I have to confess that 2016 is making me kind of paranoid about people’s health. At 56, Ken Watanabe is definitely on the young end of people we’ve covered here. (One of these days, I’m going to put together a list of how old the people I’ve written about have been when I wrote the article, for my own information if nothing else.) But when someone has survived leukemia and Hepatitis C and is then diagnosed with stomach cancer, perhaps it’s not so paranoid as all that to want to pay attention to them just in case.
I feel as though Ken Watanabe has had his career hampered by being Japanese. Oh, these days, hampered by stomach cancer, which is nasty stuff. (Another possible reason for my maybe jumping the gun on this one is that my godmother died of it.) But when he is given roles in American blockbusters, he is given minor roles—for example as a voice in one of the Transformers movies. American films tend to focus on his white costars; think Batman Begins, which I won’t spoil but which does rather use Watanabe as a fake-out.
We know he’s capable of more. In Letters From Iwo Jima, he gives a powerful performance of a man trying to keep his values in a doomed situation. It’s an intense, moving performance. I’m a little saddened that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination; I’ve only seen two of the performances that were for Best Actor that year, so I can’t say which nomination I’d replace with him, but I’m still disappointed. His only nomination is for Best Supporting for The Last Samurai; he lost to Tim Robbins for Mystic River. Now, I haven’t seen The Last Samurai (the Tom Cruise thing), so I can’t speak to that, but it still feels as though the Academy ought to pay more attention to him.
Right now, it’s impossible to say if he wasn’t cast in certain roles because of his health, because of his ethnicity, or because the directors were looking for a different kind of performance. I certainly wouldn’t be accepting roles in Marvel movies in his health, for example—and, of course, it’s always possible that he doesn’t want the roles in the first place. To my knowledge, he’s never said anything one way or another. But he does feel like the kind of high-calibre actor that Marvel seeks out. (One of the Best Supporting Actor nominees from the year Watanabe didn’t get nominated for Letters From Iwo Jima was Djimon Hounsou, who would of course go on to have a small part in Guardaians of the Galaxy.) And since that’s something DC and Marvel have in common, it’s no wonder that Watanabe is in one of the Nolan Batman films.
And, of course, he’s in Inception. Not the lead—I suspect its lead actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, is the person whose 2006 performance I’d replace with Watanabe, though I’ve not seen Blood Diamond—but he’s there. If you look, you can find any number of fine Watanabe roles. I just feel as though you shouldn’t have to do quite so much looking.