A Western legend gets the samurai treatment as Inception star Ken Watanabe leads the Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning classic. He plays a once-notorious assassin who, driven by poverty, comes out of retirement to bring justice to two lowlifes who have mutilated a prostitute - and the sadistic lawman who let them get away with it. Director Lee Sang-il presents the ugly side of human nature against the natural beauty of Japan in a brutal yet majestically shot tale of reputation and retribution.
From A Fistful of Dollars to The Magnificent Seven and the recent 47 Ronin (of which we shall speak no more), the West has been remaking samurai movies since Akira Kurasawa was a lad. But did you ever hear of a Hollywood western getting samurised? You have now.
Relocating the plot of Clint Eastwood's Best Picture® to the wilds of northern Japan, writer-director Sang-il Lee casts Ken Watanabe in the Clint role as Jubei "The Killer" Kamata, a legendary samurai warrior forced into hiding after fighting for a defeated shogun.
Ten years later, he is a widowed father of two, living in poverty on the harsh outland of Hokkaido. But thanks to his dead wife, at least he is now a man of peace... until his old mate Kingo (Akira Emoto) shows up with news that there's a juicy reward on the heads of two miscreants who have sliced up a young prostitute.
Reluctantly digging up his sword (and giving any watching child welfare officers serious cause for concern), Jubei sets out to right the wrong and earn a few much-needed bob in the process.
Along the way, Jubei and Kingo are joined by an aspiring bounty hunter bearing the look and swagger of a ronin Russell Brand.
But the upstart's bravado quickly fades when they run into ruthless sheriff Oishi (Koichi Sato of Sukiyaki Western Django) who won't tolerate violence in his town - unless he's the one committing it.
Having dealt with one bounty hunter (and shanghaied his biographer), Oishi is keen to make a name for himself. But Jubei is driven by more than greed.
What that might be, however, is never made particularly clear.
The original's themes of honour, justice and redemption are duly addressed. Director Lee even throws in parallels to the white man's treatment of Native Americans with a nod to the persecution of the Ainu aborigines by thuggish government militia.
But he does it without real conviction. And the motivations of his characters - most crucially, Jubei - remain ambiguous at best.
As a result, the film's primary impact is visual. Lee certainly has an eye for a landscape; preferably when it's covered in snow or lashed with rain. Languid to the point of ponderous, Jubei's journey never passes up a chance to take in the air.
His interior shots are expertly composed too. Indeed, it's at close quarters that the film gets its anti-violence message across most effectively.
Killing is presented as an ugly, ignoble and ultimately unthrilling business. There's no shortage of bloodshed, but rare is the film that uses bullets and flashing blades to provoke sadness rather than excitement.
Rarer still is the one that has no heroes. So for a remake, Unforgiven is pretty unique... if you ignore the poster. That's a straightforward steal.