Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai, Inception, Godzilla) stars as Jubei Kamata, a fearsome former samurai of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Wounded and presumed dead in the aftermath of the War of Goryokaku, which proceeded the fall of the Shogunate, Kamata miraculously survived his ordeal. After meeting and subsequently marrying a woman from a local Ainu tribe, the wandering ronin devoted himself to a life of quiet solitude and earthly toil with his two young children. However, his wife’s untimely death leaves Kamata solely responsible for his kin, and it’s not long before a figure from the samurai’s past stirs up long-repressed memories of infamy and affluence. Downtrodden and defeated, Kamata sets aside his tools of toil and labour, taking up his rusting katana for one last contract – and the sake of his children.
There’s good, bad and, indeed, ugly to be found in Sang-il’s meticulously realised period piece. First, the positives. Proficiently shot by Norimichi Kasamatsu (who worked on the director’s previous film, 2010’s Villain), the snowy vistas of rural Japan are more than a match for the vast expanses of the Old West. It’s against this arresting canvas that Kamata’s tale of redemption plays out, with the welcome addition of a subplot involving the ethnic cleansing of the Ainu people. Their figurehead in Unforgiven is Sanosuke (Yukiyoshi Ozawa, doing his best face-scratching Toshiro Mifune impersonation), a harlequin-style character who gradually reveals a past blighted by tragedy and hardship. It’s the tumultuous relationship between these two men of contrasting backgrounds that serves as the emotional core of Sang-il’s drama, as does the daily torment of the disfigured prostitute Kamata has been charged with avenging.
And yet, taking place at a time of immense social and cultural upheaval, the influence of the West can be seen in more than just the elegant suits worn by Kôichi Satô‘s morally corrupt lawman (a similar role to the one so brilliantly fulfilled by Gene Hackman in the Eastwood film). Part-produced by Unforgiven stable Warner Bros, Sang-il’s remake often feels like it’s been made for international audiences above its own home market; a global product rather than a national one. Further evidence for this comes courtesy of the film’s jarring score, which veers wildly from Kurosawa-aping percussion to recognisably westernised melodies. Perhaps most crucially of all, Watanabe – though comfortable in the lead role – never really improves (or even differs) on Eastwood’s preceding turn. Much like Sang-il’s attempt as a whole, his performance is more pallid imitation than bold Bushido revision.