excellent—I’m a big fan of Ken Watanabe. Where Eastwood’s William Munny feels remorse for his deadly ways, Watanabe plays Jubei (a younger man than Munny) with the cold stoicism of a man resigned to the fact that he will always be a killer and no amount of reformation by his wife can take that away. Kichi Sato’s Oishi is a bit more refined than Hackman’s Little Bill but just as ruthless. He also represents the culture clash occurring in Japan at that time as he is a well-dressed man—and a former samurai, himself–who is just as effective with a gun as he is with a sword. I found this to be a profound statement on the samurai becoming obsolete in this more modern era and this is emphasized in a scene in which Jubei’s old sword snaps in half while he’s using it to fend off an attack. I do think Lee could have capitalized on the historical context of Japan far more than he did and was a bit disappointed that he followed the original a little too closely.

Overall, I found Unforgiven to be a beautifully done film and would definitely watch it again. I can easily say this is one of the best remakes I’ve ever seen.

Unforgiven  is showing at Japan Society on July 15 as part of JAPAN CUTS. The full schedule for JAPAN CUTS schedule can be found here.