We’ve seen Japanese actor Ken Watanabe playing samurais, emperors and ruthless warlords, but in his latest movie Memories of Tomorrow, he plays the manager of a high-profile ad agency whose life is altered when he starts showing the early stages of Alzheimer’s at the age of 49. This may be the first time that Western audiences see the Oscar-nominated actor playing a character that’s vulnerable and facing humility as this misunderstood disease affects every aspect of his life. Oddly, this is the second imported movie about Alzheimer’s to show up on these shores in the last month, but it’s also the first movie that Watanabe has worked on as an executive producer, having read the original novel and decided it would make a great challenge for him as an actor. The film was hugely successful in Japan, grossing $24 million and being nominated for five awards by the Japanese Academy, Watanabe winning an award for his performance.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Watanabe at New York’s prestigious Japan Society where his film would be premiering later that night. (Note: Although Watanabe’s English has improved in recent years, we’ve had to rewrite some of his responses to make them easier to read and understand.)
ComingSoon.net: I remembered you mentioning this movie when we spoke to you for “Memoirs of a Geisha,” so when did you start making it?
Ken Watanabe: Two years ago, I found this story during “Memoirs of a Geisha.” I bought the book in L.A. and after I read the book, I had an impulse to make the movie as an actor. I started negotiating with the studio and decided the director and casting and adapting and writing the script, and shooting was last year before “Letters.” This movie opened the same time last year, May, in Japan.
CS: So after you read the book, you put the whole project together, finding the writer and director and everything?
Watanabe: I found the story, and I got some great warm feelings remaining in my mind after I read the book, and I wanted to convey the same feelings to an audience. Yes, I have to stand very close to this movie all the time, from start to finish, to send it to the audience, so I wanted to executive produce it. This story is so difficult, and sometimes, when something is too sentimental or too sad or something, it’s really hard to control the storytelling. I didn’t feel like a producer, but I kind of did introduce the story to the director, the studio and the cast and audiences.
CS: Is the author of the book still alive?
Watanabe: Sure, we’re the same age, but he didn’t want to attach himself to the filmmaking.
CS: The movie is kind of shocking, because when you think of Alzheimer’s, you automatically think of people in their 70s or 80s or older, so it’s surprising to see that this could affect someone who’s not even 50 yet. Is that something that struck you since you’re in that age range?
Watanabe: Maybe yes, but before the film, I always act and create the spectacle movie, playing tough guys and emperors, and. I wanted to do acting that’s close to me, playing someone the same age and same height, same mind, and my curiosity was piqued to go in that direction.
CS: It is very much a departure from what Western audiences are used to seeing you do in that you’re very vulnerable and show a lot of emotion
you even cry! How have Japanese audiences taken to this role for you?
Watanabe: Of course, studio people were surprised. “Really? You want to do this?” (laughs) It’s so hard and this is such a normal person, but I wanted to do it. I discussed with the director that the first part, until my character Saeki was told that he has Alzheimer’s by the doctor, until that time, it was kind of like a horror movie, really serious and scary because of the way it affects his daily life. We wanted to shock, and audiences also got feelings of this being so scary before that. Then, in the middle of the movie, it’s sad, because he’s fired from work, and he’s losing his memory and some body functions, and the last paragraph gives a little bit of hope. The audience understood the flow of the character, and it’s kind of like crying without shedding tears.
CS: Did you do any of your own research into Alzheimer’s to find out about how it affects people when creating the character?
Watanabe: Before writing the script, we were concerned about how much Alzheimer’s disease to show in preparation for this film. We saw many different kinds of progressions of the disease, and so we met real patients and their families, analysis doctors, and we were really sensitive because which evidence could we show of the disease, so the people who have experienced it could believe the story. Also to show enough of the disease so that those who haven’t experienced it will not only become afraid of Alzheimer’s. It’s so delicate. After making the movie, before screening for the media, we wanted to show it to real patients’ families, just small screenings with fifty people, and it made some great impressions and reactions. Some of the wives didn’t realize what their husbands were feeling when they were fired from their company, because they couldn’t be with them 24 hours a day. She knew his feelings but he never expressed them, and she said “that’s us” so we were all crying. We thought that it was really hard, but we have to create the difficulties suffered by the patient and their families, so we had a great experiences with them.
CS: The aspect of the movie that takes place inside the Japanese business world was the most interesting to me. It’s very different here in that we’re very sensitive about mentally debilitating illnesses like this, maybe since everyone’s worried about being sued. Is the Japanese business world changing to be more sensitive to things like this?
Watanabe: Not really, but a little bit better than before because everybody couldn’t understand about the disease and how it would affect the skills at work, but now, it’s a good opportunity to think about Alzheimer’s in society. Some of those supporting it are firefighters, the police and other companies think about Alzheimer’s and it’s probably better. A couple years ago, health insurance didn’t care about Alzheimer’s in younger people– at 50, there’s usually 10 years remaining before retiring–but last year, around the same time as this movie, there was a small change in health insurance and there’s a little bit of coverage now.
CS: What kind of audience has the movie found in Japan? Sarah Polley recently released her movie “Away From Her” here, which was also about Alzheimer’s, and I thought a movie on this subject would be hard to market.
Watanabe: Before opening the movie in Japan, nobody thought it would do good box office, but I did very delicate and detailed promotion in Japan, wider and wider. So many people, 2 million people came to the theatre, and it’s big box office in Japan.
CS: Was it mainly older people going to see it or did it get some younger people, too?
Watanabe: Older couples were the main target, but 20-to-30 year old ladies also came to the theatre.
CS: In America, you’re probably the best known living Japanese actor, but in general, your Japanese movies don’t do as well here. Even “Letters” didn’t really find that big an audience compared to “Flags of Our Fathers.” Why do you think Americans accept you in English-speaking roles but aren’t as open to Japanese films?
Watanabe: People here aren’t really used to reading subtitles and don’t consciously recognize them, so we have to export more of these movies from Japan, so people will get used to them. This movie is a good test.
CS: Where does this movie go after playing in New York?
Watanabe: Back to L.A., then San Francisco and maybe to Hawaii, just places with large Japanese populations.