Unforgiven (Yurusarezarumono): Written and directed by Sang-il Lee. Starring: Ken Watanabe, Akira Emoto, Yuya Yagiri, Shiori Kutsuna, Eiko Koike, Koichi Sato. Running Time: 135 minutes. Based on the original screenplay of the same name, by David Webb People.
As far back as collective human memory goes, the debate over when, how, and for what purposes people can or should be able to kill other people has continued unabated. There is hardly a religion, philosophy, sociopolitical system, or culture that does not involve some law, tradition, or other concerning the subject. And yet, after six thousand years of soul-searching, many would assert that we have not reached any definitive conclusion as a species. And for as long as we have been telling stories, and more recently making movies, we have asked and explored one question after another, diving into the nature of man’s role in death, and more often than not coming up less than satisfied- or pleased- with what we’ve found. Into this thick and heady fray comes Unforgiven, a Japanese-samurai remake of the now-legendary Clint Eastwood Western that took home Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy awards over 20 years ago.
Ken Watanabe stars as Jubei, an infamous ex-samurai known as “Jubei the Killer,” who was forced into hiding on the northern island of Hokkaido after the Meiji Restoration led to the elimination of many of the former samurai nobles. There, he has sought to leave his violent past behind him, raising his children on a small farm in the middle of nowhere. However, the past, slippery devil that it is, soon catches up to him the form of his former comrade-in-arms, Kingo. Farther to the north, in a small hamlet controlled by the dictatorial Oichi, two farmers have had a bounty put on their heads by the prostitutes of a small bar, after one of them drunkenly cut up the face of one of their sisters. Kingo has gotten wind of the promised amount, and wants Jubei's help taking out the farmers, after which they will split the cash. He is, at first, unwilling, but the land is so destitute and barren, and the needs of his children too great, that he breaks his promise to his deceased wife and rides north to assist his friend.
They are initially stalked, and soon joined, by Ichizo, an Ainu, who are a native local people relentlessly persecuted for their unique language and culture by the Japanese forces that occupy the island. The group reaches the village fairly quickly, but are caught unawares by just how brutally Oichi enforces his “no-weapons” rule. Oichi also happens to be a veteran of one of the original pursuit units that tracked samurai across the island nearly a decade earlier, and his hatred for both them and the native Ainu makes him even more determined to prevent Jubei and his friends from fulfilling their goal of killing the two alcoholic farmers, even though he says up-front that he does not care if the two villagers live or die.
The real strength of the story, though, comes from how it doesn’t just rely on the instinctive hatred between Jubei and Oichi to generate conflict and flashy fight scenes. Instead, both that and the search for the farmers are used as reflections on the aforementioned ambiguity of when and why killing could be justified. Yes, the two targets have done something terrible, but they are never shown to be inherently violent people. One of them even brings gifts as an apology early in the film. Is it even right to say that Oichi, for all his open brutality to, well, everyone and everything, should die? We see how open and degrading the repression of the Ainu is. Although they are and have always been a peaceful people, would they be justified in rising up in revolt? The determined mother of the prostitute house is given a chance at the very beginning to kill the farmers herself, and does not take it. Is it fear of retribution from Oichi, or a fear of corrupting herself, even in the name of achieving her perceived justice for her injured friend?
Right from the start, the movie wades into this murky and gray moral swamp, and never really bothers to leave it, even at the end, when Jubei takes responsibility for everything that has happened upon himself. Killing weighs on a person, especially people like Ichizo who have never done it before. The original Unforgiven was in many ways an attempt to undercut the nostalgic glorification of the classic shootout as seen in so many of the original genre classics, and Lee’s remake fully embraces this aspect of the subject matter. Jubei is the best there is at killing a lot of people, and one look on his face tells us that he long ago ceased to reflect on whether or not such things are right or wrong, even though he has tried so hard to achieve some form of redemption for his actions. I would hate to see the results should Ken Watanabe and Clint Eastwood ever get into a tortured stare-off.
Set against the stunningly gorgeous backdrop of the mountainous Hokkaido landscape, where the characters are often seen simply as tiny moving dots along a vast and rolling hillside, there is an air of inevitability to the events depicted as they play out before us. Hatred and a desire for vengeance sets everything in motion, and by the time the final blows have landed, everyone involved, even the poor mutilated girl, seem to be at a loss as to what the benefit of it all was.
It is an effective and striking movie, although not one without its flaws. Jubei seems very quick in his decision to break his promise to his wife- a little more time devoted to his children, to give real weight to his fate, would not have gone amiss. Additionally, I had hoped to see a lot more of the prostitutes (thus far, one of the strangest critiques I’ve had in a review). When they first appear, there are some lines rich with subtext regarding the status of women, and sex workers in particular, in a lawless land where might makes right. They are every bit as shaded as Jubei and Oichi, and having more of their presence and their own unique struggles with this world of violence would have given the film a fuller, more rounded feel, but I can’t say they are underrepresented, since this is ultimately a film about Jubei himself.
I think this film is worthwhile watching for everyone, regardless of whether or not you love, hate, or have never seen the Clint Eastwood original. It is gorgeously filmed, effectively acted, and will leave you with a lot to think about when it’s over.
Next film: Tamako In Moratorium