Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Academy Award winner “Unforgiven” has undergone a Japanese remake. “Yurusarezaru Mono” — starring Ken Watanabe, Akira Emoto, Koichi Sato and Yuya Yagira (the best-actor winner at Cannes when he was 12; he’s 23 now) — is loyal to Eastwood’s classic Western but adds a pulsating core of Japanese-ness. It’s a movie heavy with sentiment and crammed with violence, recalling Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” minus the humor.
The director is Zainichi Korean filmmaker Lee Sang-il (“Hula Girls,” “Akunin [Villain]“), renowned for being a ruthless perfectionist. At the premiere screening in Tokyo earlier this month, Emoto commented that Lee could “harass an actor without mercy in order to get the precise desired frame.” To this, Lee laughingly replied, “I take that as a compliment. Persistence in a director is a good thing.”
Despite the cheery mood at the premiere, the content of “Yurusarezaru Mono” (which literally translates as “Unforgiven”) is anything but. Watanabe plays Jubee Kamata (the equivalent to Eastwood’s Will Munny character), a retired samurai who was on the wrong side during the early stages of the Meiji Restoration and was consequently pursued all the way to Hokkaido by the newly established government military forces. Jubee was hunted but not killed — he survived by murdering everyone in his path, including, according to in-film legend, an entire village of women and children.
We meet Jubee a decade after he has dropped out of the picture. People assume he is dead, but he has actually reformed his ways under the guidance of an Ainu woman who became his wife. (The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido.) When she died, she left him with two young children.
Jubee now lives in a secluded hut tucked away from civilization, eking out a living from a miserable tract of farmland. Just like Eastwood’s Munny in the original “Unforgiven,” Jubee wants to bury his past and do right by the memory of his wife, but his sin bears a long shadow.
In an interview with The Japan Times, director Lee (who also wrote the screenplay) says that the theme of forgiveness formed the main pillar of his adaptation.
“In the West, and in the original ‘Unforgiven,’ there’s a strong conviction that God is the only being that can forgive the sins of man. In Japan, there are a lot of gods, but none as all-powerful or all-encompassing to mete out that sort of benevolence. Only man can forgive another man. But vengeance is a huge part of the culture here, and formed the very fabric of samurai society. Men paid with their lives, and in very violent ways. The concept of forgiveness was so alien.
“Not that I was interested in drawing the essence of Bushido or anything like that. Rather, the very ambivalence of the concept of forgiveness was interesting to me. Ultimately, who really has the power to exonerate a man like Jubee?”
In “Unforgiven,” Munny saddles up for one more bounty hunt with old cohort Ned (Morgan Freeman); Jubee’s isolation ends when Kingo (Emoto) comes around, offering a 50/50 split on a similar mission. Both bounties involve a prostitute whose face has been horribly slashed by a customer, prompting her brothel mates to scrounge together their savings and offer up a bounty to anyone who succeeds in killing the abusive bastards.
And so the answer to Lee’s question above seems to be women. Jubee refers constantly to his wife, and when Kingo urges him to “have a little fun” when they arrive at the brothel, the ex-marauderer looks up to the sky and mumbles, “But she’ll be watching me.” And the cut-up hooker, played by the dewy Shiori Kutsuna, is young and full of innocence, and approaches Jubee not with promises of sexual pleasure but onigiri (rice balls) that she made with her own soft hands. If anyone in this blood-soaked tale is without sin it would probably be her and Jubee’s dead wife.
“I decided Jubee’s wife should be Ainu,” explains Lee. “An Ainu woman was completely outside of the samurai hierarchy that Jubee had lived in before; she had none of the values of his particular society. He needed a woman like that. She could cleanse him of his dark and tainted past life, because she came from another world.”
As for the prostitute, Lee says, “The girl too, is remote from Jubee’s world. She’s had her face slashed but she’s retained much of her human dignity and kindness. She’s not like the other whores who scream for vengeance; she’s a little vague about that. You never really know if she wants to go through with offering the bounty or not.”
Interestingly, though both women are victims of Japan’s heavily patriarchal society (the movie also touches upon the terrible colonialist measures inflicted on the Ainu by the Meiji government), we don’t see or hear about either of them fighting back.
“Ultimately, I wanted to draw the enormous rift that exists between those who had lived through violence, and are as familiar with it as their own skins, and those who had never been in that position,” says Lee. “It’s so hard for those mired in violence to forgive. Just like in this movie, they get into a cycle of killing and revenge and killing some more. It’s got to stop somewhere, or it could go on forever. In the end, Jubee gives closure to that cycle. But the legacy of violence remains, and it is up to the whores in that brothel to acknowledge it, and accept it as theirs. They’ve started the whole thing by offering a reward for murder. They have real blood on their hands.”
And as the title suggests, salvation is nowhere in sight.
For a chance to win one of five “Yurusarezaru Mono” T-shirts (in unisex M size), visit jtimes.jp/film. The deadline is Oct. 1.