Monday, June 4, 2018

Ken Watanabe

Ken Watanabe, Nov. 18, 2005

KEN WATANABE WAS MY LAST BIG PORTRAIT SHOOT OF 2005, which in retrospect looks like a big year for what I've come to call my second act as a working photographer. I wouldn't have used those words to describe myself, though - I was a "journalist with a camera" as I'd put it, which seemed obvious enough as, according to my files, I submitted 163 features, interviews or reviews to the free daily that year, in addition to the TV column I wrote five times a week - over four hundred stories, approximately.

I had completely forgotten that I did my shoot - and interview - with Watanabe at a press junket for Memoirs of a Geisha in New York City, and if my (obviously) faulty memory serves me correctly, I might have done this shoot at the legendary Waldorf Astoria Hotel. I wish my story about the press junket was still online - the free daily's website has been randomly pruned of content over the years - but it was a pretty good little playlet where I described how the journalists in the junket room were desperate to get the trio of Chinese actresses cast as Japanese geishas for the film to address the "controversy" of their casting.

Ken Watanabe, Nov. 18, 2005

The best part of the story involved Michelle Yeoh, Hong Kong action star and Bond girl, disarming the media by shaking their hands and saying hello to each of them as she entered the room, then sitting down and breaking it to them gently that she wasn't going to provide them with an easy quote about either the casting or the plot point of child slavery that opens the story (and which they'd latched onto as a potential consolation prize of controversy.) In the end, the journalists are reduced to asking her about her "secret for looking so great." I wasn't normally so meta with my stories for the free daily, but every now and then I liked to let readers see just how the sausage got made.

As for Watanabe - a major star in Japan with a parallel career in Hollywood in films like Inception and the recent Godzilla reboot - he seemed perfectly happy with the casting choices made in international productions like Memoirs of a Geisha. As far as he was concerned, work was work - a wise attitude for an actor - and was intent on resisting the pigeonholing prerogatives of what we've come to call "cultural appropriation."

“If a Hollywood studio wants to make a film set in Japan,” he told me, “they have to do their research and pick the best actors they can get. If I get offered a Chinese history movie, am I gonna do that? Yes, I'll do that. Yes, I'll have to do a lot of research on Chinese history and background, and of course I have to learn the Chinese language.”

This was the only time I ever shot at the Waldorf Astoria, and I'm glad I caught at least a glimpse of one of the rooms in my portrait of Watanabe. The light wasn't spectacular, so I decided to rely on an old trick and photograph the actor like he was in a still from a movie - probably a thriller, set in a grand old New York City hotel. 

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