In the good ol’ vagabond days of yesteryear, the Power House was the best place in Hollywood to throw darts and get drunk on the cheap while enjoying the company of a cross section of LA society. Here I could drink until 2 AM before crawling into the back of my van/home where I’d then either pass out or write until daybreak, whichever urge struck me first.
Most nights during this 2-year period have blurred into a single memory, indistinguishable from one another, but one stands out. It was a cold November evening, midweek, not long before midnight, when an attractive young couple emerged from the crowd. Japanese, recently married and just arrived in Los Angeles for their honeymoon, the groom wore a black cowboy hat, black leather waistcoat, black Levi jeans, black cowboy boots, black leather belt with a giant silver eagle buckle. On either side of his skinny hips was a gun holster, black, of course, and fastened shut. He couldn’t have been a day older than 22. Standing in near silhouette, cloaked in the low-hanging fog of cigarette smoke, he wordlessly snapped open the holsters to reveal three shiny, stainless steel darts. Amid laughter and friendly goading, we bought a congratulatory round of PBR for the couple, dropped a few quarters into the machine and, with Bob Dylan blaring from the jukebox, we went toe-to-toe in a game of Cricket… where he promptly bombed me like I was Pearl Harbor. It was a monumental beatdown, polished off with a polite tip of his cap before this silent stranger in black and his missus disappeared into the crowd and into legend. It was some of the craziest shit I’d ever seen, but it got me thinking – what’s the deal with Japanese cowboys?
It’s early 2014 and I’m loitering in a small, warm room in London’s ICA for the premiere of the Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood’s classic western Unforgiven. This is the Pan-Asia Film Festival 2014 launch, and the turnout is good and the room is packed with journalists and businesspeople. There is a palpable enthusiasm that I had not yet experienced at a screening in London, and the drinks and hors d’oeuvres were free and bountiful so the night was off to a good start. I’d been informed that Unforgiven’s director, Sang-il Lee, would be available to field a few questions beforehand which got me thinking about that night in the Power House, about the curious connection between the Hollywood westerns and Japanese culture, about Seven Samuari and The Magnificient Seven, about Cowboy Bebop, about Sukiyaki Western Django, about Kill Bill. But mostly I was curious about what, exactly, might influence that nice, quiet young couple to dress up in their finest cowboy attire and fly to LA just to thoroughly embarrass me in front of my countrymen. I’m not above admitting that I still want revenge. But I hadn’t had a chance to organise this mess of thoughts when we were informed that director Lee would no longer be taking individual questions. That’s probably for the best, really.
So now the film. We’re in Japan, on the northern island of Hokkaido, the year is 1880 or thereabouts, just a few short years since Japan had seen the Meiji Revolution change the empire from a feudal state to an imperialist power. The last remaining samurai warriors have gone into hiding. The new government, run by the privileged Wa tribe, wants to open up the land for development but the indigenous Ainu people aren’t so keen on that idea. The times, they are a-changin’.
Played by Koichi Sato, who does an admirable job stepping into the muddy boots originally worn by the masterful Gene Hackman, Ichizo Oishi is the new sheriff of a small border town. He’s charismatic and well liked but vicious and cunning. When a couple of settlers go ape-shit with a knife on the face of beautiful young prostitute Natsume (Shiori Kutsuna), he gives the men a slap on the wrist and sends them on their merry way.
Naturally, the whores don’t take kindly to this lack of justice and they put a bounty on the settlers. This forces the sheriff and his men into high-alert mode and soon enough ex-samurai warriors emerge from the woodwork to collect some heads and a quick bit of cash. Little do they know that this is a really stupid idea, as sheriff Ichizo is one psychopathic fucker who doesn’t take much of a shinin’ to their kind. One of these bounty hunters, Masaharu (Jun Kunimura) saunters into the whorehouse with his biographer Yasaburo (Kenichi Takito) in tow. The sheriff takes note and levels an asswhoopin’ on the older man and, with his foe dying in the street, Ichizo convinces the writer to stick around town for a bit.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, there is a dilapidated shack on a hill near the coast. In it lives Clint East—uh, Ken Watanabe – and his two young daughters. Ken plays ex-samurai Jubee Kamata, who was once a fierce warrior with a reputation for being a wee bit crazy. But that was a lifetime ago. Now he is just a humble farmer, father, and widower. His hut isn’t much to sneeze at – if you did, you’d probably knock it down – but it’s his nonetheless, and it’s peaceful and it’s where he wants to raise his daughters.
All that is fine and dandy but you know it’s not going to last, and soon enough in rides ol’ samurai pal Kingo Baba (Akira Emoto) with rumour that a gaggle of whores is offering a hefty fee for the two knife-happy idiots. Not particularly keen on the idea of returning to a life of violence, Jubee informs Kingo that he’d vowed to his dead wife that he’d never kill again. So on Kingo moves without him, but realizing that half the bounty would go a long way towards a better future for his daughters, Jubee strikes out to find his friend. Jubee’s kids are, like, 5 and 7, so leaving them alone for an extended period of time was a bit of a risky move, but I suppose those were simpler times.
