Japanese actor Ken Watanabe is most famous for his work in such global blockbusters as “Inception,” “Batman Begins,” “The Last Samurai” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
At 53, he’s of a stature that Hollywood knows if there’s a movie to be made in Japan, Watanabe is the go-to Japanese star. Gus Van Sant called on him to co-star in his Japanese-set drama, “Sea of Trees,” and Martin Scorsese’s film of Shusaku Endo’s “Silence,” about Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan, has Watanabe in a featured role.
And there’s probably a law that says you cannot make a “Godzilla” movie without a major Japanese star in it. In the newest incarnation of the “King of the Monsters,” opening Friday, Watanabe plays a Japanese scientist who seems to understand the monsters that have burst into the Pacific better than the American engineers, soldiers and sailors who are battling them.
Question: What was your first exposure to “Godzilla,” growing up in Japan?
Watanabe: “I was 9, 10 years old when I watched four or five films on TV, Godzilla battles this creature or that one (“Godzilla vs. Monster Zero,” etc.). It was great entertainment for a kid!”
Q: As the chief Japanese member of the cast, did you feel protective of Godzilla, how he’d be presented, what he’d represent in this movie?
A: “I met (director) Gareth Edwards and told him, ‘To me, Godzilla is symbolic of human cultures. His roar is like something sent down from the ancient gods, a mythic warning. I wanted to know from him what kind of story he had in mind for Godzilla, today. He admires Godzilla, and how much fun those movies were. He seems to love Japanese comic books, Japanese culture. He knew all about Godzilla, very deep knowledge of his background, the meanings of those early films when we learn how Godzilla was born. I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about what kind of Godzilla movie he would make. He gave me great confidence.”
Q: So, what does a “Godzilla” movie need to be about, then?
A: “When I saw this movie, finished, I got the most excited whenever Godzilla let out his roar. That sound, ‘Rooooooooooarrrrr,’ filled me with pride. But also sadness. To me, it’s like Godzilla is calling out a warning to humanity’s foolishness. Radiation from bombs, from power plants. That’s what brings him back.
“‘Godzilla’ was born out of fear of nuclear weapons after World War II. But after we experienced the collapse of our nuclear power plant in Fukushima, due to the earthquake and tsunami, it was like the fear was back — the same fear we had 60 years ago when ‘Godzilla’ was born. It made me, as a Japanese actor, want to join this project, be in this film.
“And my character’s background made me want to play him. His father was a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. This guy ended up studying nuclear energy, nuclear power. What does that say about him? He hopes he is doing something meaningful for humanity with this very destructive energy. But he is still struggling with that issue. He sees this conflict as nature vs. science…He comes to believe that science does not have power over nature. We have a type of power we cannot control. That is what ‘Godzilla’ is about.”