The Japan News This is the second installment of a series of interviews with the movers and shakers who have won renown on the global stage. This interview is with Ken Watanabe, undoubtedly the most famous Japanese actor in the world.
Q: How did you start your international acting career?
Ken Watanabe: It was through an audition for the role of Katsumoto Moritsugu in “The Last Samurai.” Before that, I thought I couldn’t act in a Hollywood movie at all. Hollywood producers made various films about Japan in the past, but I had no interest because I was doubtful if the Japanese and their inner world were accurately portrayed in them. I auditioned for “The Last Samurai” simply because I was curious about what kind of person was going to make such a movie. They didn’t allow me to read the whole script before the audition, so I didn’t understand the story well. But I took the audition because I just wanted to see [the producer] once.
Q: Why do you think you succeeded at the audition?
A: After starting to work in the United States, I realized that whether you succeed or fail in an audition basically depends on how close you are to the image of the character that people in charge have in mind. Of course, you need acting skills, but in the case of “The Last Samurai,” I happened to be close to the image of Katsumoto they had in mind. In other words, even if you fail in an audition, it just means you are not a match for that role. I’ve realized I don’t have to worry that perhaps my acting skills are poor or I have no value as an actor only because I fail one audition.
Q: You played the leading role in the Broadway musical “The King and I” this year. Though you are already a successful actor in Japan, why do you keep taking up new challenges?
A: I decided to appear in works in other countries without much deep thought. Once you start worrying about risks and thinking, “What should I do if I fail?” you will become unable to move even an inch. Also, I never think, “I will have a big success with this.” I feel tempted to act in any work, regardless of whether Japan or another country makes it, once a needle on the meter of my curiosity goes up. In the case of “The King and I,” that needle went up high. I decided to play the role of King Mongkut of Siam, though even in Japan I’ve never appeared in a musical, because Bartlett Sher, the director, sweet-talked me into it: “I do not need a good singer. I do not need a good dancer. I need a king!” Maybe I’m too adventurous.
Q: Why do you think you can be successful abroad?
A: The needle of my curiosity probably has moved in tune with the needle of the audience’s interest. Or the needle of my meter in choosing a job has been in tune with a film that was destined to succeed. You may say my batting average is high, but of course, there were some movies not well-tuned to my needle.
Q: What will be your next challenge?
A: I may appear again in “The King and I” on Broadway next year, since I was asked to do so. In the last six months, I was retrained intensively as an actor through rehearsals for the musical. I don’t want to talk much about my age, but it was a great opportunity for a 55-year-old actor who has almost established his style to be inculcated in the basics. I will perform on Broadway for a few months next year, and may do so again somewhere else the year after next. I think playing the same role with different staff in places with different cultures is a pleasure different from repeating the same play in Japan. In that sense, I have obtained one great role for myself. I think I will play it for a few months a year for the next two or three years. Placing the role of the King at my core, I would like to keep acting in Japanese and international movies.
Q: Why do you think there are only a few Japanese actors and actresses working internationally?
A: The biggest problem is that you are viable as an actor or actress even if you stay in Japan. If you smartly finish one job after another in Japan, you can survive and more job offers will follow. Everybody thinks “it’s enough,” and is unwilling to go abroad and leave everything behind. The only difference between me and the others is that I do it without thinking of risks. In acting internationally, there are certainly racial and language barriers. But they can be overcome. I myself had to overcome almost every kind of challenge.
Q: Recently, you interviewed Donald Keene, an American-born scholar in Japanese literature, in the NHK special program “Watashi ga Aisuru Nihonjin e ~ Bungo tono 70 nen” (My dear Japanese people ~ Donald Keene’s 70 years with Japanese literary legends) to be aired on Oct. 10.
A: As a Japanese actor working in Hollywood, I am interested in the feelings of Japanese actors who preceded me in going to the United States. I want to know what idea of Japan they had in their minds and what impression of Japan they left in the United States. On the other hand, Mr. Keene has gone in an opposite direction as an American trying to become a naturalized Japanese. In the program, I wanted to find out about the America in his mind and what kind of Japanese he is trying to become.
Q: You have played many Japanese roles in the movies, such as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi in “Letters from Iwo Jima.” In playing these roles, did you ask yourself what it means to be Japanese or what the Japanese really should be?
A: I can always play only the role of one individual. So, I have been trying not to think of the average Japanese or what it means to be Japanese. In the case of General Kuribayashi, he was in a very difficult position among elite members of the Imperial Japanese Army because officers who studied in Germany composed the mainstream group in those days. Those who studied in the United States like General Kuribayashi were gradually marginalized as the war with Britain and the United States became more and more likely.
Under such a circumstance, how did General Kuribayashi see Japan and the United States? How did he see his own family? I think the job I should do as an actor is to seek such personal feelings at the bottom of his heart. What finally comes out as the result of such a process may give a hint to the question of what being Japanese means. But at the very beginning of the process is what kind of person he is. I have to create the image of my role by thinking backward, exploring how his personal feelings were connected with his actions, and how his actions made history. Of course, when this process is placed finally within the frame of a film, I think it would provide a theory on the Japanese or describe what “Japanese” is.
Q: But do you have a consciousness of being Japanese while you play a certain role in a film?
A: In “The King and I,” I played the role of the Thai king in the 19th century. Of course, I try to act like a Thai king, and I don’t think that because I’m a Japanese actor I cannot do it. In other words, I think I will lose my value if I become an American or Hollywood actor. When there is a demand for me as a Japanese actor, my appearance has a significance. I don’t think you have to discard your national background and leave your ethnic appearance and identity behind to go to the United States. Just go as you are. For instance, Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy are Irish, and Marion Cotillard is French. If they can do that, I think I can do the same.
Of course, there are certainly some challenges for a Japanese actor, such as the English language. But I don’t think I have to change my identity. If I have to, a Japanese-American actor who speaks perfect English would replace me. When I go to Hollywood, I always go there as a Japanese actor. In a part of my interview with Mr. Keene, which won’t be aired, I told him that American or European actors and actresses develop characters like creating an oil painting. They try various colors, put on one oil paint after another until the initial color disappears. But it gives depth to the painting. In my case, it’s similar to ink brush painting. It’s only black and white, but thin spots, faintness and bleeding of ink make depth in the painting. With the mind’s eye, you can even see colors in the painting, such as the red color of a persimmon. I think my acting is seen like that. That’s my value as an actor. If I become an oil painting, I have no significance and there is always a replacement.
Q: Do you have a message for young people wishing to work internationally?
A: I would advise them, “Don’t think too much. If you find something interesting, just do it.” You must have courage. I feel young people today seem to have lost a kind of temerity or recklessness. You might think “oops!” after jumping into the world. But if you really wish to work on the global stage, you should take a stride much longer than your ordinary one without fear of falling down flat.
The interview was conducted by Japan News Staff Writers Shigefumi Takasuka and Yung-Hsiang Kao on Sept. 11.
Born in 1959 in Niigata Prefecture. After graduating from high school, Watanabe joined En Engeki Kenkyujo (En acting school) in Tokyo in 1979 to study acting. He became known nationwide when he played the role of Date Masamune, a feudal samurai lord, in NHK’s yearlong historical drama of 1987. His role as Katsumoto Moritsugu in his first Hollywood movie “The Last Samurai” (2003) led to an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Among his many awards, he has won the Best Actor Japan Academy Prize twice, in 2007 for “Ashita no Kioku” (Memories of Tomorrow) and in 2010 for “Shizumanu Taiyo” (Never-setting sun). This year, he also received a Tony Award nomination for best leading actor in a musical for his performance in the revival of “The King and I.” Speech