Judit Kawaguchi

Others: Actor, movie star Ken Watanabe

Ken Watanabe interviewed by Judit Kawaguchi in 2005 in Tokyo

Ken Watanabe has been a star in Japan since his 20’s when he played the samurai lead in one of the most successful NHK TV drama series ever, “Dokugan ryu Masamune”. Although about fifty percent of his repertoire is made up of contemporary characters, he is most well-known for his portrayal of strong samurais. He won the Ecran d’Or Best New Actor Award from the Japan Film and Television Producers’ Society and the Japanese Academy Award before he achieved international fame in 2003 for his performance as Katsumoto alongside Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and also a Golden Globe. A prolific bilingual actor, he played the villain Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins and recently finished shooting Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha. He told Judit Kawaguchi what keeps him inspired.

You just finished Memories of Tomorrow which will be released in Japan this May.
Yes, I play a man who is going through progressively worsening stages of Alzheimer’s disease. I feel really blessed that I could make this movie because although these last three years I was working a lot both in Hollywood and in Japan, at the same time I felt kind of stuck, really unclear about my goals and didn’t see what was next in my career . I wanted to do something that had a deeper meaning for me at this stage in my life and a topic that would hit closer to home and this movie was just perfect in that sense.

What was so special about this role?
It brought back so many memories that I buried and locked away. When I was 30 I was diagnosed with leukemia and ever since then, no matter what I play, the audience worries about me. They see me riding a horse, looking and being all healthy, but they keep asking whether I am really OK or not. So I never talked about my own struggle with leukemia. But this role lead me down a road that I was dreading to take, and I crashed head-on with experiences I was trying to forget. Sixteen years ago, I locked away all the pain and hid it inside myself, but playing this man facing his own death, I relived all the awful moments that I went through. I was so full of emotion, much more than I thought.

Sounds like it was also a release.
Yes, it all just came out. I was not I trying to intentionally get to it but all that I turned off in me and didn’t explain even to myself, just came gushing out.
Then in a sense it was so easy for you to play him, but in another aspect, it was too emotional.
Yes, definitely. It also changed the whole movie into a half-documentary– not my own documentary, but the character’s. It’s almost like I was making a lot of effort all these years in order to prepare myself for this role. It made it so easy to play him. I didn’t even see such a need in me before, but once I got the chance, it all made sense.

Did you improvise a lot?
Yes, although we had a script, every morning we had a meeting and talked about the material we shot the day before and how that effected what we had to work on that day. We didn’t really write new scenes, but we interpreted them so differently that each take was full of unexpected happenings.

Did you feel catharsis in the process?
Not really. But a very strange thing happened: usually I play the role after I already memorized the dialogue, but this patient lost his memory and once the camera started to roll, I forgot everything. All the lines just flew out of my head.
You got it into role so much.
Yes, completely, so whole new scenes were born naturally and this is what I mean when I say that it became a documentary.

How did the other actors handle this?
It was really tough for all of them but they just went with the flow beautifully. My wife is played by Kanako Higuchi, who is a truly great actress so she had no trouble adjusting. We played a couple who had no idea what would happen to them next, and indeed we were such two people. Lost. Searching. Scared. Until now I chose roles I liked, but this role was a mission for me to do.

Mission for yourself or for the audience?
Myself first, but through my mind and body the audience can get a feel for the person. Through my body this dying person came alive. I wanted to express the meaning of being alive which I can’t explain in words. At least, not yet.
You said people treat you with special care because they worry that you might still be sick.
Yes, all the time but I don’t really mind, but I do wonder how much time I have left and how many more pieces I can make till I am sixty years old. I have another 14 years till then and I want to do roles that satisfy both the audience and myself. Each one has to be a perfect match with my own values first, and can not be just about others’ evaluation of me. In other words, I have to be satisfied with it, and its meaning has to be clear to me first. I want to put my whole life into it, so each role has to be special. For example, The Last Samurai took a very long time to film and I was on fire the whole time. Memories squeezed everything out of me. At the end of both films I was dried up and had nothing left in me. From now on too, I only want to do roles like these. I want to use all up all my energy, every single time.

