Despite the fact that veteran Japanese actor Ken Watanabe has been appearing in films since the early '80s (foreign film buffs may remember him from a supporting role in the 1985 art-house "noodle Western" Tampopo), it wasn't until his breakthrough role in the Tom Cruise adventure The Last Samurai that the frequent onscreen samurai eventually came to the attention of stateside audiences. Watanabe has been a mainstay of Japanese cinema beloved by legions of older fans overseas, but his performance as the last in a long line of ancient warriors in The Last Samurai is what finally found the modest actor courting international success. Watanabe was born in Niigata to schoolteacher parents -- his father taught calligraphy and his mother general education. A blissful childhood spent exploring the countryside and skiing with his brother Jun was rounded out by Watanabe's love of the trumpet and his involvement with the school band, and though he studied acting early on, he was hesitant to pursue a career before the cameras. Convinced by a director from England's National Theater Company that he was truly gifted in the art of performing, the then 24-year-old hopeful soon landed his first film role. Initial bliss was followed by harsh uncertainty when Watanabe was diagnosed with leukemia shortly thereafter, but the disease would eventually go into remission and his career would skyrocket. Though Watanabe has portrayed many different types of characters in his long and varied career, it is his skill with a sword that has truly cemented his status as a star in Japan -- he has played more samurai than even he can keep track of. It was this magnetism that attracted the attention of Last Samurai director Edward Zwick, who quickly made the decision to cast him in the popular blockbuster. His impressive performance in the film found him nominated for both a 2003 Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Watanabe's son is an actor and his daughter a model.
Biography by Jason Buchanan
- Breakout role in Japan came with the popular 1985 comedy Tompopo (Dandelion).
- Was diagnosed with leukemia in 1989 but continued to act while undergoing chemotherapy; suffered a relapse in 1994 that kept him in the hospital for more than a year.
- Made his American film debut in the 2003 epic The Last Samurai.
- In 2005, began treatment for hepatitis C, contracted while undergoing blood transfusions during his first bout of leukemia.
- Released an autobiography, Dare? Who Am I?, in 2006 in Japan.
- Took a leadership role in efforts to assist victims of the 2011 earthquake in Japan.
- It was announced in 2012 that he would take part in a documentary about Japan's earthquake relief efforts.
- Active in efforts to battle climate change.