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Preserving Culture with ‘Godzilla’ Star Ken Watanabe

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is stomping back to theaters this week! And to celebrate, The Nerds of Color will be publishing our series of interviews with the cast and crew to countdown to the opening of the biggest monster hit of the summer! As part of the series we had a chance to chat with legendary actor and Academy Award nominee, Ken Watanabe!

As we all know, dating back to the original Toho releases, Godzilla’s origins are inherently Japanese. While American studios have played a hand at contributing to his legacy with big-budget releases in over the past two decades, I think it’s safe to say that the need to honor the Japanese roots of the character is something that could be easily overlooked and should be improved significantly. Thankfully, Watanabe’s role as Dr. Ishirō Serizawa is at least a crucial one for King of the Monsters, as well as a rare human character within this franchise that leaves quite an emotional impact. It was a great honor to sit with Watanabe, and discuss the new film, the need to preserve the Japanese cultural heritage of Godzilla, and the state of diversity within the industry today. Here’s what he had to say:

NOC: First thing’s first. I’d like to thank you. Because of how legendary you are, because of your talent, because of your choices in smart, amazing roles and your powerful performances, you’ve made it so folks like us — Asian Americans and Asians in general — in this industry can actually look to movies like Inception or The Last Samurai and say “That could be me one day! I can make it!” And it’s because of your roles. So I’d like to thank you on behalf of myself and my publication. Thank you very very much! 

Watanabe: Thank you!

On the same topic, because we want to ensure as a publication that we shed light on the underrepresented voices in the industry today, I wanted to ask your thoughts on how you feel about diversity in Hollywood, and do you think it’s improving given we have films like Godzilla: King of the Monsters, with such a beautifully diverse cast of multi-cultural actors?

I think there’s some kind of movement [happening]… Between South America, India, Korea, and China… Hollywood [can be] a black hole. So many talented people [from those countries] can fall into that hole, but it’s a good hole… Movie casting is matched by society’s feelings. So many Asian [actor]’s powers go up, and then their roles go up.

One of the things I loved when you took your role in the 2014 Godzilla movie was that you famously fought for the Japanese pronunciation of the word “Godzilla” (to be pronounced Gojira). And to me that’s so important because this is an inherently Japanese franchise. And I wanted to ask for our readers, for audiences, and for filmmakers everywhere, to you, why is it so important that we stay true to the names and the natures of these characters?

Unfortunately, just in this movie, I cannot call Rodan [by his original name]. We always called him “Radon.” But I cannot necessarily say something. But the important thing is where the icon comes from. The first [movie] it was very important for me to call him Gojira, and I explained that his name was the really correct version I needed to say. I really strictly fought [for that] with the producer. But sometimes we need to compromise. Sometimes we need to fight. And either way [depends on the time].

For something like that I say “Let them fight!” But thank you for that! I came out of this movie looking at Dr. Serizawa as really the character to root for. Your character arc is so beautiful and poetic in this movie. 

Thank you! The script writer wanted to keep the good dialogue for me. And not too philosophical or poetic. And I talked to Michael [Dougherty] and Kyle [Chandler], and it was really good composition required. And after a take, Michael would say “Oh it seems like a cowboy speaking in front of a campfire.”

I can see that! And he’s got such a beautiful philosophy about the need to co-exist with living creatures. If hypothetically, if Godzilla was real, would you share the same philosophies as Dr. Serizawa?

No! I’d just run away (laughs). You know, each Godzilla movie has different kinds of themes, after World War II, and the nuclear bomb, and the Cold War, and society’s problems. This movie has [a theme] about humankind’s fear. Any era has fears. Right now we have fears of natural disasters. Volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves. We cannot stop natural disasters. We can prepare for natural disasters, but we cannot stop them. How we can co-exist with the titans, is the same as nature. It’s a really modern topic of today.

On a lighter note, between Detective Pikachu and Godzilla, this is the summer of Watanabe! It’s interesting because both franchises have their roots in Japanese pop culture. How do you feel about them being expanded globally to the rest of the world?

I’m really glad to join the projects as a Japanese actor. But Pikachu also had a similar process to Godzilla. Because the first [American] Godzilla movie in Hollywood, many were wondering how you’d make Godzilla in Hollywood. But it was a great success… And Pikachu also… People were wondering how you’d make Pikachu in Hollywood. And then good results.

You’ve been in so many iconic franchises: Batman, Pokémon, Godzilla, and Transformers. Are there any franchises that you would love to be a part of that you haven’t been part of yet?

Avengers! (laughs)

If I get the chance to interview Kevin Feige, I’ll let him know! If I can ask, what was it like working with Michael Dougherty and the amazing cast? I know you’ve known Ziyi for some time, but folks you’ve worked with for the first time, like Millie Bobby Brown or Kyle Chandler?

They have so many different thoughts and styles, but it’s all professional. All of them were professional. I really enjoyed [them].

If I can do one last question: With a character like Dr. Serizawa, this version very much being an adaptation of the 1954 original, when you first got the call in 2014, and when you read about the expansion of the character, what did it feel like to play such a legendary character?

Many different types of feelings… I got the offer in 2012. The year before, 2011, we had a strong disaster with a tsunami in Japan. So I thought how could I show this acting to audiences over something where they lost so much… The first one (1954’s Godzilla) came along, there was a great theme about how to fight nuclear bombs. Then [I thought] I need to say something in this film [2014’s Godzilla]… Also I didn’t think much about Dr. Serizawa. I didn’t know what [his first name] Ishirō meant. But a friend of mine, he’s a great fan of Godzilla, was like “What? You don’t know the name of Ishirō? He’s the director of the first movie [1954’s Godzilla]!” Which was a funny thing. Of course I knew Dr. Serizawa was a very important role in the first movie, but it’s more than just trying [to remake the original character]. It’s really about [a tribute to] the first [director].

Watanabe was truly a gentleman and a class act, and it was an honor to speak with such a legend.

For more on our coverage of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, be sure to check out our interviews with director/co-writer Michael Dougherty here, and our interview with O’Shea Jackson here.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters invades theaters this Friday, May 31!

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