I don’t think anyone was begging for a remake of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning classic, Unforgiven, but Lee Sang-il’s film of the same name is probably as handsome a remake as we could ever get. There is a long history of westerns and samurai films remaking each other. It was a remake of a Japanese film that put Eastwood in the spotlight in the first place. A Fistful of Dollars was a near shot-for-shot remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, transposing the Wild West for samurai Japan. It was a good fit. Both the western and the samurai film share many thematic similarities, with the notion of the dying warrior making way for civilization. With Unforgiven, Lee Sang-il sticks to the skeleton of the original film while also creating a fascinating portrait of the changing cultural climate of Japan.
After a brief prologue giving us the historical context of the Meiji period in Japan, we move to a small town in Hokkaido in the early 1880s. Two washed up samurai slash the face of a prostitute, and in retaliation, the brothel puts a price on the head of the samurai. We then cut to Jubei (Ken Watanabe), a retired samurai and killer for hire, now living with his two children on a failing farm. His old friend Kingo (Akira Emoto) arrives with news of the bounty and convinces Jubei to accompany him in killing the samurai. In their efforts to collect the bounty, they butt up against the machinations of a sadistic sheriff played by Koichi Sato.
The most interesting aspects of Unforgiven are the parts of the film that are distinct from the original Eastwood film. The young gunslinger Goro (Yuya Yagira) that joins Jubei and Kingo on their bounty is a man of Ainu descent — the Ainu being the indigenous inhabitants of Hokkaido. The Meiji government had a policy of wiping out the Ainu, much like North American policies regarding First Nations people, and so the Ainu gunslinger carries a cultural status that makes him a perpetual outsider. Goro is a drunken fool, but his behaviour is seen as a direct result of his own self-loathing. Society has made him belief his heritage worthless and so he acts out in drunkenness and violence.
Unforgiven operates on these kind of bitter vendettas. Sato’s lawman hates the samurai. Jubei hates the Meiji government that has eliminated his former way of life. The prostitutes hate the lawmakers who have no interest in protecting them. Goro hates the society that subjugates his people. These themes of social isolation and upheaval are what lend the film its worth.
That’s not to say Unforgiven doesn’t have appeal as a straight up revenge film. The action scenes are stylish and gruesome, highlighting the changing fight dynamics of an age when guns are replacing swords. The climatic gunfight that fans will remember from Eastwood’s film has been interesting changed to accommodate the close-quarters fury of fighting with a sword. As well, the cinematography is gorgeous, with Norimichi Kasamatsu’s camera beautifully capturing the rugged landscape of Hokkaido.
Lee Sang-il’s Unforgiven lacks the crushing emotional impact of the Clint Eastwood film, but it’s fascinating in its own right. By transposing the story onto a specific Japanese context, the film brings out new aspects of this familiar tale. You couldn’t ask much more of a remake than bringing something new to the table.
7 out of 10 (2013, Japan)
Directed by Lee Sang-il; written by Lee Sang-il based off the screenplay by David Webb Peoples; starring Ken Watanabe, Akira Emoto, Yuya Yagira, and Koichi Sato.
Unforgiven played on Sept. 13, 14, and 15 during the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Special Presentations program.