September 15, 2013


Westerns and samurai films translate fairly well.  They both feature groups who have a code, those groups are skilled with a particular weapon, and their way of life has begun to fade as the frontier closes and modernity arrives.  Most famous among the films that have made successful transfers are Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai going to John SturgesThe Magnifcent Seven and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo going to Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, although Kurosawa’s movies are superior to their remakes.  Now, America has sent one back the other way with director Lee Sang-il remaking Clint Eastwood’s classic western, Unforgiven.  While the markers are still in place, Sang-il attempts to reframe his remake through the lens of Japanese history.  However, he doesn’t change enough and remains tethered to the themes of Eastwood’s film, and these themes don’t coalesce in Sang-il’s picture.  Although Sang-il’s Unforgiven features stunning cinematography and a lovely score, the overall work is stuck between the demythologizing of one genre and the historical context of another.

Set in Hokkaido in 1890, the story follows Jubei (Ken Watanabe), a former samurai, who has put down his sword to try and live a quiet life as a single father and farmer.  In Washiro, two ex-samurai have cut up a prostitute, and the other women in the brothel put out a bounty after they feel the chief lawman, Ichizo Oishi (Koichi Sato), has been too lenient in his sentence.  Jubei’s friend Kingo Baba (Akira Emoto), a friend from the war between the Shogun and the Emperor, comes to enlist the fellow ex-samurai to retrieve the bounty.  Jubei swore to put aside drink and his violent ways after being reformed by his wife, but needing to support his family, he reluctantly joins Kingo.  On their journey, they team up with cocky Ainu member Goro (Yûya Yagira), who knows the location of the wanted men.


The plot of Sang-il’s remake closely follows the plot of Eastwood’s original, but there are some important changes.  Sang-il quickly establishes the historical lens by opening with a prologue set in 1869 and featuring a skirmish between samurai and the emperor’s soldiers.  The biggest alteration to David Webb Peoples’ script for the original Unforgiven is changing the motives of the old friend (Ned) and young braggart (the Schofield Kid).  Changing the Ned and Schofield Kid roles puts more emphasis on Japanese history—An old war buddy telling the protagonist about the bounty recalls the samurai history, and Goro further backs the theme of the closing frontier.  The Ainu were the native people of Hokkaido, and the Emperor’s soldiers, which represented “modern” values of European influence and use of firearms, assaulted the Ainu’s “outdated” way of life.

Ichizo is the main stand-in for modern Japan’s animosity towards the samurai, but the story begins to fracture with its loyalty to the Little Bill role from Eastwood’s Unforgiven.  Sang-il’s remake appropriately removes aspects like Bill’s crappy house that represents how the lawman isn’t as progressive as he thinks, but keeps the biographer and English Bob character (now “Squire Kitaoji”), who no longer serve a purpose.  Kitaoji is still ex-samurai, but the biographer was part of Eastwood’s demythologizing of the Western and a way to define the Little Bill character.  In the new Unforgiven, he only highlights the imbalance of the picture.  In the first half we spend too much time with Ichizo instead of Jubei, and then vice-versa in the second half.


The imbalance comes from Unforgiven being an incredibly tight and purposeful script, and Sang-il has difficulty completing the translation.  Eventually, the new context featuring Japanese history fades away as the remake becomes more and more faithful to the plot of Eastwood’s movie.  It’s disappointing because Sang-il looks like he’s going to do more than substitute swords for guns.  If anything, the film highlights that dichotomy, and goes so far as to have Ichizo remark, “In the end, it’s bullets that ended the war.”  That historical paradigm is completely absent from Eastwood’s movie, and gives Sang-il’s fresh thematic ground instead of just a new setting.

However, Sang-il does capture that setting beautifully.  Norimichi Kasamatsu’s cinematography is jaw-dropping.  The way he captures the diversity of the Hokkaido landscape is picturesque without feeling static.  Sang-il does try to mirror interior locations, but the sweeping exteriors push far beyond the limits of the original’s geography.  Tarô Iwashiro’s tragic, forlorn score compliments the beautiful cinematography that helps play-up the sense of inevitable loss of both the samurai way of life and Jubei’s pledge to leave behind his hard-drinking, merciless demeanor.


Sang-il attempts to highlight a different historical paradigm, but he comes up short of his goal, and the remake gets lost in the middle ground as a result.  The fidelity to the plot of the 1992 movie creates a connection to themes that Sang-il isn’t interested in exploring, nor can he explore since part of the original Unforgiven is a commentary on westerns, not samurai movies.  The genres are similar, but it’s not a one-to-one exchange.  I admire Sang-il’s attempt to forge a new direction for his remake, but he doesn’t push far enough to break free.  He’s tied to his country’s past, and constrained by another director’s vision.

Rating: C+

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