Unforgiven (Yurusarezarumono): Toronto Review

A solid Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood's Western classic trades guns for swords.

Director Lee Sang-il does a remake of Clinton Eastwood's 1992 classic, "Unforgiven."

In a cross-cultural acknowledgment of his debt to Japanese cinema for the source of his breakthrough film, A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood, along with Warner Bros., authorized this solid remake of his 1992 classic Unforgiven. Substituting destitute samurai for washed-up gunslingers and remote northern Hokkaido for Wyoming, writer-director Lee Sang-il would have been foolish not to stick closely to the dramatic core and characters of David Webb Peoples' great screenplay, although he does add some interesting secondary elements of his own. With Ken Wantanabe, who starred in Eastwood's “Letters from Iwo Jima,” stepping confidently into Eastwood's role, this robust “Eastern” should perform strongly in its home territory, where it opens Sept. 13.

As before, the tale centers on a grizzled killer with much blood on his hands who, having promised his late wife to reform and not kill again, struggles to keep a little farm going while raising two young kids. The lonely patch of land where Jubei (Watanabe) battles the elements is near the sea and now, in the 1880s and more than a decade after the Meiji Restoration has resulted in the reunification of Japan, the chilly area remains a bastion for scattered remnants of the former shogun's samurai army.

As before, this charged, sorrowful tale of men playing out fates to which their natures destine them begins with the mutilation of a prostitute in a village brothel. When local authorities fail to dispense proper justice, the other ladies post a 1000 yen reward to anyone who will make sure the two guilty brothers get what's coming to them. The offer eagerly is embraced by old coot Kingo (Akira Emoto, in Morgan Freeman's part), who twists his old samurai colleague's arm to join him in splitting the reward, something Jubei could sorely use.

Significantly finding that his sword is stuck in its scabbard, Jubei reluctantly leaves his two little kids alone at the forlorn cabin (“Kill a chicken if you get hungry!,” he yells at them as he leaves) and they set out, joined by young wild card Goro (Yuya Yagira, following in Jamiz Woolvett's footsteps). The older men share some significant history, having killed the emperor's pursuit team as members of the shogun's personal guard, a past that will not be appreciated by fanatical police chief Ichizo (Koichi Sato, the Gene Hackman equivalent) who's now in charge of the area.

The backdrop provided by political change in Japan at the time is further augmented by the emperor's campaign against Hokkaido's indigenous Ainu, hunter-gatherers whose language is heard here in spots. Although firearms exist, part of the cinematic rationale for transplanting the story to Japan certainly rests in the appeal of trading in guns for swords, which produces some good, if hardly legendary, action along the way.

With his sixth feature, Lee displays a feel for rugged outdoor shooting, well conveying the harsh winter's corrosive effect on his aging warriors, even if Wantanabe, at 53 nearly a decade younger than Eastwood was when he saddled up in his version, doesn't have the resonant leathery fatalism of his American predecessor. While watching this remake, one recalls how much the iconography of Eastwood, his position as the last of the great Western stars and the legacy of the genre informed so much of what Unforgiven was all about. Eastwood's film was a major late panel in the giant mural of artistic representations of the West, whereas the new one, in the end, is just a decent movie.

As the trio makes its way toward its date with destiny, Ichizo's sadism is played up, as it is particularly visited upon an engaging old-timer (Jun Kunimura, in the Richard Harris role) through some prolonged beatings and torture. The prostitutes are well integrated into the fabric of the community and story, and the ending is showier affair this time around.

Standing on its own, this Unforgiven is perfectly watchable, even decent. But it will always be but a footnote.

Venue: Venice, Toronto film festivals

Opens: Sept. 13 (Japan) Warner Entertainment

Production: Warner Entertainment Japan, Nikkatsu, Office Shirous

Cast: Ken Watanabe, Akira Emoto, Koichi Sato, Yuya Yagira, Jun Kunimura

Director: Lee Sang-il

Screenwriter: Lee Sang-il, based on an original screenplay by David Webb Peoples

Producers: Shinichi Takahashi, Suguru Kubota

Executive producer: Yuji Ishida

Director of photography: Norimichi Kasamatsu

Production designer: Mitsuo Harada, Ryo Sugimoto

Editor: Tsuyoshi Imai

Music: Taro Kwashiro

135 minutes