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
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
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?
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
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.]
those scenes difficult for you, emotionally or technically?
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.
taking a role like this a deliberate decision to broaden your public image?
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.
English sounds pretty good. How do you rate Tom CruiseÕs Japanese in The Last Samurai?
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?
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.
you feel sympathy for General Kuribayashi?
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.
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.