How do you recharge?
Normally I just take off, go somewhere and think of nothing. But this time I took tons of notes during filming and once we were done with shooting, I collected them and made them into a diary. Once the book was ready, the movie was finally over, and I felt that I finished the squeezing process. The meaning of the movie became clear. Now I can take the next step.
Which is?
An indie film in the U.S. The script was good, and so far we met with the director about four times and rewrote a lot of it, so it has a nice handmade quality to it now. I like it. We begin shooting in January.

How do you choose roles?
They have to match my feelings at the time. Either they are very close to myself, or very far from me. I really go by my feeling and the right timing. If I want to do a tiny, low-budget movie, but suddenly I get a big offer, then I don’t take the big one. It has to be just the perfect fit for me. I don’t have a strategy at all: I choose according to my feeling at the time.
I heard that with the Last Samurai you wanted Japanese people to feel pride.
Yes, Japan raised me, this is my country. I am Japanese and I wouldn’t want to make a movie that was against my country. So I was very happy when people told me that after watching the Last Samurai they were glad to have been born Japanese. I felt happy to work on such a movie.

Do you think of your Japaneseness a lot ?
Not really. I am often abroad and being outside helps me see Japan more clearly, including its good and bad points. Interestingly, working abroad made me realize that I was a Japanese actor. But no matter where I work and what role I play, I do a lot of research, so if I were cast in a Chinese movie, I could manage, I think. Actors are all like that. In Batman Begins who knew how old I was or who I was.

Can an audience recognize the actor’s nationality?
They can not and there is no need for them to, either. I need it because it gives me a core to work from. Once I play in English, my body language and facial expressions change. It doesn’t happen suddenly, it is more of a gradual process. I go to the U.S., and from the moment I arrive at the airport and go to my apartment, or studio, I spend lots of time using English. So even before acting in the movie, I am getting into the role. Basically it is the same in Japan. Language is so powerful, but Japanese has a lot less visible forms of expressions. When acting in English I must control how much I do, depending on the character. For example, even Edward Zwick, the director of The Last Samurai asked me to stay Japanese while speaking in English. I had to retain my Japaneseness.

Why did want to be an actor?
Hmm, I didn’t have much motivation to be anything, but when I was 24, the British director Terrence Knapp told me that I had talent and should pursue acting more. He was invited to Japan to direct us. I couldn’t believe he said that! Keep in mind that by that time I was an actor for five years and all that Japanese directors did was scream and yell at me as they do at all actors, treating us like their slaves. I was so sick of it that I was actually wondering whether to continue acting or not. This is when Terrence told me to believe in myself and try harder. Now that I have been around, I know that encouragements like this are pretty common in the West, but at that time it was a revelation for me. I was stunned, and his words freed me to accept that acting was my road. He asked me to enjoy acting and I took his advice. He gave me confidence and effectively changed the course of my life. For the first time, I felt joy on stage, and after that role I got lots of work and I am still having fun. It was the perfect timing. He sort of saved me. Basically, without good directors and older actors, we can not grow and get good at our craft. On a movie set, the main actor might be in the center of 20 or 30 people doing a scene, and I was always studying how he or she dealt with the pressure of it all, and I learnt from them. I owe so much to so many people.

Are you always observing people?
I don’t really stare at them on the train for example, but once I have a role, I research a lot. I need a goal to do it. But sure, to some extent, I can’t help looking at someone and imagine his or her life. I could be in a café and look at a couple and try to come up with their story.

How else do you prepare for a role?
Maybe I go to funeral and see and feel something, hear a word in a particular voice, and it gets stuck like a memo in my head and I use it later. So many moments are useful for me, but I have to analyze them in order to make it really valuable. I store someone’s tone of voice and remember how it sounded when he felt something particular. Sounds and smells are all shelved inside of me somewhere. Depending on the role, I also work out. For Memories I lost 19 pounds during shooting. For The Last Samurai, I gained about 6 kilos of muscle.

Do you watch yourself on screen?
No. It is past, finished. Of course I see every movie, because it is a group effort so I want to see it for others. But for me, it is over and sometimes I feel weird looking at myself projected on a giant screen.
Why do you play so many samurai?
Actually about half of my work is contemporary, but people remember me as a samurai.

