Unforgiven (Yurasarezaru Mono) (2013)

Review first published by Little White Lies

“Is it loaded? I wonder. I don’t know either.”

These words, uttered by local lawman Oishi (Sato Koichi) as he taunts a captive criminal (Kunimura Jun) on the high risks of using a gun against him, is a clear riff on one of Clint Eastwood’s most famous (if misquoted) lines as the maverick cop in Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry. Later, confronting protagonist Jubei (Watanabe Ken) for the first time, Oishi will ask, “What’s your name? Don’t you have one?”, instantly evoking the spirit of another of Eastwood’s most iconic characters, ‘The Man With No Name’.

For much as Yurusarezaru Mono is a close remake of 1992’s revisionist oater Unforgiven, in which director/star Eastwood all at once de- and re-constructed the gun-slinging antihero he had so often portrayed in earlier decades, so the two chief antagonists in Lee Sang-il’s film vie, in their different ways, to be Eastwood (or at least to be characters that he has played). What is missing though is Eastwood himself, whose appearance in the original Unforgiven was the senescent embodiment of the western mythos itself, weighed down and wrinkled by its own bullet-riddled past of marauding and murder. Though fine actors in their own right, neither Watanabe nor Sato can really fill those boots or carry that history.

it ain’t easy being Eastwood…

So Yurasarezaru Mono offers a different history. Eastwood’s sunset tale of the old west has been transplanted to the land of the rising sun, and more specifically to Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, where Jubei has sought refuge ever since his days of killing for the Tokugawa Shogunate were brought to an abrupt end by the Meiji restoration. Now reformed, this aging farmer, widower and father is drawn back towards his old ways by ‘one last job’ — with reward attached — to wreak deadly revenge on the two brothers who cut up a prostitute in the local town.

All the narrative beats, all the characters and all the morally murky myth-(re)making of the original Unforgiven are here (with a subtly altered beginning and end), but as Jubei rides again, he is also avenging another crime: the shameless pillaging of jidai-geki by oaters. After all, Eastwood’s first appearance as ‘the Man with No Name’ was in A Fistful of Dollars, which had borrowed its plot wholesale from Kurosawa Akira’s Yojimbo. Lee, himself a Zainichi (or Korean resident in Japan), is reclaiming the cross-cultural debt, pitting eastern against western and sword against gun as much as old legends against encroaching modernity.

Perhaps most distinctive here is a focus on the Ainu, Hokkaido’s aborigines (and rough equivalent to Native Americans), whose indigenous status was not officially recognised until 2008, over a century after their land was colonised and their traditions and language suppressed by the then new, ‘enlightened’ Meiji government. This is one loaded gun in Japanese history that few other films have explored. Unforgiven, indeed.

Anticipation Revisionist western remade as eastern?

Enjoyment Great performances, stunning wintry cinematography…

In Retrospect …but haven’t we been here — or somewhere very similar — before?

© Anton Bitel