Bluefat Archive April 2007


The Weeping Warrior

Ken Watanabe, new sensitive samurai

Samurai, shogun, all-around tough guy and quite authoritative dude: YouÕve seen Ken Watanabe as the fearsome warrior Katsumoto in The Last Samurai, for which he was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe in 2004; as the Chairman in Memoirs of a Geisha, and especially for his Oscar-nominated role as General Kuribayashi in Letters From Iwo Jima. A superstar in Japan, the theatrically trained Watanabe has stamped his presence there in numerous popular taigas (weekly period dramas) and many awarded films such as the classic revenge tale Chushingura and the story of warlord Oda Nobunaga. Yet Watanabe is an immensely versatile actor who has recently blown minds and broken hearts with his portrayal of a middle-aged salaryman suffering the ravages of AlzheimerÕs in Memories of Tomorrow, which he also produced.

BLUEFAT : Watanabe-san, seeing you look so, um, mature in Memories of Tomorrow was shocking, since you looked so formidibly beefy in all your samurai films. What about your studly image? DidnÕt you worry about that?

WATANABE: No, no, no. The character is 50 years old, and thatÕs a very interesting age: Old or young? Everybody at that age is different. I was 46 years old when I shot this film, but I completely understood about his feelings. But to play a regular person who all of a sudden feels the toll of AlzheimerÕs, for this man to accept this illness and live with it, that was more of a challenge ŠŠ acting that out took care of acting someone thatÕs 50 years old.

Memories was the best crying by a male actor IÕve ever seen ŠŠ I mean, you were bawling like a baby, better than Jane Fonda in Klute, where her nose is running, even. WhatÕs your secret?

I was wondering about this. Even if my experience was not the disease victimÕs experience, of course I still had to use my experience for this film. But I always interact with the directorÉ

You know, acting is always interesting work. ItÕs not like I wanted to play this role thinking that IÕm going to use the past experience that I had to prepare for this role; that wasnÕt on my mind. However, no matter how hard I tried, the pain and the suffering and the experiences that IÕve had, I couldnÕt keep holding it, it just naturally came out. [note: Watanabe successfully battled leukemia early in his career.]

Were those scenes difficult for you, emotionally or technically?

It was more difficult to try and imagine what the character was feeling, or what an AlzheimerÕs patient might be thinking, and what his experience with the disease was like.

Was taking a role like this a deliberate decision to broaden your public image?

No, itÕs just my passion for acting, to represent different parts of humanity. I loved this story, and it was a very natural feeling when I came upon it, and I wanted to know more about it. It was almost like meeting someone on the street and you just want to get to know them better.

Your English sounds pretty good. How do you rate Tom CruiseÕs Japanese in The Last Samurai?

His JapaneseÉWell, the Japanese language is so difficult. But, yes, he did great work, had a good sound of Japanese.

There was a bit of controversy here and in Asia that some of the actors in Memories of a Geisha were not Japanese. Care to comment on that?

Memories of a Geisha was like the world of [director] Rob Marshall; it isnÕt actually Japanese, and it is not trying to be a complete view of Japanese society. And Chinese actors, Malaysian actors, Japanese actors ŠŠ it doesnÕt matter to use universal actors, because we were as actors seeing Rob MarshallÕs world, in that space. It didnÕt have to be authentic, so he was free to use anybody that he wanted.

How does an actor go about getting into the head of a historical figure like General Kuribayashi in Letters From Iwo Jima?

For me as an actor, and as a Japanese, I had wondered a lot about his story. I researched military history and reports by survivors of Iwo Jima, though I couldnÕt talk to any of them because most of them are dead, or ill. I visited KuribayashiÕs home region, and I saw his house and the environment where he grew up. The town is in the mountains, and I went in wintertime when it was so cold ŠŠ a really good time to sigh over the past. So I could imagine about his feelings, I understood his philosophy, and I was able to capture the feeling from visiting his home country.

Did you feel sympathy for General Kuribayashi?

Everyone had a difficult lot; not just Kuribayashi, but all the soldiers who died had great suffering on the island. I felt sympathy for them.

Since you were representing the very consciousness of your nation, you must have felt a heavy responsibility to do the job right.

During The Last Samurai, I thought that even if the movie wasnÕt successful or wasnÕt embraced by the Japanese, I could go back to Japan and that was that, and live with it. However, with Iwo Jima, if it wasnÕt made correctly and authentically, and the Japanese audience did not embrace it, I wouldnÕt be able to go back to Japan.