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Ken Watanabe Leaps to Producing with ‘Memories of Tomorrow’

[IMG:L]Hard-working Ken Watanabe has been making films for over 20 years, but he’s had a quick rise to fame in America since his powerful Oscar-nominated role in 2003’s The Last Samurai. Since then, he’s balanced Hollywood blockbusters like Batman Begins (2005) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), with smaller and more personal films like the Japanese homegrown project, Memories of Tomorrow.

Based on the novel “Ashita No Kioku” written by Hiroshi Ogiwara, the adapted drama has already picked-up several impressive Japanese awards, five of which will now decorate Watanabe’s shelves for his best actor wins.

Besides starring in Memories of Tomorrow, Watanabe has also taken on the duties of executive producer, using his Hollywood clout to help get the film made. Watanabe plays Masayuki Saeki, a very successful businessman with a bright future. However, overwhelmed by his growing sense of confusion, he’s blindsided when diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The shocking news jolts Masayuki into a new reality, forcing the professional to deal with how it will affect him and his family’s future.

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Wearing several hats in this business is not bad thing–and for Watanabe, who now sports them in two different counties, it’s quite becoming.

Hollywood.com: As a producer, did actually you help generate this project, or was it presented to you?
[IMG:R]Ken Watanabe: I came upon the book [that Memories of Tomorrow is based on] while shooting Memoirs of a Geisha a couple years ago. After I read the book, some warm feeling remained in my mind, and as an actor, I wanted to convey the same feeling to an audience. So I started the negotiation with the studio in deciding on the director [Yukihiko Tsutsumi]. I found the studio, the director and helped find the cast. I wanted to stand close to this movie all the time, from start to end.

HW: Did your experience with American movies help make the production go smoother?
KW: Maybe not. This film was so difficult. I told this story to a Japanese studio and they said, “It’s so dark and so serious. Too serious.” But they trust my career and trust my belief–they trust my passion. But I totally learned about marketing from Hollywood. I was a producer and I had to promote everything to the media and audience. So it was great to bring that to this film.

HW: A paper in London saw Memories of Tomorrow as a metaphor for how Japan is losing its identity; did you see it that way?
KW: This movie is very interesting because everybody takes something different from it, no matter how old they are. Alzheimer’s is a really contemporary illness. I made this film because I totally wanted to share the universal themes that the movie has.

HW: Speaking generally, is this film part of a wave in Asian cinema that is now focusing on issues surrounding disease?
KW: Not really. There are some good movies in Korea which were based on a real life story with Alzheimer’s. But I didn’t want to involve the actual disease of Alzheimer’s in the story. I wanted to be more subjective and make the character more subjective. If some guy had Alzheimer’s, how could he live? How could he think about death–and how could have hope? This is not an Alzheimer’s documentary. It’s serious and sad but this is this character’s life.

HW: You had your own battle with leukemia 20 years ago, did making this film take you back to that time?
KW: Yes. Leukemia and Alzheimer’s are totally different kinds of diseases but when you have it you have to think about death. When I was shooting the scene where Saeki is told by the doctor that he has Alzheimer’s, some box of painful memories was opened in my mind and I couldn’t stop it. I wondered if that was right for the character and the director said it was.

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HW: From critic to audiences, the reaction to Letters from Iwo Jima was fantastic. How did you deal with all of that?
KW: I felt that foreign countries found it more interesting than [they did] here in America. It’s a great opportunity to think about real history. We have to understand about different countries histories and feelings.

HW: With all the buzz surrounding it, this must be asked–are you confirmed to be in the upcoming Wolverine movie?
KW: [Matter-of-factly] No.

HW: Well then can you tell us what film you’re doing next?
KW: I was involved with really great and hard movies twice in a row, Memories of Tomorrow and Letters from Iwo Jima. It has wiped out my mind, so now, [exhaling] I’m still looking around for the next movie.

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