Ken Watanabe does not grace enough American movies. As the charismatic actor who broke out memorably in Western cinema with his regal but wounded performance in Edward Zwick’s otherwise familiar The Last Samurai, Watanabe has spent the last decade appearing in either Western viewpoints on Japanese culture—such as Clint Eastwood’s most recent great movie, Letters From Iwo Jima—or in genre films that need a certain gravitas and elevation, such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Inception.
With this Friday’s Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures reboot of Godzilla, Watanabe gets to play both roles in a surprisingly strong summer popcorn flick that also delves into one of Watanabe’s homeland’s national treasures.
Thus we were very grateful when Watanabe took a moment to sit down with us last week in anticipation of the Gareth Edwards helmed monster movie that aims to make Godzilla as wonderfully adored in the U.S. as he is in Japan. Always the showman, Watanabe even let me hear his own resounding Godzilla roar while discussing the big guy’s importance in both Japan and in the modern 21st century world.
How much changed along the way from when you got involved with the project to the finished film?
Ken Watanabe: [Something I said] to Gareth is why do we make Godzilla, right now? This year marks the 60th anniversary of Godzilla. The first original is 1954. The first one is after World War II, and Godzilla was born out of fear [because] people were fascinated by nuclear weapons and the nuclear tests. Then three years ago, we had an experience in Japan, the collapse of a nuclear power plant due to a major earthquake and tsunami. After 60 years, even after 60 years, people are still fascinated by Godzilla. Why? The people are still fascinated because the nuclear power terrifies us, the fear of nuclear energy. It is something of a curiosity for me, and as a Japanese actor, I wanted to join this project.
Then Gareth has a great vision of the same thing between the original and now.
Your character is a champion for Godzilla in this film.
[Laughs] He’s a scientist!
Why do you think he is so supportive of Godzilla?
His father was a survivor of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima in 1945. Because of that background, he wound up studying nuclear power, nuclear energy, in hopes of doing something meaningful for mankind. Then, he discovered the existence of Godzilla during the investigation of something and he comes to believe and fear the power of nature, which man cannot control. He admires nature.
In the movie, he says it’s about maintaining the balance of nature. So, he has faith that Godzilla is the overseer of nature, and that he can handle it better than we can. Is that right?
I’m going to ask you. Is Godzilla hero or villain in this?
He’s a hero in this.
Really? When I saw the movie, I became so excited whenever he let’s out his roar. [Watanabe really roars]. It’s really strong! But it’s also a scream of sadness, I felt. His screaming is like he’s schooling us for humanity’s foolishness. Godzilla could symbolize man’s conscience and is going on a rampage of the city, that gets destroyed—so many buildings, streets, and Golden Gate Bridge, and the airport at Honolulu—but the human being believes we can stand up and rebuild. That the city hasn’t been destroyed. Perhaps there’s a slight, but certain, hope there. I think Godzilla is like man’s conscience.
Who do you think is responsible for maintaining the balance of nature in reality?
…It’s a tough question. Nobody can control—nobody can take a balance. Then, we need to imagine something like Godzilla and we hope something to take that [role].
You talked about the original Godzilla before. Did you borrow anything from the two scientist characters in that movie in developing your character?
No, the original one, Dr. Serizawa, is a little mad. [Laughs] But it’s just spirits of the storytelling.
I know you didn’t see the original until later in life, but what impact culturally did you see, if any, of Godzilla when growing up in Japan?
Of course, I didn’t see the first one at the time, as it came out just seven or five years before I was born. The first Godzilla [I saw] is just some fight another creature version. It’s just some curiosity for kids, a monster fight with a barrel or something. Then, I became an adult and felt some different feelings from Godzilla. It is a good thing for the kids, just at the time. Nobody can understand about the whole thing, but it’s after 10 years or after 15 years, I can capture different feelings from this.
Thank you for doing this.