Yurusarezaru Mono (2013) is Lee Sang-Il’s gorgeous remake of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 revisionist Western Unforgiven, shifting the setting from the American Old West to Japan’s late 19th century northern frontier on the island of Hokkaido. Lee is able to draw out tremendous parallels between the two countries in that era – both recovering from a civil war, and expanding outwards into ‘unclaimed’ territory – and effectively retell the same basic story in a wholly new locale. Ken Watanabe (Tampopo, The Last Samurai) stars as Clint Eastwood’s equivalent: Jubei Kamata, aka “Jubei the Killer”, a former samurai on the side of the Shogunate in Japan’s civil war (1868-69). After the fall of the Shogunate to Imperial forces, Jubei is among those who fled to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido (then called Ezo), where he now lives a life of utter destitution. He’s picked up by Akira Emoto’s Kingo (the role played by Morgan Freeman in the original, in some strikingly similar casting) to collect on a bounty placed on the Hotta brothers by the prostitutes they disfigured. Much of this draws on story beats from the original Unforgiven despite the drastic change in location and culture, but while Clint Eastwood’s final Western is critically acclaimed, I’ve never cared much for it. In Lee’s hands, however, the story comes alive and works in a way I never felt about the original.
It’s truly remarkable how well Hokkaido works as a frontier setting to replicate the feel of an American western. Of course, some aspects of the setting force interesting changes: when Jubei digs up his old weapon, it’s a samurai sword that has been rusting in the ground rather than a pistol. Yet in this era, Japan has been abruptly exposed to the West and modernity, and when Kingo rides up to ask Jubei to join him he’s carrying a lever-action repeating rifle. As a tangent, it’s worth noting that firearms weren’t completely alien to the Japanese before the arrival of US warships – the muskets (hinawa-ju) carried by the Hotta brothers’ compatriots, and by some of the militia raised later in the film, had existed in Japan in various forms for centuries. Samurai use of firearms is often overlooked in the West, despite being featured in seminal films like Seven Samurai. Indeed, Japanese films and westerns have a complex history, with both official (Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven) and unofficial remakes galore (Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars). That Lee Sang-il returns the favour by remaking a seminal western as jidaigeki is only fair.
It’s not just the arrival of modern firearms that makes Yurusarezaru Mono feel like a western. Lee draws parallels between the indigenous Ainu people of Japan and the indigenous Native Americans of North America. At this point in history, both peoples had been pushed out by aggressive expansion – whether by white settlers or Yamato Japanese. I’m not enough of a scholar to say how accurate the depiction of the Ainu is here, but several details jump out, from the bold black facepaint or makeup of the Ainu women to their language itself. It’s the only time I believe I’ve heard Ainu spoken. Indeed, I struggle to think of other depictions of Ainu culture in Japanese media, at least insofar as media that reaches the West. It’s difficult for me to say whether this is only a natural result of adapting Unforgiven, with its Native American characters and obvious parallels with the Ainu, or whether the particular focus on them is down to Lee himself. Lee is ethnically Korean but born in Japan (or, Zainichi Korean) and it is impossible not to speculate about how he might have incorporated his own experiences as a perceived outsider in a country that sees itself as ethnically, racially, and culturally homogeneous despite significant populations of indigenous peoples, descendants of Chinese and Koreans brought to Japan during its imperial era in the first half of the 20th century, and of course more recent immigrants. Intentional or not, Yurusarezaru Mono is a damning indictment of Meiji Japan’s treatment of non-Japanese, and it’s tough not to find that relevant still today.
Beyond the challenge – spectacularly met – of visually and thematically adapting Unforgiven into a Japanese setting, with its stunning blend of Eastern and Western costuming, beautiful cinematography, and enormously atmospheric locations, Yurusarezaru Mono actually feels remarkably close to the original. The story may not play out beat for beat in the exact same way, but Watanabe’s Jubei is weary and damaged in a very similar way to Eastwood’s aging gunslinger. Watanabe puts in some of his best work, capturing the reluctance Jubei has to resume a life of violence, culminating in a near-catatonic episode as he’s beaten within an inch of his life but cannot bring himself to retaliate. And when he’s inevitably called upon to put his skills into action, Watanabe acquits himself well. My major problem with the original Unforgiven was that I couldn’t stand Gene Hackman’s performance as the film’s antagonist; fortunately, the supporting cast in Yurusarezaru Mono is stellar.
That the story transfers across so well is a strong argument against American exceptionalism – the idea that American culture is unique because of the way settlers expanded into virgin territory and had to start from scratch (ignoring that this territory was occupied by Native Americans, just as the Ainu had been pushed into northern Japan). Here is Japan in the waning years of the 1800s doing the exact same thing, attempting to tame vast Hokkaido, regardless of who already lived there. It’s a fraught period, and one that leaves me with complex feelings about the modernisation of Japan. It’s easy to overly romanticise the country’s earlier, feudal, samurai era, but of course that was a period of tremendous inequality and repression. Japan’s rapid push towards industrialisation and modernity brought positive changes, but also destroyed many old traditions, and would before long lead the country to fascism in the years leading up to WW2. At least this clash of cultures, with former samurai like Jubei running up against representatives of the new Imperial government, makes for a fascinating setting – and a truly excellent film.
Yurusarezaru Mono / 許されざる者
Director: Lee Sang-il
Japanese Release Date: 13th September, 2013
Version Watched: 135 min