Ever since his Oscar-nominated Hollywood movie debut as the dignified and philosophical Lord Katsumoto in 2003’s “The Last Samurai,” 60-year-old Ken Watanabe has been the best-known Japanese actor in today’s entertainment world.
Along with other memorable screen roles in “Memoirs of Geisha” in 2005, “Batman Begins” (2005), “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) and “Inception” (2010), the Niigata Prefecture native also ventured into Broadway’s unforgiving spotlight in the hit 2015 musical “The King and I” — with his portrayal of the King of Siam earning him the first-ever Japanese nomination for best actor in the prestigious annual Tony awards.
Recently though, Watanabe has been busy in Tokyo preparing to take the title role of the Spanish conquistador in “Pizarro” — an adaptation of 1964’s “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” by the late English playwright Sir Peter Shaffer.
In fact, this production, which marks the reopening of Shibuya’s Parco Theatre after reconstruction that began in 2016, is actually his second appearance in “Pizarro” at the same venue. Back in 1985, though, it wasn’t the victorious Spaniard he played — in a performance that’s become the stuff of legend — but the role of the trusting and ill-fated last Inca ruler, Atahualpa.
Yet when we met at his rehearsal studio, Watanabe modestly sidestepped that triumph, saying only, “Theater is a wondrous art as it only exists in the moment. That’s why plays require different direction and inspiration, and also actors, to make the most vivid production each time.”
However, even as a novice actor in those days, the intense gaze for which he is now famous added a crackling intensity to his role that put him squarely on par with the renowned Tsutomu Yamazaki, who played Pizarro and propelled him straight to stardom in Japan.
In this two-act play roughly based on Pizarro’s 1532 conquest of the Inca empire in present-day Peru with a reputed 168 soldiers, the first act depicts his force’s trek with their guns and 30 horses — both unknown and terrifying to the Inca — high into the hostile Andes in search of gold and converts to Catholicism. There, at a place called Cajamarca, Pizarro invites Atahualpa (played here by Hio Miyazawa) to a feast in his honour — only to slaughter thousands of his followers and take the emperor prisoner.
Then the second act follows the two sides’ fledgling cultural exchanges as a close relationship begins to form between Pizarro and Atahualpa. Despite this, when a tribunal orders the emperor’s execution, the best a tearful Pizzaro can do is offer him a choice between being burned at the stake or garrotted. As he opts for the latter, the doomed ruler tells Pizzaro not to worry unduly because he, Atahualpa, is descended from the Sun and will revive the next day just as it does.
For this production, along with an almost 30-strong Japanese cast, Parco invited the English choreographer, director and former Royal Ballet soloist William Tuckett to stage the grand-scale historical drama for which he’s commissioned a massive staircase set on which to present tumultuous battles and crowd scenes.
However, compared with his sheer enjoyment playing Atahualpa before, Watanabe admits to feeling more responsibility for the play’s success this time now he’s in the title role. Nonetheless, he is confident in his experience.
“I believe ‘The King and I’ involves a Western view of Asia that to some extent chimes with that of Spain toward the Inca in ‘Pizarro.’ But an American playing the King of Siam would probably be seen as over-caricatured,” he observes.
“Instead, with a non-Christian Japanese actor like me in that role, it connected better with the original 1951 musical’s world, and audiences could focus on the important themes of social diversity and respect for other cultures.
“So through that experience, I can understand the dynamics of ‘Pizarro’ more deeply, and the gap between Christian values and the more shamanistic ones of the Inca,” he says.
And in continuing to get into the mind of his character, as any actor must, Watanabe has encountered something of himself.
“The way I understand it is that Pizarro was an outsider because he was quite low class, with little education, and he wasn’t really comfortable with Spain’s strict Catholic society,” Watanabe explains.
“Always seeking to pursue his own course, he found a way to escape on expeditions to Colombia and Ecuador. Although these brought him a certain amount of fame and fortune, he was still searching for his own personal sense of worth. Then he returned again from Spain and sailed down to Peru.
“And that was when he met Atahualpa and some entirely different values.
“I don’t think I am an outsider like Pizarro,” the actor continues, “but I understand his feeling because I challenged myself to work outside Japan. Like him, I think, I didn’t just want to stay in a closed society with rigid values.”
Watanabe says he also sees parallels between Pizzaro’s life and his own as he is getting older. For instance, it has given him pause to wonder how long he will be able to do this work he loves — and what his career target actually is.
But getting back to business he observes, “During the rehearsals, I have made discoveries that make me realize we made it far too sentimental last time. Hence in discussions with Will, we agreed not to put too much of a slant on Pizarro’s motives, or the Incas’ beliefs because both were of their time and it was better to play it straight and not try to provide any clever conclusions.
“So the ending ought to be more realistic and not as loaded with emotion over the death of the last Inca emperor.”
To make such changes, Watanabe says it’s important that he and Tuckett can talk together in English along with Miyazawa, who had an international education and is effectively fluent. As a result, they’ve been able to revise the translation, try out changes, and update words for today’s audiences if they’ve thought it necessary.
“Actually it has reminded me of working in the United States, where I’ve generally felt more comfortable than here,” he says.
“There, rather than the pressure to conform you find in group-minded Japan, all sorts of people are on set or in rehearsals and disputes and discussions are daily events. Even so, everyone is generally ready to listen to others’ opinions, which allows me to behave in an unrestrained manner that suits my nature.”
Such flexibility proved especially useful when he started to work in the U.S. before his English was very good. Then rather than trying to convey his ideas in words, he says he would demonstrate them through impromptu performances — and if others didn’t look convinced, he’d act out alternatives until both sides agreed.
Indeed, he believes that cooperating with fellow artists in creative processes like that is a special aspect of theatre that sets it apart.
“I think being an actor is a unique occupation that’s so different from being a salaryman in a typical seniority-based company. For instance, I have almost 40 years’ experience and Miyazawa has about three, but that doesn’t mean my opinions are more important than his or necessarily better,” he says.
“In fact, I sometimes realize I’ve been tempted to lean on my experience and make familiar choices that were easier for me. That’s a risky thing, but also a challenging part of being an actor. Hence I always try to approach my roles with a fresh and open mind.”
Then finally, in relating the “Pizarro” story to today’s world, Watanabe explains, “I think our politicians and leaders are, like Pizarro was at first, unable to see their opponents as they are. They assume they know them but actually, they don’t look into their eyes or have the imagination to see more than appearances.
“So even though people nowadays talk about globalism, things are actually becoming more and more fragmented. Consequently, I think it’s getting more and more important to look beyond ideologies and big ideas and get more personal so issues are resolved between individuals.
“And of course, theatre can play a role in that because it is essentially an inter-personal medium.”