You have to hand it to Yurusarezarumono’s (Unforgiven) Japanese producers and Korean Writer/Director Lee Sang-il, best known for Hula Girls, based on a true story of a group of girls who take up hula dancing to save their mining village.
They had the chutzpah to remake Clint Eastwood’s 22-year-old saga, Unforgiven, only the third Western in history to win the Academy Award for Best Film. In fairness, Lee had help. He worked on the script with David Webb Peoples, the 74-year old American writer of the original 1992 script while Japanese superstar Ken Watanabe –star of Eastwood’s World War I drama Letters from Iwo Jima agreed to step into Clint Eastwood’s shoes. The result is not only a successful remake but a stunning film in its own right.
Despite the absence of the original film’s ruminations on death, Lee’s film is a remarkably faithful adaptation and both films clock in at around 135 minutes. The action switches from the twilight of America’s Wild West to the twilight of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the opening of Japan to western trade in the Meiji Era of the 1880s.
We are in Ezo (now Hokkaido), the northern most island of Japan where the new government is displacing the indigenous Ainu aborigines. A prologue from 1869 introduces us to Shogun Jubei Kamata (Watanabe) who is fighting to the last, aware that he’s one of the new government’s most feared, and wanted criminals.
Ten years on Jubei has been transformed by his late Ainu wife. He is now a father to two small children and a peaceful farmer who has renounced alcohol and hung up his sword. But his land holding on a barren, wind-swept hill overlooking the sea cannot sustain the family. Fearing for his children’s future Jubei reluctantly agrees to accompany his retired comrade Kingo Baba (Akira Emoto) to the village of Washiro.
There, a group of prostitutes are offering a generous reward to the person who will help them revenge the mutilation of a young prostitute (Shiori Kutsuna) by two local farmers. The psychopathic sheriff has refused to prosecute the men and is determined to send any reward seekers packing.
Along the way Kingo and Jubei join forces with Oishi (Koichi Sato) a young, idealistic but undisciplined Ainu man who is motivated less by money than by remorse for failing to save his mother from her cruel husband.
‘I’ve always hated any man who harms a woman,’ Oishi confesses to Jubei. But if Kingo is getting too old for fighting, Oishi never was a fighter, a situation that ironically leaves the most reluctant of the trio to fulfil his destiny. In a scene full of pathos Oishi tells Jubei, ‘I’m not like you,’ reminding Jubei that he can never escape the sins of his past.
Lee and cinematographer Norimichi Kasamatsu manage to bring the wide expanses of Wyoming to Hokkaido where the location filming has enhanced the authenticity of the story. As in the original, the two former Shoguns and the Ainu arrive at the brothel to claim their reward in driving rain.
Just as the snow in the flashback will have you shivering, and the raw wind of Jubei’s farm might scratch your cheeks, so the rain feels real enough to penetrate your bones. The varied landscape is hard, like the men and women surviving in it, all complemented by composer Taro Iwashiro’s majestic score.
If the final climactic fight scene and the ending are a tad disappointing Watanabe is so charismatic that you hardly notice. With his silent nobility he embodies a character caught between the sword that never failed him and that ‘other way to live’ that his wife taught him.
Watanabe carries the same fatalism on his shoulders that he did in the Tom Cruise vehicle, the Last Samurai, for which Watanabe was nominated for an Academy Award. Yurusarezarumono confirms that was not a one-off performance.