Usually, remakes work the other way 'round: a Western company buys the rights to some Japanese property and remakes it with an English-speaking cast. The results span the gamut from good to godawful: Battle Angel Alita, The Ring, Ghost In The Shell, Dragonball: Evolution. This time, Japanese companies — Nikkatsu and Warner Entertainment Japan — obtained the rights to a Western property (in more than one sense of that word) and localized it. It would be tempting to say the results turned out as good as they did chiefly because director and screenwriter Sang-Il Lee stood on the shoulders of giants, but his adaptation does more than just port the action one-for-one to a new locale. It uses its localization to say things the original did not, in ways the original could not. That it has not been released for English-speaking audiences anywhere outside the UK, and then only in an edition now difficult to find, is an inexplicable oversight.
... and hell followed with him
Eastwood's Unforgiven appeared in 1992, right when a Western seemed like the least likely thing people would turn out in droves for, let alone garner awards. I remember seeing its coming-soon poster in a movie theater lobby and shaking my head at it. A moment later I realized a) Eastwood was behind the camera as well as in front of it, and b) the screenwriter was David Webb Peoples, co-author of Blade Runner. Then I saw the film, and since went on to own a copy of it in most every home video format I had a player for.
The bare bones of the story break no ground: a man retired from a life of violence is lured back to perform one last hit. The details of character and circumstance are what matter. Eastwood's character, William Munny, "a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition," as the opening titles tell us, left behind his thieving and slaughtering days to settle down with a wife and make a family. The film opens (by way of one of the many breathtakingly lovely shots throughout this film) with Munny digging her grave. Smallpox took her, leaving Munny with a son, a daughter, an unsuccessful hog farm, and a promise on her memory not to lapse back into his old ways.
Munny is on the verge of starving when the self-proclaimed "Schofield Kid" (Jaimz Woolvett) comes calling. A young gun for hire, he caught wind of a thousand-dollar bounty for killing two cowboys who mutilated Delilah (Anna Levine), a prostitute in the mud-sodden frontier town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. Money like that can give a man and his brood a new lease on life. And so even though he's barely able to mount a horse or shoot straight anymore, he packs up his guns and heads off. Maybe between him, the Kid, and Munny's old comrade-in-arms Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), they can pull off this job without too much sweat or blood.
Wagon train all broke down
Many Westerns could rightly be called "revisionist" or "deconstructionist", but Unforgiven goes so far as to make the revisionism and the deconstructionism part of the story. This is embodied in Munny's main antagonist — not either of the cowboys he's hunting, but "Little" Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), sheriff of Big Whiskey. He despises the "men of low character" glamorized throughout the frontier, such as the likes of William Munny and his company. When another such self-aggrandizer, English Bob (Richard Harris) breezes into town with his biographer (more like hagiographer) W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) in tow, Daggett makes an example out of him, leaving him a battered, bleeding husk to be trundled back out of town. He's only too happy to regale Beauchamp with stories about the real West, most of which consisted of drunken men doing stupid, violent things that always sound better when retold by starry-eyed bystanders. (One gets the impression the weapons ban is just Daggett's excuse for being able to beat to a pulp with his bare hands those with a reputation that would dare outshine his.)
The way the rest of Unforgiven is constructed only proves Daggett's point: the mythos of the West collapsed at a touch, and not even from the outside. The Schofield Kid's reputation is all hype; he can barely even see past a few yards. When he finally kills one of the cowboys, it's only because the other man is cornered in an outhouse and he has him at pointblank range. The other cowboy's death turns out to be so protracted and agonizing (he's been gutshot at range) that Ned Logan can't bring himself to finish the job. William Munny himself, once the terror of the West, enters Big Whiskey so ill from his journey that he can barely stand; Dagget disarms him and kicks him into the gutter. Some avenging angel. Even the technological centerpiece of the Wild West, the gun, misfires or explodes often enough that it seems safer to go without one.
But none of this means the power of that mythology ceases to exist. If anything, it only manifests all the more powerfully when it's invoked. At the film's climax, when Munny goes gunning for Daggett after the latter beats Ned Logan to death for not giving up his "whore's gold"-sharing comrades, Munny invokes every bit of his fearsome reputation to take on Daggett and all of his men at once. If the only thing people choose to believe about him is that he's a beast, so be it.
Hokkaido, by way of Wyoming
The first question when dealing with any relocalization is how to match each element in it to the target locale. Sang-Il Lee (the film adaptation of Ryū Murakami's 69; the oddball Scrap Heaven) did not have to work very hard to transpose the story to Japan's own past. For the Wild West, swap in the "deep north" of Hokkaido; for the Indians, swap in the Ainu; for the end of the Wild West as a way of life, swap in the Meiji Restoration. The substitutions are not quite one-for-one, but they don't need to be exact; they bring to mind enough of the same things to work.
Eastwood's Munny came from the Wild West tradition of murderous hellraisers. Yurusarezarumono gives us Jūbei, played by none other than Ken Watanabe, now a familiar presence in Hollywood as well as in Japan. Jūbei served under the Shōgunate as an enforcer, but the impression we get is that he did it mainly so he could indulge in his thirst for killing, not out of filial loyalty. With the Shōgunate now gone, Jūbei found a life with an Ainu woman, and as per the original the movie opens not long after she passed away and left him with their children, their house, and his promise to her that he'd leave his murderous ways behind.
