Ken Watanabe: Japan’s flag-bearer in the world of entertainment

by Shaun Curran

Contributing Writer

For a man who first made a name for himself at home and abroad as a staunchly noble samurai warrior, it’s perhaps not surprising that actor Ken Watanabe appears comfortable in his latest theatrical role as a king.

It wasn’t always this way, however. The 58-year-old star made his Broadway debut three years ago playing the titular character in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “The King and I” — a role he will reprise in London’s West End this week. However, he readily admits to having had a few butterflies before first accepting the challenge.

“I was surprised (to be asked) at first,” he says. “It was my first whole play in English, my first play in a foreign country, my first musical — that’s three hurdles!”

And yet hurdles are something that Watanabe seems to have effortlessly handled throughout his career.

I am sitting with Watanabe in a swanky hotel near London’s Piccadilly district. The English capital is just about returning to ordinary life after freezing weather and a series of deadly snowstorms brought the city to a standstill.

There was a moment earlier in the week when I had thought the interview might not actually happen — inclement weather can derail the best-laid plans in the United Kingdom — but I soon get the sense that it would take more than a blizzard to stop Watanabe.

Resolute drive and raw talent have made him by most measures one of the most famous men in Japan, and certainly the country’s most successful cinematic export since Akira Kurosawa.

For 30 years, samurai roles such as Date Masamune in NHK’s 1987 TV show “Dokuganryu Masamune” had made him a household name in his homeland.

Watanabe greets co-star Tom Cruise at the premiere of
Watanabe greets co-star Tom Cruise at the premiere of ‘The Last Samurai’ in Los Angeles in December 2003. | CHRIS PIZZELLO / VIA AP

In 2003, he appeared alongside Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai,” and his reputation with overseas audiences continues to flourish. Big-budget blockbusters such as “Batman Begins,” “Inception” and “Godzilla” have made him one of the most critically acclaimed foreign actors in Hollywood, and he has even conquered Broadway at his first attempt.

However, the journey hasn’t been without a few bumps in the road along the way. He was diagnosed with leukemia in 1989 and stomach cancer in 2016, while a recent admission of adultery and his subsequent divorce from actress Kaho Minami has been fodder for the tabloids.

And yet his achievements continue to stack up: Twice winner of the Japan Academy prize for best actor — “Memories of Tomorrow” (2006) and “Shizumanu Taiyo” (2009) — he has been nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe and, two years ago, became the first-ever Japanese man to be nominated in the Tony Awards category of best performance by a leading actor in a musical.

On screen, he exudes a rare combination of authority and humanity. In person, broad-shouldered and strident, he is strikingly similar. Imposing yet warm, dressed in a blue-gray shirt buttoned to the top with dark jeans, he carries an aura that three decades at the top of your profession dictates.

Conversationally Watanabe’s English is fine, though far from perfect — his interpreter sits with us throughout, on hand for the moments the actor starts to grasp for words — but he always manages to make his point in short, sharp sentences.

It’s the morning after the 2018 Oscars ceremony. Time difference meant Watanabe didn’t see any of the ceremony — “Ah no, still jet-lagged,” he says, “I needed sleep” — but he was happy to wake and find a Japanese winner in the form of Kazuhiro Tsuji, who won best makeup and hairstyling for “Darkest Hour,” and that English actress Sally Hawkins’ “Shape of Water” won best picture.

“I worked with her twice,” he says. “I love her and her feelings. Her movie was so good.”

He finds it hard to comprehend that he was first nominated as best supporting actor for “The Last Samurai” as many as 14 years ago. “I cannot believe,” he says, pointing to the watch on his wrist.

Ken Watanabe poses for a photo in London in March 2018.
Ken Watanabe poses for a photo in London in March 2018. | ANASTASIJA JE

The Oscar nod was fully warranted: Watanabe’s commanding display of poise and dignity as Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto was one of the most memorable international breakthroughs of modern times.

“It was like a storm,” he says, thinking back to the nomination. “It was like a tornado. I couldn’t recognize or realize how much of a difference it would make to my career. I wasn’t ready for it. Later, I thought being Oscar-nominated would lead to a very high career, but I had no support (going forward).”

This remark surprised me, as I had naturally assumed an Oscar nomination would help open doors to bigger roles.

