Adapting Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” to 19th-century Japan proves remarkably apt in Lee Sang-il’s version of David Webb Peoples’ celebrated script, though the original’s undercurrent of wrenching emotion here becomes more of a surface trickle. Nevertheless, Lee (“Villain,” “Hula Girls”) presents an impressive vista that’s loyal to the source material, with the inspired inclusion of an indigenous leitmotif courtesy of Hokkaido’s aboriginal Ainu people. Stunningly shot and never less than entertaining, this new “Unforgiven” will find receptive auds at fests and could see a small, targeted international rollout; local B.O. should be strong.
Just as Akira Kurosawa chose the perfect correlates when shifting horse operas to a Japanese setting, so Lee was inspired in selecting the early Meiji period for his “Unforgiven.” It’s 1869, and imperial troops hotly pursue renegade samurai, loyal to the Shogun system, who have fled to the northern island of Hokkaido. An impressively choreographed bloodbath unfolds in the snowy forests, staining the frozen groundcover.
Jump to a frontier town in 1880, when volatile former samurai Sanosuke (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) slashes the face of prostitute Natsume (Shiori Kutsuna) for ridiculing his endowment. Since local police chief Ichizo Oishi (Koichi Sato, superb) refuses to take action, her professional sorority offers a reward for the capture of Sanosuke and his cohorts. Enter braggart Kingo Baba (Akira Emoto), who tracks down old war comrade Jubei Kamata, aka “Jubei the Killer” (Ken Watanabe), and convinces the ex-samurai assassin that the reward money will ensure a better life for his two kids than the unyielding land he’s trying to farm.
Like Eastwood’s William Munny, Watanabe’s Jubei knows he’ll never be able to wash all the blood off his hands, and he’s foresworn violence, but his desire to care for his children, plus his anger that someone would disfigure a woman, reluctantly convince him to hunt down the perps. He and Kingo are joined by young hothead Goro Sawada (Yuya Yagira) and they head to town, where they’re quickly disarmed by Ichizo, a sadistic S.O.B. who brooks no rivals.
Lee seamlessly incorporates elements of pro-Native American Westerns via a subplot in which imperial troops humiliate Ainu villagers (the Meiji government felt these indigenous people were too backward). Jubei’s dead wife was Ainu, making him especially sensitive to the plight of the discriminated while connecting him to their elevated spirituality, and Goro’s hidden half-Ainu heritage contributes to his conflicted nature. Though limited to a subplot, these elements add a deeper layer and pay homage to oater sources while remaining true to both the Japanese setting and the film’s direct source material.
Otherwise, “Unforgiven” hones closely to Eastwood’s classic, playing with themes of revenge in the ambiguous way mastered by Budd Boetticher and his reluctant heroes, forced into a return to violence. Watanabe tries hard to drink from the wellspring of inchoate melancholy so movingly embodied by Randolph Scott and, in the first “Unforgiven,” Eastwood, yet despite a committed perf, he rarely gets under the skin of the character, whose frozen exterior reflects something equally dead inside. Much the same can be said for most of the pic, which plays marvelously with surface elements but can’t quite plumb the depths of the antiheroic tragedies meant to be at its heart. In particular, more complexity is demanded from the prostitutes, whose battered emotions are only sketchily drawn.
An unquestioned standout is Norimichi Kasamatsu’s sweeping widescreen visuals with their gorgeous vistas taking in craggy mountains and flaxen-colored fields in the tradition of the great Western cinematographers. Lee also proves remarkably sophisticated in his use of color, attuned to contrasts (white and black, blood-red on white, etc.) that give individual value to each element; a sequence toward the end set among desiccated trees is especially noteworthy. Music borrows heavily from expected sources, teetering on the predictable.