The man in charge of 'Iwo Jima'

Special to The Times

When filming for "Letters From Iwo Jima" wrapped on that historic island in the Pacific, the movie's star, Ken Watanabe, scaled its dormant volcano with American members of the movie's crew. The group prayed at the cemetery atop Mt. Suribachi, which memorializes the Japanese soldiers who perished in the crucial World War II battle. Then crew members handed him two flags -- the Stars and Stripes and Japan's rising sun -- and snapped his photo.

The picture was a telling update of the famous World War II photograph that became a symbol of American patriotism -- the portrait of American soldiers planting a U.S. flag in the soil of Japan's defeat. "I was so impressed that the American crew completely understood how the Japanese soldiers felt," Watanabe said during a recent swing through Los Angeles to promote director Clint Eastwood's critically esteemed companion film to "Flags of Our Fathers." "It's a collaboration. That was meaningful for me."

Indeed, the artistic collaboration between former enemy sides on the latter of Eastwood's movies examining America's and Japan's respective experiences during the battle of Iwo Jima, in 1945, is one of the more pleasant surprises of globalization. Opening wide Feb. 9, "Letters" already is winning best film plaudits from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures as well as a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign-language picture. And the elegant Watanabe, who has homes in Tokyo and Los Angeles, is one of the brave new globalized world's more dashing sons.

Indeed, he won the official imprimatur of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" arbiters after he grabbed Hollywood's attention with his Oscar-nominated performance in 2003's "The Last Samurai." Watanabe followed that two years later with the role of the Chairman in "Memoirs of a Geisha," prompting one besotted critic to call him "a majestic hunk."

Eastwood prefers to characterize the 47-year-old actor's charisma as "screen presence" and says he was impressed with Watanabe when he met him at the Oscars a few years ago. "Besides being a terrific actor, he's got a really great face," Eastwood says. "His face just jumps off the screen. He's almost the heir to [Toshiro] Mifune, and I've always liked him and admired him in the few things I'd seen him in."

Watanabe's ripening into middle age has lent him the gravitas he needs to play a leader of men, Eastwood says, explaining his decision to cast him in the key role of Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the commander who led 22,000 Japanese in a doomed mission to defend the island 522 miles from Tokyo against 70,000 American troops. Only 1,083 survived.

Watanabe's portrayal of the complicated Kuribayashi was more of a feat, an act of pure imagination, than one might assume. The actor says that war is a distant experience for the Japanese because his country's military hasn't engaged in active combat since World War II. And that dark period in Japan's history is glossed over in its schools, so Watanabe hadn't even heard of Kuribayashi before making the film. By the time he set out to research the role, the general's close relatives had died. And if there are Japanese survivors of the battle, Watanabe says he couldn't find them.

With Iwo Jima only a dim memory for many Japanese, Eastwood, born in what was then enemy territory, is in the ironic position of illuminating Japanese history for the Japanese, even though that wasn't his intent. The director says he was motivated by his interest in exploring both sides of the battle so as to demonstrate the futility of war. While Watanabe collaborated with him by culling the best dialogue from three Japanese translations of the original English-language script, he says he believes Eastwood was better equipped to make the film than a Japanese director would have been. "If a Japanese director had made this film, it would have been more sentimental," Watanabe says. "So Clint could make the film more objectively. He could show the truth of the tragedy."

Much of the film was actually shot in Iceland and on soundstages in Los Angeles. Toward the end of filming, Eastwood and Watanabe flew to Iwo Jima with a small crew. "As I began to see Iwo Jima in the cockpit, I could not stop crying," Watanabe says. "All of Kuribayashi's experiences went through my body, the pain and sadness of battle. When I arrived on the island and stepped on the ground, I got a very warm feeling." Watanabe says he believed the warmth signified the presence of spirits letting him know that the film was on the right track.

He speaks from the edge of an armchair in the West Hollywood office of his publicity firm, PMK-HBH. A translator is on hand to help shore up his delicate stabs at English. He's immaculately dressed in a black turtleneck and suit with a black handkerchief tucked into his breast pocket. Unlike the besieged Kuribayashi, Watanabe seems relaxed, gracefully deflecting questions he'd rather not answer with a joke and an easy laugh. Asked, for example, about the 2001 press conference he gave, declaring that his 170 million-yen home was about to be repossessed after he left the family finances to his soon-to-be ex-wife, he laughs and says with a wave of his hand, "I don't remember."

Watanabe married actress Kaho Minami a year ago, and now his brood has expanded to include Minami's 7-year-old son in addition to his daughter, An Watanabe, a 19-year-old model, and actor son Shin Shinitiro, 22. Watanabe is a familiar sight in his native country, where he made his reputation playing samurai in television serials such as the 50-episode "Dokuganryu Masamune" (One-Eyed Dragon, Masamune) in 1987. Yet he insists he's not a big star in Japan. Then he puckishly mentions the meaning of his first name in Japanese. "My name means 'modest,' " he says and laughs.

Although Kuribayashi's ancestors were samurai, the role represents a departure for Watanabe. The general was more inclined toward progressive, rational thought than were the feudal warriors, who considered death an honor. While the general's body was never found, some accounts say that Kuribayashi probably committed seppuku, or ritual suicide. But Watanabe disagrees. In the film, the general orders his men not to die by their own hands in the waning hours of the battle but to fight until the end to protect the mainland for however long they were able to hold off the American troops.

Knowing that the odds were against him, the general crafted a battle plan inspired in part by his knowledge of Western military strategy. He led his troops in creating an extensive system of caves and tunnels from which they were able to prolong the island's defense for five weeks.

For his next role, Watanabe plays a 50-year-old Alzheimer's patient in "Memories of Tomorrow," which he also produced. The film, called "emotionally gripping" by Variety, took in $22 million in Japan, and Watanabe is negotiating U.S. distribution rights.

But he doesn't want people to think he's all about men in crisis. "It's a big challenge for me," he says of his latest film. "But it's not too dark. I wanted to give it the joy of life."

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