“As far as audiences are concerned and from a production point of view, yes,” he says. “As an actor, however, I don’t think about that. It makes no difference, you just focus on the next role.”

After his breakout role in “The Last Samurai,” Watanabe found himself needing to split his time between Tokyo, Los Angeles and wherever else the work took him.

“I feel like a seasonal bird,” he says. “I go wherever there’s good food.”

His newfound fame in the United States, however, did not eclipse his fame back home.

“I can’t be comfortable (in Japan),” he says. “I can walk the streets easier (in the United States). If I’m in a restaurant and someone recognizes me and asks for a signature or a photograph after a drink, that’s good for me as an actor. I don’t have to worry about being conscious of the people (in the United States). In Japan, people always seem to be looking at me, but in America they don’t care.”

Hitting the right notes: Variety described Ken Watanabe’s performance in
Hitting the right notes: Variety described Ken Watanabe’s performance in ‘The King and I’ on Broadway ‘magnificently regal.’ | PAUL KOLNIK

Watanabe is in London to promote the West End run of “The King and I,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 classic.

Starring Watanabe and award-winning veteran Kelli O’Hara, the Bartlett Sher-directed 2015 Broadway revival was rapturously received: extended runs, nine Tony nominations (four awards, including best revival and best female lead) and critical praise directed not just at the play itself — “maybe the finest staging of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical” gushed The Washington Post — but at Watanabe for his performance as the King of Siam. Variety called him “powerfully seductive … magnificently regal,” and the Tony Awards’ judging panel agreed, validating him with a nomination.

Sher decided to cast Watanabe after seeing his brooding, noble portrayal of condemned Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi in Clint Eastwood’s 2006 war drama “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

It was a bold move — nothing about Watanabe’s career to date suggested he was a song-and-dance man — and even he admits that he wasn’t at first convinced he could pull it off. However, Sher recognized Watanabe’s potential on Broadway, and considered him to be perfectly suited to play the titular role in a production based on a clash of cultures.

“Before rehearsal, we discussed the theme of ‘The King and I’ in the 21st century,” Watanabe says. “All over the world we have information that connects us. It’s a small world. And yet countries continue to show hostility to foreigners and exhibit a very narrow-minded way of thinking. England wants to leave the EU; Scotland wants independence; in America they want ‘America First.’ It’s the same in Japan. (‘The King and I’) is really good for them, allowing them to understand each other — their cultures, customs, religions and race. It’s good to represent that theme to the world at this time.”

Ken Watanabe performs on stage with Kelli O
Ken Watanabe performs on stage with Kelli O’Hara in the Broadway production of ‘The Kind and I.’ | PAUL KOLNIK

Watanabe was born on Oct. 21, 1959, in Koide, Niigata Prefecture, to a mother who was a schoolteacher and a father who taught calligraphy.

In his teens he was a keen musician, playing trumpet regularly with the Niigata Prefectural Koide High School band. The story goes that Watanabe’s father fell ill and, stricken from work, the family could no longer afford the tuition fees needed to send him to a music conservatory in Tokyo once he left high school.

Watanabe, however, remembers things slightly differently.

“I recognized I had no (musical) talent,” he says. “It’s true. For real. So I thought, ‘OK, let’s stop.'”

Upon graduating from school in 1978, Watanabe decided to focus on acting. He moved to Tokyo and got a break after enrolling with theater troupe En.

He started to learn a little English by studying the works of William Shakespeare, although it wasn’t until he landed a role in “The Last Samurai” in his early 40s that he dedicated time to it out of necessity. Despite studying, he believed he would always face a language barrier.

“Before ‘The Last Samurai’ I couldn’t believe I could do that,” he recalls. “I didn’t think I would be able to explain myself and my feelings in English, in a different language. But I could.”

He suggests, modestly, that some good fortune played a part in his rise to fame.

“There are movements in Hollywood and (at the time of ‘The Last Samurai’) they wanted something fresh,” he says. “I was lucky they were looking for something like me — an Asian actor.”

Although he shares his time between Japan and other locations worldwide, Watanabe carries a strong allegiance to his country of birth.

He opened a restaurant in the city of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, after the ruinous Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and sends a fax to the staff there every single day without fail no matter where he is in the world. Kesennuma was one of the worst-affected areas in the disaster.

