To most of us, well myself at least, Ken Watanabe’s award-winning career is rather like an iceberg: one recognises him from the few films at the tip of it, such as The Last Samurai, Letters From Iowo Jima, Memoirs of a Geisha and more recently, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but beneath the surface lies a significantly large mass of work that one occasionally bumps into, only the encounter tends to leave you with an uplifting feeling, rather than a sinking one. One could perhaps be forgiven for thinking Watanabe had come to acting later in life, jumping straight into roles depicting sage men and wise warriors, but not a bit of it. Watanabe’s career actually started shortly after he graduated from high school in 1978, when he moved from Koide, a small ski resort town in the Niigata Prefecture, to Tokyo, where his aim was to join the Musashino Academia Musicae. However, due to the ill health of his father, which resulted in an inability to pay the fees for the prestigious music college, Watanabe changed creative tack, segueing into acting by way of a theatre troupe called ‘En’. Playing strong hero roles, he quickly began to make a name for himself, drawing the eye of TV executives. He subsequently made his TV debut in ‘Unknown Rebellion’, and shortly after took on a role as a samurai, something he would become familiar with over his long and storied career.
“Although I am probably best known for my samurai roles, in reality, they do not even account for a third of my films,” says Watanabe. “Besides picking up swordsmanship skills, I have enjoyed playing the many tragic endings for my characters. I think two-thirds of them have ended in deaths and three were death by poison!”
Film-goers in the west will almost certainly best remember Watanabe as the warrior Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto in the 2003 epic period war drama, The Last Samurai, starring and co-produced by Tom Cruise. While it was perhaps an overly idealistic portrayal of Japan’s samurai tradition, Watanabe nonetheless played the tragic hero figure with aplomb, earning himself nominations for the best-supporting-actor at the Academy Awards, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes.
“But you know, I started my career as a stage actor and have played so many types of roles, but the samurai ones tend to stick with people,” says Watanabe. “In an age where CGI can create any kind of setting and background, I realised that live performance is a form where people can be moved in an unwavering way. The performers and the audience share the same air, so they feel the same vibrations, and this helps them to connect as one.”