Follow Us on Twitter

Letters From Iwo Jima - Ken Watanabe interview

Ken Watanabe in Letters From Iwo Jima

Compiled by Jack Foley

ACTOR Ken Watanabe talks about his involvement in Letters From Iwo Jima and working with Clint Eastwood…

How did you get involved in the film?
A: I heard of the project and told my agents I wanted to work with Clint Eastwood. So, I studied the history of Iwo Jima and as soon as Clint offered me the film I felt a great responsibility, being Japanese. I met with him and he told me that when he shot Flags Of Our Fathers he couldn’t see the faces of the Japanese soldiers or understand their feelings, which reassured him of the need to do this film. He was so honest.

Why did you want to work with Clint Eastwood?
A: He knows how to shoot humanity and the human soul. Clint is a different kind of director in Hollywood and I admire him. All actors want to work with him. And he is also very admired in Japan, both by actors and filmmakers.

How is Eastwood on the set?
A: Clint was very collaborative and always listened to my ideas. He is a very calm, peaceful and quiet man, and knows how to create a great atmosphere on the set. And he tried hard to understand our culture and feelings.

What did you think of his idea of shooting two different movies about the same battle: one from the American point of view and another from the Japanese?
A: There are no heroes in any of them and they explain different tragedies, but with both perspectives we understand the truth better. There are always many sides to the truth. It’s an amazing achievement to have done both films.

Who was General Kuribayashi?
A: He was a very unique general, not typical in the traditional Japan of his time. He was very smart and rational, and had lived in America. He studied in Harvard and drove all around the country in 1928. So, he had a good feeling about Americans, and he understood the industry and economy of their country; but he had to fight against the United States.

He was in charge of his men and had a whole nation behind him, though he did not agree on how he was told to do it. The problem is that he didn’t have enough soldiers, weapons or food to accomplish his mission, which was really tough for him.

How did you prepare for your role?
A: I did a lot of research about the war and my character. And I even went to Kuribayashi’s hometown, in the centre of Japan; but nobody knew him. As the script was written in English I helped chose the right translators, because the movie would be shot in Japanese, and checked on their work. It was a great experience for me to collaborate side by side with Clint, and I gave him notes every day.

Kuribayashi was close to the United States, as you are now. Did you feel any proximity to the character?
A: Yes, in a way I did. I have been working in the United States for years and have many friends there. I like their life style, and it was helpful to understand both sides when I worked in Letters from Iwo Jima.

What was your relationship like with the rest of the Japanese actors?
A: Not all of them could understand how their characters felt, as things are different now in Japan, but I had many conversations with them about their roles. They came to my trailer and we talked a lot. I personally knew some of them, like Tsuyoshi Ihara (he plays Baron Nishi), who I have worked with four times. As Kuribayashi cared for his men, I tried to help the young actors as much as I could and even cooked for them at times.

How is the battle of Iwo Jima seen in modern Japan?
A: There’s not enough knowledge about the war or this battle. It’s all dark and secretive. And the defeat was so disappointing that it isn’t taught well at school and the Japanese don’t know much about it. This movie offers a good opportunity to learn more about The Second World War.

Did you get to visit Iwo Jima?
A: I went with Clint, who shot the beach, a town and Mount Suribachi. I’m sure he would have liked to shoot more there, but it wasn’t possible. In fact, most of the movie was made in Southern California. When I saw Iwo Jima from the cockpit of the plane I couldn’t stop crying, because I felt that the souls of all those soldiers still remained on the island. For Japan, it’s just territory now, a military base. Nobody lives there anymore.

Is Letters From Iwo Jima a war or an anti-war film?
A: I think Clint Eastwood was interested in showing the facts of the battle and the loss of humanity that war represents. It was a bit painful for me to watch both films, though I really like them. War normally only brings pain and tragedy. The audience will decide.

Read our review of Letters From Iwo Jima