out of Five
Running time: 135
Tense, brooding and good looking Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood’s final Western that debunks the Samurai hero by exploring the traits of a man who once laid down state governed violence and whose very name sends a shiver down the spine of even the most hardened of warriors.
What’s it all about?
Set at the dawn of the Meiji Era in 1880, former shogun assassin Jebei Kamata is now an aged farmer living in poverty trying to support his two children. Kamata is persuaded by his old partner Kingo to collect a bounty put upon the heads of two men who brutally attacked a prostitute in a town governed by a corrupt sheriff. They set out on the trail to collect their cash and lay down some harsh justice, meeting a kid from the Ainu tribe along the way who convinces them to let him accompany them on their arduous journey.
Unforgiven works on its own terms, handling the complex themes from the original film with a deft hand and transferring them extremely well on to its Japanese setting. The scenery of Hokkaido is startlingly beautiful and the plight of the Ainu tribe is weaved expertly into this retelling. Blood curdling cries and grotesque breaking of bones ensure this meditation on the true nature and malice of murder delivers sickening effective blows.
Ken Watanabe is great casting as former samurai, Kamata, simmering slowly throughout the film and making the final, inevitable rage filled showdown a vicious and gruesome spectacle. The combination of his fantastic performance and superb directing from Lee Sang-il makes this a powerful and emotional finale. Koichi Sato as the corrupt sheriff (the role which won Gene Hackman his best supporting actor Oscar in 1992) and adversary to Kamata is convincingly ghastly.
Unforgiven lacks some of the sardonic wit of the original, with the dime-store writer being less of a point of ridicule, and the Ainu tribe teenager being a slapstick style drunk who is the brunt of a lot of the punch-lines, but the humour here is much broader and Watanabe occasionally drifts into Eastwood impression territory.
Unforgiven is definitely worth a watch thanks to its charismatic leading man Ken Watanabe, its grotesque take on the true horror of death and the beautifully composed landscape shots of Hokkaido. It’s a finely crafted retelling though occasionally the familiarity of the original does overshadow it somewhat.