It’s nice to see some turn about being fair play in Lee Sang Il’s Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 cowboy eulogy, The Unforgiven, and in some historical sense it is in fact satisfyingly apt. The samurai period film and the American western have a long history of inter-relatedness, both thematically and as a matter of record. In 1954, inspired by the early films of American western directors like Howard Hawks and John Ford, Akira Kurosawa made what is perhaps one of the most influential films of all time. The film is of course Seven Samurai. Inspired in turn by Kurosawa, John Sturges made The Magnificent Seven, considered one of the most iconic westerns in American cinema history.
These days, American remakes of successful Asian films are no rare creature, as we fans are well aware; but a Japanese remake of an American film is a slightly different, pleasantly surprising story. Half a century after Sturges borrowed from Kurosawa, Lee is borrowing from Eastwood, and while the film is no startling reinvention it is fitting. The sparse and frozen northern reaches of 1880’s Hokkaido is starkly reminiscent of the wilds of the American west, the inhabitants poor and desperate and struggling, the native Ainu just as persecuted and subjugated as the First Nation Americans. The post-Edo period ronin is for all intents and purposes the Japanese equivalent of the wandering gunfighter – living outside any system, perhaps a little lawless but ultimately honourable at heart if not in general practice. The popularist view of these cultural icons is inherently and unfailingly romantic.
The Unforgiven was, and is, anything but romantic.
Jubei (Ken Watanabe – The Last Samurai, Letters from Iwo Jima) is a man with a violent past attempting to live a peaceful present. Fate (and the inhospitable land he apparently chose to build a farm on) has other ideas though. Up in the wild frontier is a town. In this town is a whorehouse, and in this whorehouse is a group of whores willing to pay a tidy sum to anyone willing to kill the two local men who cut up the face of one of their own. The town’s sheriff Ichizo (Kôichi Satô – Sukiyaki Western Django, Reunion) is not willing to let his town degrade into lawlessness though, and he’ll do anything to maintain control, including publicly beating veteran samurai Kitaoji (Jun Kunimura – Like Father Like Son) and pretty much railroading him out of town (and stealing his biographer into the bargain).
With all the pieces in place, it’s a simple matter of deduction from there on. Jubei needs the money to feed his motherless children, and Jubei’s old friend Kingo (Akira Emoto) arrives at just the right time with an offer he can’t resist but which, we all sense, will likely spell their doom. Soon enough the two set off for the town, collecting along the way hapless and over-eager Goro (Yuya Yagira), who has his own axe to grind and his own reasons for wanting in on the mercenary man-hunt.
You don’t have to be a genius to guess that this probably isn’t going to end well for anyone, but that’s not actually the point. Jubei isn’t a hero like Musashi Miyamoto in the same way that Eastwood’s character William Munny wasn’t Wyatt Earp, and this isn’t a story where the bad guys get their just desserts and the good guys ride off into the sunset. This is a story about reaping what you sow and not being able to escape your past, and it’s ugly and brutal. Its violence is discomforting, both viscerally and psychologically and it brings into question the hero’s right to mete out the justice we have been used to seeing. Yes, Jubei is killing in order to help his family survive, but underneath his need for redemption he is more killer than survivalist. Like his strict sobriety, his aptitude for violence is an addiction; to take a draught is to fall off the wagon entire. In the end he does so willingly and with full awareness and you’re not glad when it inevitably happens, because somehow it’s much more like a defeat than victory.
None of this psychological depth would work without the cast however. The performances are easily as brilliant as Eastwood’s version – Watanabe is inarguably a fine actor and it’s a pleasure to watch his hard, weary, resigned Jubei drag his way through to the film’s bloody, forgone conclusion. Satô, as his semi-lawful counterpart is particularly standout as the nihilistic sheriff determined to keep the peace, and Emoto as the crusty old war buddy shines in the film’s thematically pivotal moment.
In fact, not a single cast member puts a foot wrong, and it doesn’t devalue these performances – or Lee’s direction or the magnificent cinematography – at all to say this is a film every bit as good as the original. As an entry into the samurai film hall of fame, it makes a satisfying conclusion to the cinematic dialogue between Japan and the west. Whether there is any more to discuss is anyone’s guess, but if the conversation is over, there couldn’t be a better way to finish it.
Unforgiven screened as part of the 2014 Gold Coast Film Festival. Thanks go to the organisers for giving us the opportunity to see this film.