While playing a samurai warrior, Ken Watanabe found out that his most formidable opponent was the English language.
“It was difficult,” acknowledges the Japanese actor who matches Tom Cruise’s megastar presence with a heavyweight performance of his own as Katsumoto in Warner Bros.’ “The Last Samurai.”
“English is a very expressive language,” Watanabe continues, with a little help from an interpreter. “But samurai are not expressive. I felt as if my mind and body were being torn apart. After shooting, I understood that this was a fight inside my own body between East and West.”
The 44-year-old thesp, who makes his home in Tokyo, has had a highly successful career in Japan but, aside from his turn in the 1985 gastronomic laffer “Tampopo,” he is a relative unknown in the U.S.
A Japanese casting director showed director Ed Zwick some video on Watanabe, and a crossover star was born.
Of course, the next step was holding his own onscreen with one of the most famous faces in the world.
“Everyone thinks he’s a huge Hollywood star but he is a hard worker,” Watanabe says of Cruise. “He did a lot of research, practiced his sword work and listened to my input. I felt he was a great actor to work with. You must feel and trust each other, because that was the heart of this film.”
Watanabe is especially pleased that he is able to both act in a successful Hollywood studio film and at the same time pay homage to an important aspect of Japan’s heritage.
“In previous films, there was more focus on the barbaric, on the savagery and not on other parts,” he says. “Japan is modernized and civilized now, but in a way, it has lost the spiritual value that it used to have. It was very important not to just introduce the samurai culture, but to reflect how those values were lost.”
He is confident that the reception back home will be positive.
“Because this is a Hollywood movie about Japanese culture, there were some initial doubts in Japan,” he explains. “I went to the premiere in Japan and got to sit with the audience and look at their reaction.
“I felt they were really happy and thanking Hollywood for making such a great film.”