Though he rarely acknowledges the fact in public, Dai Watanabe is the son of Ken Watanabe: arguably Japan’s most internationally known actor since Toshiro Mifune. Among Japanese media, the fact is common knowledge, though in interviews with Watanabe junior, the subject is often off-limits.
Dai Watanabe, 34, has intentionally carved out an acting career different to his father’s and has worked hard to establish his own identity ever since his 2002 debut: a period drama in which he appeared alongside his father.
He says that, in many ways, maturing as a performer has been liberating.
“When I was younger, it was all I could do to concentrate on the task at hand,” he says. “I was focused on the role I had to play and couldn’t think beyond that — how my performance reflected on the movie as a whole, or how that movie would influence Japan’s film culture. Now that I’m older, when I’m on set I’ve learned to mentally take a step back and think about the meaning of what I’m doing, and how my role fits into the scheme of the whole film. Hopefully, this has made me a better actor.”
Watanabe’s latest vehicle is “A Town and a Tall Chimney,” based on the bestselling Jiro Nitta novel, “Aru Machi no Takai Entotsu,” which was published 50 years ago.
Like almost all of Nitta’s novels, “Aru Machi no Takai Entotsu” examines the relationship between the characters and Japan’s cherished natural landscapes, in this case a town in southern Ibaraki Prefecture. The book is distinctive, however, in that it traces the story of how the village was nearly destroyed by the factories of Hitachi Kozan, a lead manufacturer that started operating in the region in 1905. In a matter of months the air became unbreathable, rice and crops failed and the sky was perpetually yellow from the sulfur toxins rising from the factories. In 1910, negotiations began between the locals, who demanded that Hitachi do something to stop the pollution, and Hitachi executives who were committed to industrializing the region.
The film is a faithful adaptation of Nitta’s novel and director Katsuya Matsumura delivers a restrained, intelligent portrayal of what had always been a big problem in Japan: the conflict between the people that want to stay on their land and the corporations that seek to profit from it.
The shift from Japan’s agri-centric economy to Western-style industrialization was never easy, but this story is refreshing in that it isn’t the stereotypical, “big bad company” tale. It’s more nuanced, instructive and ultimately, hopeful.
As with the novel, Matsumura’s film follows actual events as Hitachi’s engineers manage to build what was then the tallest chimney in the world at 155.7 meters. Later, Hitachi built a meteorological center alongside the chimney to monitor the weather and wind, factors in controlling the amount of smoke released into the atmosphere. As a result, the once pollution-infested air cleared up dramatically and the chimney became a model for manufacturers across Japan.
Watanabe plays earnest Hitachi employee Junpei Kaya, sent from headquarters to oversee the factory and deal with local complaints. Early in the story, he meets Saburo (Asato Ide), the young grandson of the village elder (Tatsuya Nakadai). The idealistic Saburo has abandoned all prospects for an academic future to stay in Ibaraki and save his homeland from pollution. Initially, the pair are at loggerheads, even though Junpei tries to explain that Hitachi wants to protect the land and he’s ready to jeopardize his own position in the company to do so. His words end up offending Saburo, who accuses Junpei of trying to win him over with empty promises.
“I got the feeling that back in the day people were far more civil with each other,” Watanabe says. “Because there was no information readily available on the internet, everyone had to trust their instincts and make their own decisions. I won’t say that it worked 100 percent of the time, but in the case of Hitachi Kozan the events gradually took a turn for the better and stayed that way. A big part of how that happened was the civility and consideration shown by Hitachi to the locals, who were also willing to listen to Hitachi’s suggestions. Of course there were a lot of detours and misunderstandings along the way, but the two sides were able to come together.
“Nowadays, you don’t see that very often. Everything is so black and white, and everyone is bent on understanding things as quickly as possible. I suspect a lot of important details are ignored.”
But how does Watanabe feel about his character in this film?
“Junpei is based on Yataro Kado, who was a sort of superhero salaryman working for Hitachi Kozan,” he says. “Kado became a legend, not least because of the tall chimney but because he was simply a really nice guy who wanted to do the right thing by the locals. He dedicated his life to reducing pollution and searching for a middle ground where Hitachi Kozan and the locals could both find happiness.
“I didn’t want to portray Junpei as a model of perfection though, I wanted to draw out his flaws and weaknesses. He didn’t always make the right choices in his dealings with Saburo and sometimes he lets his stubbornness get in the way of science and common sense. But he was selfless and always thought about the greater good. I went to a Christian school so Junpei’s personality has a special relevance for me.”
Watanabe reflects on his chosen profession, saying many actors are simply thinking about how to get to the top of the industry.
“I find that the quickest route to the summit is by cooperating with others,” he says. “And good old-fashioned traits like consideration and sincerity will add a lot of mileage to an actor’s performance. It took me a long time to realize that, but now that I know it, I want every one of my roles to reflect this conviction.”
“A Town and a Tall Chimney” opens in selected cinemas nationwide on June 22.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5