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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 29, 2006

Ken Watanabe in 'very good situation'

By Lesa Griffith
Advertiser Staff Writer

In town Friday for the Hawaii International Film Festival, actor Ken Watanabe took time out to talk to The Advertiser.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The Hawaii International Film Festival Closing Night event, 7:30 tonight at the Hawaiçi Theatre, has an Island flourish — it’s the U.S. premiere of “Hula Girls,” about a dying mining town in Japan that turns to Hawaiçi for inspiration. Oçahu’s own Jake Shimabukuro did the soundtrack, and he performs at the event.

Award-winning and audience favorite films have been added to today’s lineup. Among the highlights: “Sharkwater,” Special Jury Mention, 4 p.m., Dole Cannery; “Love for Sale,” Halekulani Golden Orchid for Best Feature, 6 p.m., Dole; “Na Kamalei: Men of Hula,”(Best Hawaii Film, 6:15 p.m., Dole; “The Host,” DHL Audience Award, 7:15 p.m., Dole; “Time and Tide,” Golden Orchid for Best Documentary, 7:45 p.m., Dole; “Samoan Wedding,” 7:30 p.m., Dole.

Go to HIFF Central at www.honoluluadvertiser/island

life to see an image from “Hula Girls” and a sneak peek at Heath Ledger’s film “Candy,” along with a wrap-up podcast from HIFF programmer Andersen Le. More information at www.hiff.org.

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Actor Ken Watanabe, right, seen here with Hawaii International Film Festival executive director Chuck Boller, was in town for a moderated discussion presented by festival organizers on Friday.

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Fresh from fly fishing in chilly Wyoming with Patagonia honcho Yvon Chouinard for a GQ Japan photo shoot, actor Ken Watanabe seemed amazed to be sitting in a balmy open-air lounge at the Halekulani hotel.

At 6-feet-2, the slender actor cuts an elegant line, dressed in a white polo shirt, tan twill trousers and red suede loafers. Close-cropped hair emphasizes his fine-featured face, his eyes a light brown that is almost a dull gold. He was in town to speak at the Hawaii International Film Festival last Friday.

"Winter!" he said of his western jaunt. "Fly fishing is a good experience. I didn't need anything, didn't need to think about anything. And I come here ... such a different world."

The man USA Today called "the face of Japan to the rest of the world," says "I'm just an actor."

At 47, his international career is taking off. Earning an Oscar nod with "The Last Samurai" in 2003 and following up with this year's "Memoirs of a Geisha," he has two new films under his belt. Out next month will be "Letters From Iwo Jima," part two of Clint Eastwood's World War II epic, this time from the Japanese point of view. Later this year, Watanabe treads new acting ground in "Ashita no kioku" ("Memories of Tomorrow"), playing a successful executive stricken by Alzheimer's disease.

Last summer, Watanabe moved to Los Angeles with his wife, Kaho Minami (whom he wed late last year), and his two grown children who are also actors. He keeps a residence in Tokyo and says he lives "half and half."

Occasionally consulting a translator, Watanabe is as eloquent as one could be considering he began learning English in earnest only four years ago.

"I didn't speak well before 'Last Samurai,' " he said. "Some casual talking in a hotel. Language is not a big deal — it's a tool. Memorizing a line is not difficult. But talking to a director and getting the feeling ... I still work on my English."

But language posed no problem for his latest U.S. film — "Letters From Iwo Jima" is in Nihongo, with English subtitles. Written in English by Japanese-American Iris Yamashita, the screenplay was translated into Japanese.

Watanabe had a role in getting the dialogue just right.

"I always checked on the set about the Japanese language, changed some lines. You know, Japanese is (a) very sensitive and difficult (language), a small change of point is a big change of feeling. I really enjoyed checking the lines."

When asked what he thought of Clint Eastwood, Watanabe replied without hesitation, "The best director in the world."

Before "Letters" began shooting, Watanabe asked Eastwood why he wanted to make a film from the Japanese perspective.

"He said 'I want to see the true Japanese soldier's feelings, I want to show the true Japanese mind in film,' " said Watanabe.

"I feel it is a completely Japanese film, not a Hollywood film. Because all the Japanese actors played Japanese roles. Yeah!" he said, with a chuckle.

Watanabe did his own research on "the true history and feeling about traditional Japanese soldiers — because we didn't have true information. The young generation doesn't know the true history (of that) strange, crazy era. That feeling ... I wanted to explain to Clint that we don't know and understand this era."

Watanabe feels the director got it right. Making the film was his "best experience."

Eastwood "knew the actors' feelings. On the set, it was very calm and a good feeling for the actors," said Watanabe.

Famous in Japan for his samurai roles in TV series such as 1987 "Dokugan-ryu Masamune," Watanabe actually got his start on the stage with the Enegki-Shudan En theater group. That's where he met his Hawai'i connection. University of Hawai'i emeritus professor of theater Terence Knapp directed three plays for the theater group, said Watanabe, and "I was taught so many things as an actor." Unsure about pursuing an acting career, Watanabe was convinced by Knapp that he had the talent.

When he was 25, Watanabe landed a film role. "Before I played this role, I decided if I didn't have a good feeling for the acting, I was going to quit," said Watanabe. Luckily, he got "a good feeling ... and a good reaction from the audience. So. ... Oh! I had to continue acting."

A survivor of acute myelogenous leukemia a year into a new marriage and his career on the rise, Watanabe is comfortable with his feet in the East and West.

"It's very comfortable to work in different countries," he said. "Each has a different feeling. Hollywood film is ... spectacular, and Japanese film is more sensitive and deep. It's a very good situation right now."

Reach Lesa Griffith at lgriffith@honoluluadvertiser.com.