Ken Watanabe was born in 1959, in the city of Koide in the Niigata region of Japan. During his time at school, he showed a keen interest in music, learning the trumpet and performing in with his school’s concert band. However, he never received formal musical training as his father was taken ill and was unable to work, meaning his family could not afford the tuition.
However, after graduating from high school in the 1970s, Watanabe moved to Tokyo to pursue an acting career. He was cast in the play Shimodani Mannencho Monogatari, which was directed by esteemed director Yukio Ninagawa, and received positive response form the critics and public. From there, Watanabe went on to appear in a number of Japanese TV shows and films. However, in 1989, while filming for the motion picture Heaven on Earth, Watanabe was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, and was forced to take a step back from his acting career.
He returned to the screen in the late 1990s and picked up a number of Japanese Academy Award nominations, winning Best Actor in 2006 for Memories of Tomorrow (Ashita no Kioku). Watanabe’s profile in the Western world picked up in 2003 when he was cast in The Last Samurai, for which he was nominated for his first Oscar. He went on to star in a number of Hollywood films such as Memoirs of a Geisha and Batman Begins. More recently, he has had roles in films such as the Godzilla reboot, Inception and the Transformers series.
On stage, Watanabe appeared in a number of Japanese plays throughout his early career, including a role in a 1988 production of Hamlet. Bartlett Sher’s production of The King and I was Watanabe’s Broadway debut, alongside Kelli O’Hara at Lincoln Center Theater. Playing the titular King, Watanabe was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, becoming the first Japanese actor to receive a nomination.
Watanabe made his London stage debut alongside O’Hara as they reprised their roles in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical. The King and I was at the London Palladium in 2018. Watch our interview with Ken Watanabe here.
21 June 2018 - 29 September 2018