Jubee and Kingo ride together and on their way they’re met by a young Ainu freedom fighter named Goro (Yuya Yagira) who provides both the wholly unnecessary wacky comic relief and the over the top melodramatic tears. Goro is out for some kind of revenge and claims to have killed several men. He’s a liar and a coward, but still the three team up and agree to share the bounty.
For the next half hour or so there’s a bit of a lull in the action as we delve into some character development stuff, which is all fine and good but doesn’t make for an entertaining review. It is probably also worth noting that, due to my day job as a rockstar, I was a bit exhausted and closed my eyes for a minute or two. Anyway, somewhere along the line there was a strange sequence where Jubee is suddenly taken violently ill when confronting the sheriff for the first time. Ichizo tosses Jubee out on his ass and demands he stay away. Yasaburo, the biographer, is intrigued as the sheriff reveals that Jubee was once the most vicious motherfucker in the land, who’d even slaughtered a group of women and children without batting an eye, but who is now, sadly, just an empty shell of his former bad-ass self.
Jubee survives his bout of sickness and our heroes catch up to, and ambush, the settlers in a vicious little scene involving dead horses and broken, protruding femurs. Jubee acknowledges that he’s done bad things but claims the rumour of the women- and children-slaughtering isn’t true. Our trio breaks apart as Kingo, ashamed by his own diminished killing skills, wanders off into the sunset. As Jubee and Goro return to town to collect their bounty they discover Kingo’s body hanging from a post – a fair enough warning for all bounty hunters to stay the hell away. But instead, this angers Jubee, which is not a good idea if you like staying alive.
Ashamed that he broke his vow, Jubee sends scarred whore Natsume and manic-depressive Goro away with the cash and leave him to his fate. The new couple head for Jubee’s hut where they presumably will adopt his daughters and live rich and happily ever after away from all this violence and bloodshed and dishonour.
Alone now, as was always his destiny, samurai killer turned humble farmer turned bounty hunter Jubee squares off against sheriff Ichizo and, oh, a dozen or 15 gun- and katana-wielding lawmen. With the biographer and prostitutes watching from the rafters, this battle results in a lot of bloodshed and the whorehouse burning to the ground. As the last man standing, Jubee strikes off into the night. The end.
This version of Unforgiven was at its best when playing it straight. The hijinks (particularly those provided by Goro) and a dozen or so overly self-aware moments spoiled the serious tone. For example, the camera movement and the score during the fight in the street between sheriff Ichizo and ex-samurai warrior Masaharu was done in a way that one couldn’t help but think about The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. A great reference, sure, but if not for these moments constantly taking me out of the movie, I’d’ve really enjoyed it.
Ken Watanabe doesn’t have the gravitas of Clint Eastwood, but you can’t fault him for trying. His scowl and sneer are good enough to get by, and as with the rest of the movie he’s at his best when he’s not trying to emulate the source material. That said, the acting across the board was solid – even Goro, as annoying as his character could be, had many good moments. The production design was immaculate – the grit under the nails and the attention to detail in the costumes was fantastic. Sato as the sadistic sheriff was a treat, and oh my god the cinematography was beautiful – where’d they find all this space to film these beautiful vista shots?! The final shot of the whorehouse on fire was incredible. So there’s a lot to like about this movie, but the constant tonal shifting was a bad choice. Also, I found it interesting and slightly disappointing that a movie based on the premise that violence begets violence would reserve the harshest gore for the baddies when the whores and the heroes receive mostly superficial wounds, or their injuries were hidden from plain sight. (The slicing of Natsume’s face, for example, as horrible as it was, paled in comparison to the broken leg of the fleeing settler, despite being much more significant to the movie.)
I didn’t rewatch the original as I wanted to go into this version with a clean slate but there were several sequences that stood out to me as memorable so I’m guessing they kept it pretty close. However I think this film might have benefitted from a more ambiguous ending – say, once Jubee has killed the sheriff, he turns to take on the lawmen but instead of killing them one by one in a cool-but-wholly-unrealistic way, we instead simply fade to black. Violence begets violence, it really doesn’t matter who wins.
There was one directorial choice that I loved. That was that throughout the first half of the movie Jubee is slightly hidden from view, whether in shadows or in profile, until at one point he is questioned by his companions about killing the women and children. They need to know if he’s a sadistic killer or if this is just a rumour to scare his enemies. Seeing him clearly for the first time – and remaining clearly visible for the remainder of the movie – says to me that Jubee has stepped out of the lie he’d constructed around him, the lie of family, of being a farmer, of dying peacefully. This could never be who he is, no matter how much he’d like it to be true. By revealing himself, Jubee embraces the fact that he is a born killer and he’ll remain that regardless of any vow. Jubee tells his friends that the rumours are lies, and the audience is meant to believe he is telling us the truth, but in the final scene when he spares the life of the biographer, Jubee orders him to write what he saw happen but to leave out any mention of the whore and the Ainu warrior – and in his eyes I saw a man who could, once upon a time, kill innocent women and children if ordered to do so. A man who has tried to deny his true self, and who has come to forgive himself by shouldering the blame of this deadly fiasco. He can’t undo his terrible past but he can allow his friends and his children to live a better future with him.