In "The Last Samurai," Tom Cruise is a former Civil War officer who finds himself in Japan training the emperor's new army in the ways of modern warfare. He is defeated and captured by a band of samurai fighting to hold onto their way of life and clinging to their code of conduct known as Bushido. Their leader, Katsumoto, spares Cruise's life in no small part to have someone to practice English with.
In a stunning English-language debut, Japanese actor Ken Watanabe handily holds his own, projecting dignity, shame, loss and honor with simple glances and gestures. It is difficult to steal scenes from the world's biggest movie star, but Watanabe does it.
In person, Watanabe couldn't be more different from the imposing, menacing Katsumoto. Gentle and quiet, he reveals a sly and playful wit. He will provide short answers in English, but to convey longer ideas, he defers to the interpreter at his side. A veteran actor in Japan, with many roles to his credit (including an appearance in 1986's "Tampopo"), he is reluctant to gauge the level of his fame at home. With a broad smile, he says, "Japanese, very modest."
Three of his biggest dialogue scenes were shot within the first 10 days of production at an ancient temple in western Japan. "In a modern-day setting, I could handle English dialogue fairly well," he says. "But to be as a samurai, hundreds of years ago, as one who didn't express himself, or change his face very much, to speak English then, that was overwhelming."
He likens the experience of mixing Japanese and Western actors to an exhibition game between baseball teams from the two countries -- "same rules, different styles." He also mentions that the film's championing of seemingly outdated codes of honor probably will be as meaningful to modern-day Japanese as to those for whom the way of the samurai is exotic and strange.
"We have to rediscover Japanese spirit. Bushido is not difficult. It is about daily life, simple things like keeping a promise or respecting an elder. It is similar to the knights in Europe or the cowboys in the American West. It is something we used to have but do not have anymore -- things are not as they used to be."
-- Mark Olsen