In the world of film, it's no secret that Hollywood dominates the scene. Stars such as George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Denzel Washington, and other talented American performers have fans across the globe. This is not a reflection upon the quality of talent elsewhere, however, as on occasion, performers from other nations have crossed over into the U.S. market and made a huge impact. One such performer is the extremely-talented actor Ken Watanabe.
Born October 21, 1959, in Koide, Niigata, Japan (slightly north and west on Honshuu), Ken's childhood could probably be described as typical for people raised in the snowy resort town. His mother was a school teacher and his father was a calligraphy instructor. He graduated high school in 1978, and immediately moved to Tokyo to pursue his passion -- acting. His first big break was with the En theater troupe, where Watanabe, which resulted in an important part in the play, Shimodani Mannencho Monogatari. His performance was highly lauded by critics and audiences alike, and led to television work shortly thereafter.
Watanabe made his feature-film debut in 1984's MacArthur's Chldren, a Japanese film directed by Masahiro Shinoda and based on the novel by Yuu Aku. As Watanabe's career progressed, he began to build a name for himself portraying samurai in such projects as 1987's J-dorama Dokuganryu Masamune, an intensely popular drama that ran for 50 episodes. In 1989, while his career was steadily growing, Watanabe was given some bad news -- he was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. Chemotherapy was successful, although he suffered a relapse in 1991. His resilience was put to the test, and he was able to conquer this terrible cancer.A supporting actor role in 1998's Kizuna garnered Watanabe a Japanese Academy Award nomination. Just four years later, in 2002's Sennen No Koi, Watanabe received his second Japanese Academy Award nomination. The Japanese Academy Award seemed to elude him until 2006, when Watanabe was awarded Best Actor for his role in the film Memories Of Tomorrow, a film that demonstrated Watanabe's ability and range as he had to portray a man suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. Watanabe first made his way to U.S. audiences as the samurai Katsumoto in the 2003 film The Last Samurai. This powerful role garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He followed this up with an important supporting role in the 2005 blockbuster Batman Begins, and then again in 2006, he took up the task of another powerful role as Tadamichi Kuribayashi in Clint Eastwood's war movie Letters From Iwo Jima.
“Clint 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,” Watanabe said while out promoting Letters From Iwo Jima.
The movies that Watanabe picks to participate in are varied across many genres. In an interview while promoting Memories Of Tomorrow, Watanabe was asked what it was like to go from Japanese film to major American blockbusters and then onto smaller, intimate films. He responded, “A movie is of course entertainment, but we also try to show through this film something about the feelings of life. I try to do both things.”
Active for over 30 years, Watanabe has garnered numerous awards, Academy Award nominations, and has caught the eye of many of today's most talented directors in Hollywood. He continues to build upon his already impressive history with new and exciting roles. Be sure to look for him in the upcoming fi lm Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight) and starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, The Departed). For a personal account of his life story, check out Watanabe's biography titled, Dare? -- Who Am I?
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