Ken Watanabe

Ken Watanabe Headshot

Actor

Birth Name: Kensaku Watanabe

Birth Date: October 21, 1959

Age: 64 years old

Birth Place: Koide, Niigata, Japan

It is no wonder that actor Ken Watanabe has played many roles as a Japanese samurai throughout much his career. Like the warriors of old, Watanabe has practiced a code of humility, honor and modesty with his approach to acting and stardom-even his first name is a common moniker meaning modesty.

Watanabe has also faced death with the fearlessness of the samurai when he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1989. Though he would eventually recover, Watanabe spent the first half of the 1990s in and out of the hospital. But he never despaired and once healthy, Watanabe continued his venerable acting career with the same command for respect and integrity of the most ardent warrior.

Watanabe was born on October 21, 1959 and grew up in the small mountain village of Niigata, Japan. His father and mother were both teachers: his dad taught calligraphy (a skill Watanabe learned) and his mom general education. Watanabe spent his childhood exploring and skiing the surrounding mountains of his village with older brother, Jun. Watanabe attempted to play the trumpet, but his musical abilities were limited. At the very least, Watanabe discovered a zeal for performing.

The failed musician eventually turned to acting when he joined the theater troop En in 1982 and made his stage debut in "Shitaya Mannen-cho Monogatari," for which he received good notices. Watanabe then appeared on television for the first time in "Michinaru Hanran" that same year, then later starred as his first samurai in the television drama, "Mibu no koiuta." The actor made another crossover, this time to film, when he appeared in a small role in "Setouchi shonen yakyudan" ("MacArthur's Children," 1984), a film about a generation of Japanese children who grew up after World War II under the occupation of General MacArthur.

Watanabe became a star with his role in the NHK TV series, "Dokuganryu Masamune" (One-Eyed Dragon, Masamune, 1987), a highly popular samurai drama. Also that same year, Watanabe won the Ecran d'Or Best New Actor Award from the Japan Film and Television Producers Society for the film "Umi to dokuyaku" ("The Sea is Poison," 1987). It was while working on "Ten to chi to" ("Heaven and Earth," 1990) that Watanabe learned he had leukemia.

Unable to finish the film, Watanabe receded to television where he was lucky enough to even work, since many directors were concerned he might not be able to finish a project. Watanabe underwent treatment, which appeared successful, but five years later he succumbed to the cancer again. Watanabe spent the next few years in and out of the hospital-one stay lasted a full year. But upon recovery, Watanabe returned to the film world with a vengeance, garnishing three Japanese Academy Award nominations in four years for his roles in "Kizuna" (1998), "Sennen no koi - hikaru genji monogatari" (2002) and "Hi wa mata noboru" (2002).

Next Watanabe was cast in "The Last Samurai" (2003), the first American film in his long career. Though Watanabe was an unknown in the states, he stole the show from co-star Tom Cruise, and almost immediately there was buzz for an Oscar nomination. As the titular character of the story, Watanabe played Katsumoto, the last of a dying breed of samurai warriors who fight to preserve their culture in the face of rampant modernization. Matching Cruise in charisma and presence, Watanabe's absorbing performance earned him an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Hot off of his breakthrough performance, the actor was cast the enigmatic Ra's al Ghul, leader of the League of Shadows, who opposes a young Bruce Wayne in "Batman Begins" (2005), a relaunch of the popular film franchise focusing on the superhero's shadowy origins. He segued right into his next high profile feature, "Memoirs of a Geisha" (2005), the story of a Japanese girl torn from her penniless family and raised in a geisha house where she blossoms into the legendary geisha, Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang). Watanabe played the rich and handsome Chairman, the one man for whom Sayuri yearns yet cannot have.

Wantanabe was set to star in yet another high profile feature, "Pathfinder" (2007), a remake of the 1987 Norwegian historical adventure about a Viking boy left behind during a skirmish between his people and Native Americans one thousand years ago. Raised by the Native Americans as one of their own, the boy grows up to become his adoptive people's savior in battling a new wave of invading Norsemen.

Credits

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