Having starred in several TV series and films about samurais, Ken Watanabe understands sacrifice, honor and fierce battles to the death. So playing a Japanese general in a film about the bloody Battle of Iwo Jima may seem like a seamless transition.
Not so, says Watanabe.
Watanabe said his role in Clint Eastwood’s World War II epic “Letters From Iwo Jima,” took lots of preparation and research.
The film, scheduled to be released Dec. 9 in Japan and early next year in the United States, is a companion to Eastwood’s current Iwo Jima film, “Flags of Our Father.” “Letters,” though, is told from the perspective of Japanese soldiers defending the island.
Watanabe said many Japanese, including the young actors in the film, weren’t aware of the sentiment of the soldiers decades ago. He read books to study the battle as well as the culture, attitudes and traditional language of that generation.
While Watanabe was well aware of Eastwood’s abilities, he had concerns about an American directing a film from the Japanese vantage point.
“I was worried before shooting,” Watanabe said in an interview with The Associated Press at a posh resort on Waikiki Beach. “We wanted to explain and express the Japanese feeling 60 years ago. He totally understood. We completely had good chemistry.”
At a news conference earlier this year in Tokyo, Eastwood said he did thorough research before filming, but stressed that his movies are not about the battle, but about the people.
“It’s not about winning or losing, but mostly about the interrupted lives of young people, and losing their lives before their prime,” he said. “These men deserve to be seen, and heard from.”
A memorial for Americans and the JapaneseIwo Jima has come to symbolize victory in the Pacific to many Americans, largely because of the famous photograph of Marines raising the American flag atop the island’s Mount Suribachi.
Nearly 7,000 Americans and more than 20,000 Japanese died in the battle in February-March 1945.
Watanabe plays Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who loses the battle for control of the eight-square-mile island.
Watanabe said working with Eastwood was the best film experience in his career because the Academy Award-winning director understood the actors and established a calm working environment on set.
“Best director in the world,” Watanabe said. “It was so comfortable to shoot.”
“Letters from Iwo Jima,” is Watanabe’s fourth Hollywood film in the past few years. He also starred in “Last Samurai” (alongside Tom Cruise), “Batman Begins,” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
Watanabe, who turned 47 on Oct. 21, said he has no regrets about his late entry into the American market. He said he wasn’t skilled and mature enough as an actor 10 or 20 years ago. Now, he said, he can “properly express emotions.”
Reflecting on his career and his lifeWatanabe was here to be honored by the recently concluded Hawaii International Film Festival.
“He to us defines what our festival is about,” festival director Chuck Boller said. “We talk about cultural understanding between the east and the west through film. He’s perfect. He’s a huge actor everywhere in the world but the United States, and he’s finally breaking in here now.”
The son of two teachers, Watanabe grew up in rural Niigata, Japan, known for its great rice, skiing and hot springs. He got his start in theater before finding fame in Japan with the 1987 samurai TV drama “Dokuganryu Masamune.”
In 1989, Watanabe was diagnosed with leukemia. The cancer is now in remission.
The experience, Watanabe said, changed his life.
“After the illness, I thought, ‘How can I connect with society? What is the meaning of my life in this world?” he said. “Before that, I wanted fame and success. ... I don’t need that.”
Sporting a short forward-combed haircut and light goatee, the suave Watanabe appeared visibly thinner than the brawny, sword-swinging character he played in “Last Samurai.”
In 2004, he was featured as one of People Magazine’s 50 most beautiful people. The designation still draws a chuckle from Watanabe, whose first name translates to “modesty.”
“Looks aren’t important,” he said. “It’s your life and mind.”