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The Last Samurai - Ken Watanabe on dream Oscar nomination

Compiled by: Jack Foley

JAPANESE actor, Ken Watanabe, surprised many by being named as a contender for best supporting actor at this year’s Oscars, especially as his Last Samurai co-star, Tom Cruise, was overlooked in the best actor category.

But while the nomination means he has become the first Japanese nominee for a performance Oscar in nearly 40 years, failure to convert it into an award won’t bother Watanabe, as he has already won his greatest victory, by beating leukaemia ten years ago.

The popular star was diagnosed with the life-threatening condition, in 1989, and spent several years in and out of hospital, surviving at least one relapse before the disease finally went into remission.

Throughout his ordeal, the actor remained upbeat, however, telling a news conference, in 1994, that he was certain he would ‘be able to recover enough to work and stand before you once again’, despite looking thin and pale.

His recovery and transformation beggars belief, as it is hard to imagine the man you see on-screen, as warrior Katsumoto, could ever have been so seriously ill, particularly when mixing it up during some of the movie’s fierce battle scenes.

His nomination, therefore, represents a massive personal triumph for the 44-year-old, as well as ‘a dream’.

Born in the Niigata prefecture, deep in Japan's snow country, both of his parents were teachers. His father was a specialist in traditional calligraphy, while his mother taught general education.

Ken became interesting in acting at the age of 24, however, and began his career, as a stage actor ,with a Tokyo-based theatre troupe, before moving on to television and movies, where he quickly established a reputation for himself by playing samurais.

Indeed, he tries to incorporate the samurai's values in his daily life, and has not, according to a biography on movie site, IMDB, amassed many material possessions, and lives his life with honour, pride and discipline.

With this in mind, it would be difficult to begrudge Watanabe the statuette, no matter what you may think of the film (it received a mixed response from critics in the US and the UK).

But he may have his work cut out, given the level of competition. In what is arguably the toughest category, the actor is up against Benicio Del Toro, who provides another masterclass in 21 Grams, as well as early favourites, Alec Baldwin, who plays a sleazy casino owner in The Cooler, and Tim Robbins, who has already walked away with the Golden Globe for his performance in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River.

We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed for him, although any of the contenders would make worthy winners in this year’s field.

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