Because it fits you well. What do you think of today’s Japanese men?
Not just men, but all Japanese people need to consider who they are, what they have, where they come from and where they are going. We don’t see ourselves clearly and since this is complex problem, we need lots of information. We are living so fast: we fly, we take the bullet train, we get anything on our mobile phones without going out, so we see and feel a lot without actually experiencing anything. We are unconscious, but in life being aware is the key. I would say our height is almost the same, yet we feel bigger. We need to evaluate how we live today, tomorrow and where to look and what to think on a small level, close to home. We need to nurture our society by making things politely, by hand, in the very old style with many hours of work put into everything.

Who do you respect?
People who make things. I always thought that my job was among the top three useless professions. If tomorrow we actors are all gone, not much would change in the world. We do not produce anything. For example, if tomorrow a giant earthquake hit Tokyo, what could I do? How can I help? On the other hand, farmers making rice, growing veggies, craftspeople making furniture are great. They create things and leave behind something wonderful. They study their craft for a long time and yet each piece they produce is a bit different. That is great!

Could you describe yourself?
I am nothing special, just a totally normal, average guy.
A samurai?
No, I miss the inner power. I am just an average 46 years old, same as any man going home on the subway at the end of the day. The media creates some other image, but this is not what the media’s role is: it is to educate people and show Japanese traditions in a good way. I think Japanese culture is sort of lost in our media.

Is talent or effort the key?
Both. And luck. Making effort is the base and the first step, and the 100 % effort and 100 % talent and 100 % luck mix into something to make an actor. I don’t think I have much talent, but I search for something inside and maybe looking deep inside is a kind of ability. I doubt that talent is the ability to do anything.

What did you want to be when you were a boy?
I am a country bumpkin, so I wanted to be a rakugoka, a storyteller. Later on I played a rakugoka and that is when I realized that I had no talent for it at all. It was so hard. It is a way of life, to open oneself totally to an audience and although it looks similar to an actor, it is much more, a whole lifestyle. They work alone, without any makeup, no costumes, just a kimono and they hide nothing from the audience.

Would you like to direct?
No, no, I do not have the talent. I tried but I got way too involved. I don’t see myself as a director, but I feel comfortable as an executive producer. This role suits me as it is a total co-ordination for the movie.

Anything you would like to produce?
No. I just wait for the next wave to come. I really don’t have a long vision at all. I think of today, tomorrow and that is already a lot for me. I love what I do and feel that I am very lucky.

Do you have a motto?
Yes. It is “No regrets”. That is a waste of time. I always consider what I did wrong and learn from it, then go forward.
What is an actor’s role in society?
I do a job and once I finish it and put it on a plate and serve it to the audience, that is the moment it actually comes to life. They decide whether is has a home taste, if it is delicious or not. That instant is when I am part of society for the first time, when my work and life get some meaning.

I guess you love cooking.
Yes, very much. But I only love cooking for others. I make movies for others, too so cooking and movie making are almost the same for me. Getting the right ingredients is like gathering all the characters, casting is similar to thinking of a menu and making a script is like coming up with the serving order. Both are very creative and fun. Once again, timing is the key.

Japan or Hollywood?
Before I thought these two were different but now I know they are the same. For example, if a Japanese hits 200 homeruns here, and in the USA he only manages 100 less, what matters is that he had 300 homeruns, not where he hit them. I am going for total balance in my career. I just want to work a lot and widen my playing field more. I am very content, but no matter how many roles I play, nothing changes in the way I prepare for each one. I just have to study English more because right now I am doing OK but I want to add other tastes to my menu.

How do you see the media is Japan and in the U.S.?
Not so different, but in the U.S. people respect their own country more. They have pride in their culture, which we don’t have enough of in Japan. The Japanese media misses the human aspects and focuses too much on pleasure, like what restaurant serves delicious meals and what clothes are most stylish now. The media needs to address deeper issues and help us understand how peaceful Japan is, and how thankful we should be for living in such a country. The media should be used as a great educational tool.

Actor Ken Watanabe and journalist Judit Kawaguchi
Actor Ken Watanabe and journalist Judit Kawaguchi

A version of this interview appeared in Skyward magazine in 2005.

This Quote

About half of my work is contemporary, but people remember me as a samurai. — Ken Watanabe