Ken Watanabe was wary and unsure when he first heard news that Clint Eastwood wanted to make Letters From Iwo Jima. A companion piece to the American director and Hollywood icon’s Flags of Our Fathers—about the World War II battle for the tiny isle 500 miles south of Japan—Letters would offer the flip side. It would show the defenders’ perspective, the story of the 22,000 Japanese who dug in and fought—almost all to the death (only 1,083 survived)—against the historic onslaught of Marines.
“At the time, I thought it should be a Japanese project, with a Japanese director and a Japanese producer and a Japanese studio,” says the actor, on the phone from Tokyo.
“But I got a call from Clint and then I met with him. I told him that I was really concerned about why he wanted to make this movie, and how can he make a Japanese film?”
Eastwood made his case, explaining that he saw Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima as companion pieces, the halves that make the whole, and that telling just one side of the story—the Americans’—would leave it incomplete.
Flags of Our Fathers, which opened in October, described the epic invasion of Iwo Jima by U.S. forces, and also the subsequent public-relations campaign in which the Marines who raised the Stars and Stripes on the island’s Mount Suribachi were paraded around the States in an effort to raise millions in war bonds.
“Clint said that unless he made Letters he wouldn’t be telling the whole story,” Watanabe recalls. “What became clear to me was that Clint had a strong will to cross the boundaries of culture and language and make the best film possible, the most truthful film possible ... All Clint wanted to do was present the reality of war, the truth of what happened, and to let the audiences decide.”
In Letters, Watanabe, the 47-year-old actor best known to American audiences for his roles in The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha, stars as Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the erudite officer who oversaw the fortification of the island, a desolate but strategically vital dot in the Pacific Ocean, and led his men in the 36-day battle in the early weeks of 1945, fully aware that his mission was doomed.
Letters has been the recipient of rave reviews and numerous best-of-2006 kudos. In Japan, where it opened five weeks ago, Letters has easily outgrossed Flags. But Watanabe says that as significant as Letters’ box office is—$30 million and counting—it’s the public’s reaction that has moved him.
“There is not a strong tradition of war movies in Japan,” he says by phone, with the occasional help of a translator. “Especially movies about World War II. And the ones that have been made are almost always antiwar, (about) victims’ feelings, about the atomic bomb ... (With) Japanese films about war, the story was almost always about people preparing to go to war, or the story of individuals after they returned from the war. But rarely about the actual war, the events of battle.”
And, he says, many younger Japanese do not know about Iwo Jima. World War II, Watanabe says, is not a focus of history books in his country’s schools. Japan is a culture that has not sent troops into battle for almost 60 years.
Like Flags, Letters was shot mainly on the volcanic terrain of Iceland, and on soundstages in Hollywood. The U.S. Navy armada that stands offshore, bombarding the island and the Japanese, was mostly the work of computer renderers.
“When I first saw the final film, with the computer graphics and the sound and everything, I was so surprised. Wow!”
Watanabe and his fellow actors—including the pop star Kazunari Ninomiya—reshaped and improvised much of their dialogue on the set. The original screenplay, by Crash writer-director Paul Haggis, was in English, and was an adaptation of the book of letters written by Watanabe’s character, Gen. Kuribayashi, Picture Letters From Commander in Chief. Then the screenplay was translated, by Iris Yamashita, into Japanese.
“Clint allowed me to make dialogue in Japanese, and I just got together with the interpreter and other cast, and before each sequence we would have the complete dialogue in Japanese,” he says. “Clint could focus on the performances, the actors’ feelings, and not worry about the specific words.”
Watanabe says that right now his future is “white, blank.” He has produced and starred in a melodrama about early-onset Alzheimer’s called Memories of Tomorrow. He admires the way Eastwood moves easily from acting to directing and producing.
“It depends on the project, of course,” Watanabe says, “but I’m ready to go anywhere—any studio, any country, any director. I’m open to all possibility.”