“My identity and my background still remain with me when I go to a foreign country,” he says. “I have kept my nationality.”

Room with a view: Ken Watanabe looks out the window of a hotel in London in March.
Room with a view: Ken Watanabe looks out the window of a hotel in London in March. | ANASTASIJA JE

Watanabe advises young Japanese actors to step outside their comfort zone and live overseas in order to experience a broader view of life.

“I went to a foreign country as a Japanese actor, not a Hollywood actor,” he says. “This takes courage. Right now the younger Asian generation is too inward-looking. Young people don’t look outside. They have the internet, websites, SMS, etc., which enables them to see the whole world. Japan is a really small part of this world. They need to be more open-minded and go and see the world. The world is huge. Unfortunately, young people don’t want to go traveling. They don’t want to visit foreign countries.”

Along similar lines, Watanabe believes that contemporary Japanese filmmakers also need to expand their horizons.

“I’m so disappointed,” he says. “(Japanese cinema) is a little cheap and unbalanced. The quality is not very high. It’s the same with Japanese filmmakers. They need to travel and go overseas. They need the knowledge, so that they can learn about contemporary filmmaking style and shooting techniques.”

Not that he is without criticism of Hollywood. Asian stereotypes are still prominent in Western culture, nowhere more than in film: Asian characters on the silver screen are almost invariably businessmen, warriors or martial arts exponents.

Being under pressure to work in such an environment was why, despite prior offers, he never felt comfortable accepting a Western role until “The Last Samurai.”

“It was a rare character — an Asian character that had … a different way of expressing himself,” he says. “It was something deeper than you usually see.”

Watanabe laments his recent roles, which he feels have lacked a little nuance.

“Look at the last couple of movies (I’ve been involved in) — ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ and ‘Detective Pikachu.’ (They’re both) animation, and involve some kind of pop culture, but (they’re) not deep. I’m so disappointed,” he says. “Japan has a deeper culture, tradition and history, and we still cannot go and represent that to other countries.”

Accurately depicting Japanese principles has long been one of his guiding principles and Watanabe has famously not been shy in speaking his mind to Clint Eastwood or “Godzilla” director Gareth Edwards.

“I try, I try,” he says. “I always (try and) discuss it with the director, saying ‘It’s not true, it’s not real.’ With Clint Eastwood? I do not discuss (things with him), I just tell him.”

Change, however, may be around the corner. Although the ramifications are as yet unclear, Hollywood is undergoing something of a revolution. The #MeToo and #TimesUp scandals are reshaping the landscape, and equal representation is being discussed like never before.

This, Watanabe says, should extend to Asian representation both in front of the camera as well as behind it.

“We need more, but it’s very sensitive,” he says. “It’s the same thing on stage. Ten or 20 years ago, ‘The King and I’ (did not feature) an Asian cast. We need more Asian feelings to represent our character. Right now, it’s really rare for an Asian actor and actress to appear in a piece together. … We need it to be similar to the ratio (of Asian people) in real society. As Japanese, we still have to educate people — or at least make an effort to.”

As a leading figure in film, does Watanabe feel as if he is representing Japan as a whole?

“No!” he says, becoming quite animated.

“Well … maybe just a small flag,” he says as he gestures, as if waving the Hinomaru. “If there is a movie about Japanese culture and history — for example, ‘Letters From Iwo Jima,’ which was a very important moment and historical event — I try to put a Japanese flag there.”

For all his talk of upholding Japanese traditions, it seems that Watanabe is increasingly becoming a culturally important figure outside of his performances on screen and stage.

“Me? No!” he says, before smiling. “Well … maybe just a small flag.”

“The King and I” runs at the London Palladium from June 21 until Sept. 29. For more information, please visit www.kingandimusical.co.uk.


Memorable Resume

  • MacArthur’s Children (1984)
  • Tampopo (1985)
  • Dokuganryu Masamune (TV, 1987)
  • The Last Samurai (2003)
  • Batman Begins (2005)
  • Memories of Tomorrow (2006)
  • Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
  • Shizumanu Taiyo (2009)
  • Inception (2010)
  • Godzilla (2014)
  • The Sea of Trees (2015)
  • The King and I (Stage, 2015, 2016, 2018)
  • Isle of Dogs (2018)