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Interview with Ken Watanabe: Star of 'Letters from Iwo Jima'
Brad Balfour, Special to The Epoch Times
2/28/2007 9:06:00 PM

Over 20,000 Japanese and 7,000 Americans died in one of the fiercest struggles of the Pacific theater of World War II. Early in the battle, an American flag was raised atop the peak of Mount Suribachi, and the subsequent photograph became an American icon of the Allied cause.

Conversely, Letters from Iwo Jima is told from the Japanese perspective, and serves as a companion piece to Eastwood's Flag of Our Fathers. It provides a fresh view of the American—Japanese conflict and a poignant anti-war statement. It demonstrates the humanity of the enemy; the Japanese soldiers, and the extremes that their sense of honor provoked with utterly futile results.

The 45-year old Watanabe brilliantly portrays Kuribayashi's military intelligence and leadership, as he's tasked with the impossible defense of Iwo Jima without air or naval reinforcements and outnumbered five to one against a United States invasion.

Kuribayashi defiantly set up a series of tunnels that extended the Japanese resistance by weeks against overwhelming odds. He also had a sense of duty and honor to his own men, and a respect for his American adversaries resulting from his time spent time living in California before returning to Japan at the advent of the war.

This isn't the first time that Watanabe intersected with the West both on and off-camera; in The Last Samurai he played Katsumo, the samurai leader who lead a rebellion against the elected Japanese government (and garnered a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination) and in Memoirs of a Geisha he was the Chairman.

Earlier in his career, Watanabe overcame two bouts with leukemia and went on to become one of Japan's most recognizable actors. He started first in the theater and went on to historical dramas such as Dokugan ryu Masamune playing a samurai hero that made him a household name in Japan. Such films as Tampopo and Kizuna established him as a full-fledged film actor.

Against the odds, this film—shot almost entirely in Japanese—is being touted as an Oscar-contender.

Question: One of the goals of the Japanese military in the ?s and during the war was to connect to its rank and file to the past glory of the samurai and the traditions of fealty and honor. Did your previous roles as a samurai help you to understand this militaristic mindset?

Ken Watanabe: My character carried the spirit of the samurai, but he was also a very rational person—he had studied for five years in both the United States and Canada. He completely understood the American way: its culture, customs, economy, industry, everything. So it wasn't easy for him to fight against the United States. He struggled a lot before going into battle. In the end, though, he focused on the task at hand by reminding himself that he was fighting in the name of his country and his family.

Q: Did you ever wonder what it would have been like if you had been in the war yourself?

KW: I find it almost impossible to grasp such an idea. It's overwhelming.

Q: Was it important to make a statement at this time about the experience of the Japanese during the war? Iraq has led us to reexamine war.

KW: Clint [Eastwood] did not want to romanticize the war. Japan's history is very rich but also very sad, and he wanted to portray the war realistically. Of course, the movie may conjure up feelings about the war in Iraq, but our intention was not to comment on Iraq.

Q: Was the message of this film that war should be avoided?

KW: Yes.

Q: Since we've been engulfed in so many ongoing wars, how would you explain the importance of seeing this film to someone who doesn't even like films about war?

KW: I didn't really have strong feelings about war before shooting, one way or the other. But after doing the film, my eyes were opened to its atrocities. I feel deeply for anyone that has had to live through something like that.

Q: So even the person who's not interested in war movies, they'll get this message?

KW: Yes, it reflects an unfortunate aspect of reality, but it must be brought to light.

Q: What did you do in preparing for this film; did you meet with anyone who helped you get a perspective on the experience?

KW: I play the role of a commander so I had to familiarize myself with military processes and warfare. I asked myself, "Why did Japan start the war?" I wanted to know all the decisions that eventually led up to the tragedy. I found myself frustrated with some of the decisions that were made back then.

Q: In researching this film, did you come away with an understanding or knowledge that you didn't have beforehand?

KW: Unfortunately, most Japanese people aren't aware of this tragedy; even I didn't know until I did the film. It's difficult to say why, but perhaps it has something to do with the lack of a good education. This film deals with only one of many tragedies in the history of the world, but hopefully it will get people to think more about these forgotten incidents.

Q: What was your toughest challenge in this movie?

KW: When Clint approached me about this project, it posed a great personal challenge for me. There was a lot of pressure. Here I am as a Japanese actor and I'm being asked to represent a true historical account of my country. There were thousands and thousands of casualties on this island, so it was a big deal for me.

Q: You felt responsible to give voice to your country.

KW: Yes.

Q: What was it like working with Clint on set?

KW: You would think that the set on a war movie would be chaotic—lots of dirt, sweat and noise. It was actually pretty calm. We were depicting such intense and violent incidents, but everyone was at peace. I almost forgot that we were shooting a war film.

Q: Did you help with the casting?

KW: I helped a little bit. I made suggestions to Clint that so-and-so was great at this and someone else was great for that.

Q: Had you worked with any of the other actors before?

