Japanese take on Eastwood’s classic Unforgiven

by Nav Qateel

Out of all the films I’ve been keen to catch recently, the Japanese take on Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven has been near the top of my list. Not only do I consider that 1992 Western one of the finest motion pictures I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, I’m also a fan of Asian cinema, making this reimagining of Unforgiven, doubly important. Coincidently, lead actor Ken Watanabe (Godzilla) starred in another of Eastwood’s classics, Letters from Iwo Jima, and was also a Japanese-speaking film.

Originally titled Yurusarezaru mono (which translates to ‘A Thing That Can’t Be Forgiven’), and based on the script by David Webb Peoples (Twelve Monkeys, Leviathan), director Sang-il Lee has reworked the story and moved it to feudal Japan in an 1880 setting during the start of the Meiji Era, with a great deal of success. Retaining most of Peoples’ original characters, we follow the exploits of the oft silent Jubei Kamata, played by Ken Watanabe.

Jubei Kamata was a stone cold killer, who was saved from that life by his beloved Ainu wife. After she passes away, Jubei is left to watch over their two young children and work the small plot of land in Ezo, where life is tough and they barely get by. Jubei’s old pal Kingo Baba (Akira Emoto) turns up, and asks Jubei to join him killing two men who cut up a whore, and who now have a reward on their head’s. Badly needing the money, a reluctant Jubei digs up his sword, leaves his children at home and sets off with Kingo. As Jubei and Kingo make their way across Northern Japan, they come across Goro Sawada (Yuya Yagira), another man after the same reward. Now a trio, they head out for a showdown with Sheriff Ichizo Oishi (Kôichi Satô).

Directed by
Sang-il Lee
Ken Watanabe, Akira Emoto, Yuya Yagira, Jun Kunimura, Shiori Kutsuna
Release Date
Nav’s Grade: B

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Because it’s practically impossible for a fan of the original Unforgiven not to draw comparisons, I’m not even going to try. Western’s have borrowed from Samurai movies in the past, with Kurosawa’s 1954 classic The Seven Samurai being perhaps the most famous that went on to influence John Sturges’ making of The Magnificent Seven. Now we have an example of it going in the other direction, and if ever a film translated beautifully from the Western to Samurai ethos, Sang-il Lee’s reimagining of Unforgiven is one of them. Shot by Norimichi Kasamatsu–the cinematographer Lee used in his previous film Villain–with the wild and stunning Japanese vista as a backdrop, we follow three men and examine the nastier side of killing.

Where Clint Eastwood’s grizzled William Munny had been more of a dead-eyed, hard-drinking character, whose cause for killing was less than noble, Jubei Kamata fought and killed with honor. That said, the end result was the same, as both characters are sick with all they have seen and done. Ken Watanabe’s Jubei does little in the way of talking, and like Munny, you get the sense of inner turmoil with an explosive energy just waiting to burst to the surface. The only thing preventing him returning to his old ways is the promise he made to his dead wife.

Jubei’s old comrade Kinga is memorably played by legendary Japanese actor Akira Emoto (Dr. Akagi), who has over 200 credits to his name, spanning over 40 years back to 1973. Kinga does all the talking for Jubei, filling in blanks so that we learn what type of man Jubei is, or rather, was. Kinga puts on an act of bravado, but seeing the truth of things as the film progresses, makes for some moving scenes, and parallels Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan. Kinga’s chatty nature actually made him the perfect companion for the quiet Jubei, and like Ken Watanabe, Akira Emoto was cast extremely well in a role that suited the actor. Japanese heartthrob Yuya Yagira (Again) played Goro Sawada, completing the trio.

Playing the part of the Sheriff was Kôichi Satô as Ichizo Oishi. Satô’s take on this character was interesting, but it paled next to Hackman’s Little Bill. Sheriff Oishi could have been handled differently, but this is minor and like the rest of the cast, Satô’s performance was solid. Jun Kunimura played another Samurai who had come after the reward, and like his English Bob counterpart, is beaten by Oishi and sent away without his biographer. Jun Kunimura played Boss Tanaka in Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

Unforgiven is a worthy reimagining of the original but I’d be reluctant to recommend this film to folk not into Japanese cinema. Unlike the popular Asian action or horror movies, I doubt this Samurai Western will appeal to anyone other than fans of the genre.