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The Last Samurai Launched the American Career of a Japanese TV Star

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Tom Cruise studied Japanese and swordfighting for two years to prepare for The Last Samurai. So what? In Japan people were more excited to know that Ken Watanabe was finally getting his American screen debut. The six-foot-tall Japanese actor had already made his fortune playing samurai on Japanese television since the ’80s, so the crossover was long awaited. How has it worked out for Watanabe since cutting his teeth on Cruise’s war epic? Let’s just say that a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in your first American role does pretty good things for your career. Here are some of his follow-up roles in films you just may have heard of.

Batman Begins: No sophomore slump here; in his second American role, the actor got to help reinvent an international franchise — literally. His character Ra’s al Ghul was pivotal to the caped crusader’s back-story, allowing audiences to see for the first time what happened to Bruce Wayne in the Far East that transformed him from victim to vigilante. I hope Watanabe sends his agent flowers every week.

Memoirs of a Geisha: Watanabe was still a long way from home when he played Japan’s Chairman in this lurid period drama; most of the scenes were actually filmed in Los Angeles. It was no Batman, but the movie wound up being one of the top grossing films of the year, raking in $158 million internationally.

Letters From Iwo Jima: Eastwood set the standard for his filmmaking even higher with this critically beloved war drama, pulling Watanabe in to star as the tragically conflicted General Kuribayashi. Although another example of a movie set in Japan but filmed in California, Letter‘s reputation as a faithful historical tale and modern classic is beyond reproach.

At least The Last Samurai was a fantastic springboard for one actor’s career. Despite his performance being well-received,Tom Cruise has had a hit-or-miss record in the years since; maybe he should follow Watanabe’s lead and cross over into a new, more receptive market.

For a full schedule of The Last Samurai on AMC, click here.

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