KW: I'd worked on four occasions with Tsuyoshi Ihara

Q: Really? Were they samurai films?

KW: Yes, they were made in Japan.

Q: Going forward, do you want to continue exploring the intersection between Japanese and Western culture or do something totally different?

KW: Honestly, I have no idea. I tried Memoirs of a Geisha last year and this year I did a film in Japan about an Alzheimer's patient ( Ashita no Kikoku (Memories for Tomorrow Wolverine. )

Q: Was it different working with an American director rather than a Japanese one?

KW: Each director, no matter where he's from, has a different personality and style of work. As actors, it's our job to become comfortable with that factor and adjust to the changing demands.

Q: How was the preparation for this movie different from that of Last Samurai?

KW: It was harder because Letters deals with material that is much closer to our era. But we had great source materials from both the American side and the Japanese side. We had access to American survivors as well as Japanese survivors. So we had a very well-rounded final product.

Q: Geisha was an interesting attempt at introducing elements of traditional Japanese culture to Americans. Do you think Americans are beginning to appreciate and understand Japanese culture more?

KW: In a few years, perhaps more nations will have a better understanding of each other. That's something we have to do—educate each other on our own cultural differences.

Q: Because Letters is shot in Japanese, it is an interesting contrast to Memoirs of a Geisha. Do you feel that this film offers a more authentic experience?

KW: Memoirs was the vision of director Rob Marshall. Letters tries to remain true to Japan's history, so it made sense to make this film in Japanese. Clint understood that and he was really open-minded. He had us translate the dialogue from English to Japanese—the original script had been drafted in English. We also wanted to do everything we could to see through the eyes of the Japanese soldiers, and to that end, we put in a lot of research.

Q: People spoke in a more formal and "appropriate" way.

KW: Each character had a different background. They came from different places and had nuances in their speech that set them apart from each other. I tried to be as attentive to details as possible throughout the entire process of filming.

Q: Did you go and see the Iwo Jima memorial and all that?

KW: Yes, we all went on the last day of shooting. We prayed together at the memorial for both countries, then we took a photograph. The prop master took out an American flag and a Japanese flag and we held both. I realized just then the real significance of this film—many years ago, we were enemies; now we are collaborating on this film together. We understand each other much better.

Q: Did you bless this film like you did with Memoirs of a Geisha?

KW: I gave a good luck charm to Clint.

Q: What do you think about the awards that Letters from Iwo Jima has picked up in the past two or three weeks?

KW: It's great because the awards will bring more people to see the film. It really has been my privilege to take part in this special project. The movie offers two contrasting perspectives on the tragedy. I think it's important to see things from different angles because it opens up our minds to unfamiliar things.

Q: Are you more prepared for the big Oscar campaign that's going to be a push for this movie, as opposed to Last Samurai, which was obviously very new to you?

KW: No [laughter].

Q: Come on, you should get nominated! What would you think if you were to be nominated?

KW: I'm very honored to be a part of this project. It's a great opportunity to bridge the gap between two countries that had gone to war in the not too distant past. I'm humbled.

Q: Clint Eastwood produces, he directs, he writes. Do you have the same aspirations?

KW: I learned a lot from him. He usually follows his convictions and that's important for filmmakers. I think I need some more experience under the belt—maybe another 30 years—before I can begin to follow in his footsteps [laughter].

Q: He started making his own movies when he was your age. Do you have a favorite Clint Eastwood movie?

KW: Unforgiven. I was so surprised. It's much different from the traditional Western film.

Q: Did you see it in Japanese or English the first time?

KW: Subtitles, of course! [laughter]

Q: What is on your list of favorite films? Which Japanese or American films have influenced you?

KW: It's hard for me to say; I'm undecided.

Q: You don't have any favorite directors? Besides Clint, of course.

KW: Yeah, working with Clint was the best experience of my career.

Q: You've worked with American and Japanese directors. Do you have plans to work with more foreign directors?

KW: I hope to do so in the future. Perhaps other Asian directors, or Europeans, maybe South Americans. It doesn't matter to me. Bring them all!

Q: You played Ra's al Ghul in Batman Begins —are you interested in working more in the action genre?

KW: Yes. I's like to be in Pirates of the Caribbean IV maybe [laughter]?

Q: Would you like your character in the Batman film to make a return?

KW: Yes, my character didn't die.

Q: No talks yet?

KW: No

Q: We'll be pushing for it [laughter]. You can be an action star with a gun in each hand?

KW: Yeah, sometimes I think so.

Q: Do you still live in Japan?

KW: Most of the time. My children moved to California last summer. I go back and forth between different places.

Q: Do you live in California sometimes? How do you like that?

KW: My son likes school and all his friends. We're very comfortable.

Q: How old is he?

KW: Eleven.

Q: Is he teaching you some more English?

KW: Hopefully.

Q: What is coming up? What's underway?

KW: I have no idea. You know, I just want to rest.

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