It has been years since stateside audiences have been exposed to a classic Western film, although the flops are legion: Cowboys and Aliens, Casa de mi Padre, and the upcoming Seth Macfarlane groaner A Million Days to Die In the West. If you want to look for the genre's creative revival, head to the Newport Beach Film Festival's Japanese Spotlight film: Yurusarezaru Mono, director Sang-il Lee's adaptation of Clint Eastwood's 1992 Oscar winner, Unforgiven. He sets it in late 19th-century Japan, as the era of the shogunates was being pushed out by modernity—the classic Western trope of anarchy versus civilization now set in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The film opens with a prologue, in which the Meiji government has begun to eradicate the last of the samurais, moving away from a feudal society; the remaining samurais flee to the northern island of Hokkaido, where the land is encompassed by wild forest and isolated from modernity. Fast forward 11 years to when former samurai Jubei "The Killer" Kamota (Ken Watanabe), now living in Hokkaido as a farmer with his children, is approached by past brother in arms Kingo (Akira Emoto) to join him in the hunt for two men who mutilated the face of a prostitute. The hardened Jubei at first has qualms, since he has sworn to his deceased wife to never kill again, but the thousand-yen reward becomes too much to turn down in the face of grinding poverty. He sets out with Kingo for the bounty, but along the way, they face various obstacles, including an eager young gunslinger who yearns to rack up the same body count as Jubei and ruthless sheriff Oishi (Koichi Sato), who's hell-bent on eradicating the samurai once and for all. Other samurais in search of one last score want to collect on the bounty, and their presence becomes a spiteful thumb to the nose to the country's militia. Their swords, however, are tragically no match for the army's guns, and they are quickly disarmed and beaten mercilessly by Oishi.
Lee develops intrigue with the inclusion of historical background of Japan's shift to progress, which becomes one of the film's main motifs. It's all cleverly illustrated through wardrobe cues, from the sheriff's European dandy outfits to the young military soldiers' crisp uniforms, a far leap from the Shogun's armor. Lest we forget revenge is the primary driving force of the film—and not just between the prostitutes and their attackers—their site of struggle is merely a catalyst for the Shogun to rehash the past and sadly plays second fiddle throughout the film.
Yurusarezaru Mono was directed by Sang-il Lee; written by Sang-il Lee, based on David Webb Peoples' screenplay; and stars Ken Watanabe, Akira Emoto, Koichi Sato and Shiori Kutsuna. Screens as part of the Newport Beach Film Festival at Big Newport Theater 4, 300 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach; www.newportbeachfilmfestival.com. Mon., 7:15 p.m. $18; film and after-party, $40.
There are other instances of the militia's abuse of power peppered throughout the film, but Lee keeps the focus on Jubei's inner turmoil of returning to his murderous ways, for the most part. Like Eastwood's William Munny, Jubei Kamota isn't as much of a relic as the other samurai—he's an outsider. Whereas other samurai are eager to boast of their skills, Jubei is uneasy about his past and uncertain about where he fits in the present. When discussing the hunt for the two men with Kingo for the first time, Jubei remarks how distant they are from the situation: "Why kill two men you have no qualms with?"
Kingo replies, "We've killed hundreds of men we had no qualms with."
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"And we were praised for it," Jubei solemnly responds. Even as the country leans toward the 20th century, the need for faceless warriors to make an army remains the same.
Watanabe's Jubei faces it all with quiet reserve, and his brooding façade throughout the film is definitely out of Eastwood's facial-expression handbook. More than just an homage to a classic Western, the film feels just as much like a touching homage to Eastwood the actor, the iconic vigilante every male actor assumes himself to be. Plot-wise, Lee's adaptation remains mostly loyal to Eastwood's original, but it keeps a softer pace and uses various wide shots to capture the Japanese countryside, making the film gorgeously reminiscent of the country's scroll paintings. Lee gives himself more liberties in exploring depth of field, something that was oddly traded out in the Western films of yore for wider establishing shots of the scenic landscapes.
Monday night's Pacific Rim Showcase at the Newport Beach Film Festival will exhibit this film; afterward, the evening offers an after-party at Newport Beach Jaguar & Land Rover, themed with Asian entertainment and hors d'oeuvres. Partying is fine, but do make sure to treat yourself to this foreign gem.