Photo/IllutrationKen Watanabe (Photo by Rei Kishitsu)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Actor Ken Watanabe, who describes himself as a "feminist," supports taking social diversity into consideration in casting actors as it will make productions more interesting.

In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Watanabe, 60, spoke on the relationship between entertainment and social diversity as genders, skin colors, sexual orientations and other factors are reflected in an increasing number of Hollywood films.

Born in 1959, Watanabe started on the path to becoming a globally acclaimed actor when he starred in a history drama aired in 1987 by Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) depicting warlord Date Masamune (1567-1636).

Watanabe made his Hollywood debut in “The Last Samurai” in 2003. He took the stage in his first musical in 2015 in the lead role in "The King and I," for which he was nominated for best musical actor in the Tony Awards--the most prestigious prize in the U.S. Broadway theater.

He is also well-known for his critically acclaimed starring role in “Letters from Iwo Jima,” directed by Clint Eastwood in 2006, and Christopher Nolan’s 2010 “Inception” and other Hollywood movies as well as many films and TV dramas filmed in Japan.

Watanabe plays Masao Yoshida, who was the head of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and died in 2013, in “Fukushima 50,” which shows the nuclear crisis at the plant following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. The movie will open in theaters across Japan on March 6.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Question: A black woman will play a protagonist in the latest movie in the James Bond series to be released soon, and the Star Wars film now in theaters has a woman as the lead character. What do you think of the changes?

Watanabe: Themes to be depicted in the works can never be separated from the choice of who should be cast. Casting is the most important element in making films. How should we replace white people--especially white men--in selecting actors to play characters? This is one of the most interesting elements in the recent film industry.

In the first place, blockbuster films (in which huge amounts of money are invested as they are considered commercially promising) are created in line with changes in society and the desires of the audience. Creators, in the past, were simply not aware that the audience came from a variety of backgrounds from the perspective of genders and ethnics. Seen in that light, the alterations appear to be good things.

I believe I am basically a feminist. I feel the current trends in Hollywood and London's West End (where many musical shows are played) are correct, but the idea that the diversity in genders and races should be expressed based on their “percentages” is too extreme.

I will perform in a stage play this year in which I also acted in the 1980s, and almost all of its characters are male. Because of this, a British stage director said some women must be cast. This is not aimed at discussing whether it is good for women to join in. Starting from the ratios of the genders first of all, not what should be shown in the work, fails to capture what is really important. My opinion, however, might be biased as well. I cannot decide which is correct.

In my view, what choice will be the best for the titles to be created should be seriously considered first. If previously ignored aspects in social diversity are considered as a result, the works will become more interesting.


Q: “The King and I” centers on the mutual understanding of people from different cultures, that is, a British home tutor and a Thai king. What's your take on the fact that you, an Asian, was chosen to act as the king though the role is often played by those from Europe or the United States.

A: In the United States, individuals are seen as white, black, Spanish or Asian. It does not matter that I deem myself as Japanese. Whether they are Chinese, Korean, Japanese or Thai, they are collectively seen as just Asian. I do not say that the categorization is correct, and just speak of a fact.

I also sometimes feel I am an Asian. While working in “The King and I,” I felt things should be done differently from the Asian standpoint on many occasions.

Q: Do you switch your identity from Japanese to Asian at times?

A: For doing well with others in the context of cross-cultural exchanges and communicating with people with different backgrounds, I think--though it may not be a good metaphor--that you should imagine you are boxing. You should fundamentally step and move lightly. If you stand straight without changing your position, your punches cannot reach your opponent, allowing your opponent to easily hit you.

Keeping your balance is significant. Having and sharing one’s own views and beliefs are important. But one should not firmly stick to them alone and one should simply enjoy creating value together with others. Were it not for such flexibility, things would become more difficult. Sticking to your views and beliefs too strongly will make communicating difficult.

What was interesting about “The King and I” was that watchers responded in different ways when it was shown in different countries. Those in Europe and the United States were first sympathetic to the British tutor, and people in Japan in a reversed fashion (to the Thai king). It may be embarrassing at first, but the audience can share the same feelings at the end no matter which character they are sympathetic toward first. This represents cross-cultural exchanges in a real sense.