All this is upended in the same way as before: in one of the frontier towns in the frozen north, a prostitute is mutilated by a customer, and her fellow sisters-in-arms pool their cash to buy revenge. An old comrade of Jūbei's, Kingo Baba (veteran Akira Emoto) moseys on through to tempt Jūbei back into action one last time with the promise of using the reward to finance a venture to open up a coal mine. (In a steam-powered age, that would be the wave of the future.) Jūbei is uneasy, and terribly out of practice — his sword is so rusty with disuse that he can't even get it out of its scabbard at first — but gives into temptation. The two pick up a third, an unruly Ainu, Goro Sawada (Yūya Yagira), who can help them navigate the way.
The frontier town has, of course, its own Little Bill: Ichizo Oishi (Kōichi Satō). This place is his, and he's not about to let any "rats with big ideas" come along and make trouble. What he despises most are ex-samurai who swagger around and try to act big, like the pompous Masaharu Kitaoji (Jun Kunimura), whom Oishi takes pleasure in disarming and stomping into the mud when he comes sniffing around after the reward. When Jūbei, Kingo, and Goro show up to do the same, he takes it quite personally, not realizing that his persecution of Jūbei's friends will unleash the slumbering demon within.
The narrow road to the deep north
The most significant changes in Yurusarezarumono aren't in setting alone, but in the way the plot has been rejiggered to make more direct use of the changes in setting. One thing Unforgiven didn't touch on much was the presence of Native Americans in its story; the only such on-screen character, Sally Two Trees, Ned Logan's wife, has no dialogue and no real role, either. She's there mostly to signify how Ned (probably a freed slave) found company in a fellow outsider. Here, the role of the Ainu is expanded significantly: they're not just the subject of persecution in the abstract, but right on screen, as when Jūbei intervenes at the last moment to keep Goro from getting himself killed when a detachment of Imperial soldiers harass an Ainu settlement. It also provides some additional thematics: it's Jūbei who finds solace in a fellow outsider (his late wife), and it's Goro who commits one of the killings not with a pistol, but an Ainu knife.
One consequence of this shift in focus is how the core themes of the original take a backseat. Unforgiven was about the West's mythology and the kind of men it produced. Yurusarezarumono touches on the self-mythologizing of the samurai, but not in as pivotal or integral a way — it's more to provide a backdrop for the more personal conflicts that are front and center. What Lee does, though, is add other dimensions to those conflicts that weren't present before. When Kingo backs out of committing one of the killings, he reveals the whole business about the coal was a fabrication; what he really wanted was someone to share the burden of the killing with, someone he believed could do it with far less conscience than he could, something he believed Jūbei was still capable of without ever considering the cost. It's a powerful touch that adds further gravity to an already burdensome moment in the film.
Other changes sit very differently, some not as effectively. The original, lightning-swift justice of the final scenes is swapped for a more painfully drawn-out sequence, replete with the shameless suspense-raising device of having someone believed dead not actually be dead. Lee also changes up the ending for something even more forlorn: where Munny took his reward and went west with his brood to San Francisco ("where he prospered in dry goods"), Goro and the prostitute return to watch over Jūbei's children while he wanders aimlessly off into the frozen north, maybe to return, maybe not. But the original was bleak enough as it was. It didn't need to be punched up.
I have watched enough Japanese movies over the past few decades to grow deeply enamored of many of its actors, and a project like this is a talent magnet for such people. A few favorites of mine were drawn to it. Watanabe first came to my notice not through The Last Samurai (as that's where most of the rest of us first encountered him), but via his eye-catching role in Jūzō Itami's gloriously bonkers "noodle western" Tampopo. He's excellent here — a petrified tree of a man, much as Eastwood/Munny was before him, but appropriately unhinged in his final acts of violence. Emoto (also of last year's excellent Shoplifters) grins out at Jūbei and everyone else through his whiskers, but only later in the film do we see how much of that smile was little but a rictus. I also particularly liked Yagira as Goro; he caught my eye and most everyone else's with his debut child-actor performance in Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows, and has since gone on to do plenty more (you might have seen him as Toshiro Hijikata in Gintama). I was less impressed with Satō as Oichi, though; he's another veteran with plenty of good work in his c.v., but his presence here bulks much smaller than Hackman's pivots from folksy charm to white-nosed fury.
A quick dig through my files shows relatively few direct (that is, legitimate) remakes in Japan of Western filmed properties. Alexander Payne's Sideways was remade with an all-Japanese cast, and there was even apparently a remake of the Demi Moore / Patrick Swayze smash Ghost back in 2010. We do have Kurosawa's reworkings of Shakespeare, Ed McBain, and Dashiell Hammett, although those are better thought of as re-adaptations of literary properties than remakes of films. What Yurusarezarumono shows is that there is no reason for any Japanese creative team to be hesitant about what material to pick; they should feel free to shoot as high as they dare. They have plenty to bring to such projects that is entirely theirs.