In the days after the Shogun’s rule, when all his samurai have been run down, a young prostitute is disfigured by her client. Outraged, that the local no-nonsense lawman only issues a fine, her fellow sex-workers put a bounty on the client’s head. Word of this gets to Jubei, an ex-samurai of The Shogun who is legendary in his past brutality but now has given up the sword and bottle to better look after his children, though hard times have fallen on his land so he is forced to do what he hates the most. Things are only complicated further when the town’s lawman becomes aware of Jubei’s intensions.
Well, it’s been quite the while since a Japanese film has had a major theatrical release here in the UK. Times have been a little bleak for the seasoned Asian film fan, most the DVD distributors have stopped distributing and there have barely been any films of note in production worth keeping an eye on.
So it was with no small amount of excitement that this reviewer found out that Sang-il Lee’s remake of Clint Eastwood’s seminal classic, Unforgiven, was getting a national release. Hell, combined with the release of the much-anticipated sequel to The Raid in a short while, who knows? Maybe things are in turn-around.
If that’s the case, then no better film could have been used to lead the way, Yurusarezaru Mono (let’s just call it Unforgiven from here) is a brilliant film, though a word of warning, it is a remake in the most literal sense, not a shot for shot remake per se but almost every scene HAS been accounted for and with the exact same story intensions.
This is an understandable approach, I mean, who in their right mind would try to improve or drastically change a story that is widely considered one of the all time classics by fans of the genre? That being said, why go out of your way at all to watch a film that, for all intents and purposes, is the same as one you probably already have in your collection? Well, I guess the only real reason would be curiosity or a love for Asian or samurai cinema, fans of which will no doubt get a kick out the reversal of a classic western being remade into a samurai flick as apposed to old custom of turning Kurosawa films into westerns.
If you DO go out of your way you’ll be rewarded with a gritty but wonderfully realised visual treat that is very interesting to watch (and let’s face it, draw comparisons with) despite the fact that you’ll know beat for beat what’s going to happen.
If you’ve never seen Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (shame on you) then you are in for a genuine treat on all fronts. The story of Unforgiven is a slow burning, emotional rollercoaster that manages to be quietly meditative until it becomes horrendously violent (and badass). I would go as far as saying this is probably the best samurai film since Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai or Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi, both of which are now over a decade old.
The differences of the two versions are few and not terribly significant, but worth pointing out nonetheless. First is the setting; this version takes place on a Japanese island in the mid-1800’s. This is after a time when The Shogun warred with, then surrendered to, The Emperor of Japan. This war split the nation, so laced in the plot are historical based rivalries that, in the original, exist as simple rivalries of pride.
This is a time that we don’t see so often in the movies. The samurai class barely exists, but of the few that ARE still in operation, there is a sense that guns are the best way to kill, and so are used in combat over swords, which combined with the barren state of the island, makes this ‘samurai flick’ feel more like a western than you initially expect. Indeed, it is only the garb and the occasional use of swords that sets it apart from a classic style western.
The major difference between this and the original is Ken Watanabe’s portrayal of the leading character. Eastwood’s brooding character barely concealed a seething rage that has you kind of wanting the shit to hit the fan, just to see how crazy things will get; Watanabe however, thought equally excellent, carries with him an overbearing sadness that more clearly illustrates the tragedy of him going back to his old ways. It’s a subtle change in character but shifts the dynamic of the film a great deal.
It’s interesting that his character is named Jubei (to fans of Japanese culture anyway) as there is a very famous literary/pop culture character in Japan called Jubei, who is a lone wolf style, swordsman for hire; you might know the character best from the anime, Ninja Scroll. Perhaps Sang-il Lee’s decision to call the character Jubei is a shortcut for the Japanese public to more quickly make the link that this old samurai has a bloody past and a fierce reputation, in much the same way as casting Eastwood as an old gunfighter did… or maybe I’m just reading too much into it.
There are also a couple of major changes to the very end of the film, but I’ll let you discover those for yourself.
Unforgiven is highly recommended to any and all fans of Asian cinema and fans of westerns, just so long as they have the patience for subtitles. For anyone else, great acting, direction and beautiful visuals ensure that this is a wonderful film in it’s own right, but those who prefer their cinema with a pacey edge may find it too slow moving.
C grade – for originality
A- grade – for storytelling
B+ grade – for visuals
B+ grade – for acting
Overall grade – B+