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Ken Watanabe on ‘Profound’ Adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘An Artist of the Floating World’

Set in post-World War II Japan, “An Artist of the Floating World” is Japanese pubcaster NHK’s adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel of the same title. It stars Ken Watanabe in the lead role of Masuji Ono, a renowned artist looking back on, and coming to terms with, his life against the backdrop of a country being rebuilt after the war.

Ahead of traveling to Cannes for the international launch of the one-off drama at Mipcom, Watanabe told Variety that he did not initially think the book could come to the small screen. “When I first read the novel, I wasn’t convinced it was even possible,” he said. “But the screenwriter, Yuki Fujimoto, created a script that’s extremely simple and very profound.”

The drama tackles some deep existential questions as Ono ponders the impact his actions have had on others and his role in the war; his memories shift in focus and detail. The subject matter gave Watanabe, (“The Last Samurai,” “Inception”) pause for thought about his own life. “I’ve been reminded that life for everyone is profoundly mysterious,” he said. “The absence of perfect answers makes human culture richer. This is all reflected in the drama, so I’m sure that different viewers will come away with different impressions.

“As for me, playing Ono gave me a chance to consider how I should face my own last days when they come.”

NHK has long been at the leading edge of TV technology and shot the drama in 8K. Mipcom attendees will be able to see it in the extremely high-resolution format at the market. Watanabe, writer Fujimoto and director Kazutaka Watanabe will all be in Cannes to talk about the project.

Ken Watanabe said that filming in such high resolution brings challenges for the craft departments – in makeup, for example, too much is easily noticeable – but not for the on-screen talent. “The impression I have as an actor is that the camera captured me exactly as I was,” he said.

What was challenging was bringing Nobel Prize-winning writer Ishiguro’s work to TV in a meaningful way. The author, who lived in Japan until he was 5 years old and moved to England, wrote the book in English; it was then translated into old-fashioned Japanese. “I wasn’t sure how to deliver that style of language to viewers in a way that was meaningful,” Watanabe said. “Fujimoto turned it into a script in a very clear way. Still, the sentences are very difficult to understand. They include lots of exaggeration and modifiers.”

When the music was added, the actor felt that all of the pieces of the drama started to fit together. “In all sorts of ways, its elements are perfectly matched. This is not thanks just to the actors. It has been a long time since I found a drama so profound,” he said.

NHK Enterprises is selling the drama internationally. It is screening several 8K projects at the market and organizing sessions for market-goers wanting to know more about producing in the next-generation format. Screenings of “An Artist of the Floating World” bookend the 8K activity.

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