Q: When debuting in the United States with “The Last Samurai,” what did you feel at the time about the film industry there that is said to embody the diversity of that immigrant nation?

A: It was already the 21st century but the stereotypical view of Japanese at that time was terrible in many respects. In the three to four years after “The Last Samurai,” I was asked to play characters wearing bizarre glasses and carrying a camera. This image shows Japanese of so long ago.

Although some Japanese-based characters are still developed in that biased image, circumstances have drastically improved. That is not attributable to me but the fact that many Japanese have gone abroad to change the ways they are viewed. Entertainment works--there is a time lag, however--reflect what society of the time is like and what people desire.

Q: What is your view about diversity that leads to expression?

A: In a scene from “The Last Samurai,” the protagonist named Katsumoto that I played met with the emperor. The American director told me to make eye contact to indicate that they understood each other. It appeared to me that it could never happen as he is a person from the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), so I argued back. But the director thought eye contact was indispensable to suggest that they could understand what the other was thinking. In discussions, a British actor expressed understanding of my opinion, since they also have the royal family.

It is very difficult to explain to Americans what stance we have toward the emperor, as it is close to social morals. Holding discussions with people who hold different values and ethics to move ahead with things in this way is the only option available. Eye contact was eventually omitted. The director said he could well understand how I wanted to act though he could not understand what I said. He also called the scene nice. This is how I think diversity should come to fruition as expression.

Q: Don’t you see it as troublesome to get along with those whom you cannot comprehend?

A: It is rather interesting. I can make many discoveries because it is difficult for me to evaluate how others view me and what they think. That is the case at least with me.

I work both in Japan and abroad, and Japanese often refrain from speaking their true feelings since they assume they understand each other without speaking. But in many cases, those individuals do not understand the personal differences that exist between them. Despite that, they still believe they are still working toward the same direction. That is seemingly much more troublesome to me.


Q: The global entertainment industry is dominated by the logic of the market. What do you think of the declining number of theaters and the spread of movie distribution services?

A: Advancement of technology has resulted in the growing presence of film distribution services. A far wider range of options than in the past are currently available to consumers, though indie films are available from olden days. At one time, I did not want my works to be viewed on small screens (like smartphones). But we are not in an era where such an argument can be accepted.

As the Chinese and South Korean film markets are especially brisk among Asian countries, actors from China and South Korea now more often have starring roles. The power of the market has great impact.

Q: If commercially unsuccessful films are quickly withdrawn, only similar works that will likely be a hit may be released. Don’t you think that will narrow the scope of expression?

A: Hollywood is based on not only the logic of the market but also its own ethic. Under the value, selling tickets is important but it is not the only important element.

Clint Eastwood offers a good example. He hardly promotes his own works and probably does not think that he wants to sell them. His titles will not prove a big hit in commercial terms. But excellent scripts spontaneously come to Clint. Themes of what he has created have no consistency to each other, don’t you think? He just makes films because the scripts are superior. Scriptwriters want their works to be filmed by exceptional directors. He works on the thought that it is enough if only perceptive people can enjoy his movies, but outstanding works are always judged as outstanding.

Clint apparently is not aware of that himself, but I feel ways of thinking like that are vital (for the film industry in Hollywood to continue). Hollywood films have both artistic and commercial aspects, but the two perspectives are not either-or alternatives. Pursuing what is of real importance in filming scenes will make the finished works more entertaining. The more various realities are reflected, the more interesting the movie will become.

Q: Why do you think diversity is so emphasized these days?

A: That is likely because creators tend to work out their productions under a single value or ethic. It is possible to compromise and empathize without totally assimilating or conforming, but doing so is not easy.

In the world of entertainment, “fictions” are used to move the feelings of the audience. They are not real but can show that the real world and truth are interesting. That is the essence of entertainment.

(This interview was conducted by Jun Takaku, a staff writer of The Asahi Shimbun.)