Jubei Kamata, it is the end of an era—the Tokugawa Era. The former samurai-assassin
used to kill with impunity and then he simply killed to stay alive, but he gave
up killing at the behest of his beloved late wife. However, killing is a skill
you never forget. Reluctantly, Kamata digs up his sword for a final violent
errand in Sang-il Lee’s Unforgiven (trailer here), an inspired
cross-cultural remake of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning western, which screens
tomorrow as part of this year’s Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film.
a remote frontier village on Hokkaido Island, two ranchers brutally disfigure Natsume,
a young prostitute. Rather than prosecute them, local police chief Ichizo Oishi
merely requires the former samurai pay restitution to the brothel owner.
Outraged by his callous disregard for Natsume’s suffering, her fellow
prostitutes pool their money to place a bounty on the offending settlers.
Kingo Baba intends to collect that bounty, so he tries to recruit his old
samurai comrade Kamata, a.k.a. “Jubei the Killer.” Already haunted by his past
carnage, Kamata dearly wishes to keep his promise renouncing violence.
Unfortunately, a disastrous harvest leaves him no other option to provide for
his young son and daughter. Soon, Kamata and Baba are joined by Goro Sawada, an
impulsive would-be outlaw, who also happens to be half Ainu (the indigenous
people of Hokkaido and Sakhalin). As it happens, Kamata’s late wife was also
Ainu, giving the two men a distant kinship and a shared outage at the Meji
government’s repression of Ainu customs.
the Ainu element further deepens the Unforgiven
story beyond the Eastwood’s revisionist critique of a violent, misogynistic
American west. Closely paralleling the original, Lee’s adaptation perfectly
fits within the rough and tumble early Meiji northern provinces, where many
former Shogunate ronin sought refuge.
Watanabe (who starred in Eastwood’s Letters
from Iwo Jima) is impressively hard-nosed and world weary standing in for
his former director. Akira Emoto’s nervous energy playing Baba is a bit of a
departure from Morgan Freeman’s analog, but it works well in context. Koichi
Sato is smoothly fierce in the Hackman mold and Shiori Kutsuna is devastating
as the disfigured (but still beautiful) Natsume. Yet, it is evidently still
hard to get the balance of exuberance and angst right for Sawada/the Schofield
Cinematographer Norimichi Kasamatsu gives the
Hokkaido vistas the full John Ford treatment, while Lee invests the action
sequences with a tragically operatic vibe. It is a gritty period production that
represents a triumph return to the tradition of Jidaigeki films and westerns
riffing and channeling each other. Frustratingly, it is also a reminder of how
rare the contemporary western has become in Hollywood, even though Japanese
cinema continues to find creative grist in its national history. Highly
recommended for fans of moody westerns and samurai films, Unforgiven screens tomorrow (7/15) at the Japan Society as part of
the 2014 Japan Cuts.
Labels: Japan Cuts '14, Japanese Cinema, Ken Watanabe, Remakes