A bold retelling of the Clint Eastwood classic, the scrutany of this film will certainly be higher than most. Offering a fresh perspective on a unique tale, director Lee Sang-il and perhaps one of the most internationally recognized Japanese actors today, Ken Watanabe offer a new Samurai themed version of this classic western.
As soon as I saw Unforgiven in the program I put it in my Must See short-list – a remake of a Clint Eastwood classic starring Ken Watanabe is all I needed to hear. But I’ve seen only handful of Westerns before, and Unforgiven was not one of them, so I figured I’d do my due diligence and watch the original. Yes, I took time from the TIFF lineup to watch a classic at home, and am so glad I did because I was able to experience this remake with the (amazing!!) original still fresh in my mind. Japanese history and culture is a personal interest of mine, so before we went in I felt pretty confident that the backdrop for this new version would be the violent upheaval of the Meiji Restoration Period. The dissolution of the samurai caste system was one that rocked Japan and many lives were lost while trying to retain the old ways. Progress won and sword fighters were forced to take to the land to find a new way to survive. What better parallel for the struggles of Eastwood’s William Munny as a former gunslinger and now failed farmer in the Old West?
The cinematography for Sang-il’s Unforgiven is expansive and beautiful, showcasing Hokkaido in a way rarely seen even in Japan. The story itself is a very faithful retelling, even going so far as to give us an erudite Japanese version of English Bob. The sheriff, (or local police chief) is just as affable and just as quietly dangerous. Interestingly Sang-il chose to remove any personal details of the man’s life (no laughably terrible carpentry), which I feel dehumanized him to a slight detriment.
The friendship between the two former fighters, in this case between Jubei and Kingo, felt stronger though. Both actors did a beautifully understated job of showing us the weight of their shared past. Better still was the character of Goro, a cocky man-child who just wanted to be seen as tough. As the Kid in this version he is brilliant, and his breakdown at the end is that much sadder.
The prostitutes, as in the original, as essentially plot devices designed to move the story forward. However this works, as it serves the double purpose of reminding the audience of their less-than-person status. Natsume’s disfigurement and pain should be the focus of story, but (as Goro remarks) you can’t feel anyone’s pain but your own. And no one seems more aware of this than Jubei, with the weight of all his sins slowly breaking him.
An excellent addition in this version is the sub-plot of the indigenous Ainu oppression. It is one of many dark chapters of Japanese history, and frankly surprising to see in what is sure to be a domestic blockbuster. It is a mirror of the struggles of the American Natives and in a way is a brilliant and subtle nod to the Western genre.
My final thoughts are spoilery so be warned: this version has chosen to diverge from the ending of the original. Aside from the climactic final fight being much bloodier (though not excessively gory) Where William Munney exacted his revenge and then disappeared with his family into history and evidently prospered, there is no such solace for Jubei. Having willfully unleashed his demons he is unable to go back to being the man that his wife loved, and instead he disappears into the wilderness. I wish that Sang-il had been present to ask why he made that choice, as it makes a very different statement than the original.
I don’t find fault with it though – Unforgiven is a strong story with memorable characters, but while very similar this version is not a scene for scene recreation. By throwing in some surprises it is better able to stand alone, which I feel that it does. I don’t know if I would recommend watching them back to back as I did, but if you like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven then I feel confident that experiencing this new version will serve as a mirror to showcase its strengths, leading to new enjoyment of both.
Okay, so I haven’t seen the original Unforgiven. But, I was still very interested to see this Japanese remake. Mostly because I genuinely don’t care for Westerns. Something about the Old West, the desert, the guns, spurs and boots – it simply doesn’t resonate with me at all. Setting the same story in desolate northern japan, however, and suddenly I’m very much into it.
Jubei’s emotional struggle is apparent from the start, Ken Watanabe brings a gravity to the role that (I can only assume) equals that of Eastwood’s. His reluctance to take on the task, his want to stay as much on the outskirts of violence as possible. Until he is pushed over the edge. As Angelina points out above – the obvious similarities between Ainu and Native Americans is clear and powerful – something that will make this film entirely relatable for North American audiences.
As unfortunately I had to read Angelina’s review above, I’ve now have spoiled myself for the original ending, but I find myself even more pleased with the choices that Sang-Il made for his adaptation. Early in the film, we see Jubei fighting and killing those who were sent to track down the last of the Samari. Many years later, we see him again trudging alone through the cold isolated wilderness.
Although this shouldn’t give us comfort, the thought that came to me was that the 13+ years between these two near-identical events could be viewed as a gift. If the universe was to punish him for his previous life, at least he had a happy, if brief, reprieve before the end.