TOKYO -- The Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" isn't a mere cross-cultural adaptation but more a tribute to the universal spirit of great filmmaking for its star Ken Watanabe.
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"I was convinced from the start that this will be an original Japanese movie in its own right," said Watanabe, who has become the go-to Japanese actor for Hollywood.
Watanabe was happy Eastwood welcomed the idea of the remake, and they kept in touch. But, once the shooting began, he was focused on delivering what director Lee Sang-il wanted in the new movie, not an easy re-interpretation.
"What I cherish as my joy is that sense of purpose we shared with Clint as people working hard on a film," Watanabe said before departing for the Venice Film Festival, where the Japanese film premiered last week.
The remake turns the tables on Eastwood, whose stardom originated in spaghetti Westerns, the European films depicting the American West which often remade samurai films and were influenced by Japanese directing styles. The 1964 classic "A Fistful of Dollars," starring Eastwood, was a retelling of auteur Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo."
Eastwood's "Unforgiven" was released in 1992 and earned four Oscars, including Best Picture. The Japanese remake, which opens in its home country Sept. 13, keeps the original's title, characters, themes and plot: an aging, reformed warrior picks up his weapon -- a sword rather than a gun -- to help prostitutes who want revenge for abuse.
The landscape changes from the sandy Old West to the freezing, sometimes-snowy island of Hokkaido in the 1880s, setting a different ambience. Instead of a shootout, this film's climax is a bloodily cruel choreography of swordsmanship.
Eastwood's original was stunning when it came out for defying the stereotypes of cowboy movies, where the gun-slinging good guy triumphs over the bad guys, but instead raised fundamental questions about what was really good versus evil, according to Watanabe.
The remake examines those issues further, reflecting psychological complexities and introducing social issues not in the original, such as racial discrimination.
"It reflects the modern age. People are stifled, burdened and suffering to survive," Watanabe told The Associated Press, appearing more relaxed and younger than in the movie.
"The original was simple and straight-ahead. The new version is more problematic. It's as though all the characters are writhing in thick mud," he said.
Watanabe, 53, has become sought after in Hollywood since appearing alongside Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai" in 2003. He starred in Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" and co-starred in "Inception" and "Batman Begins."
"I find him very impressive, of course," film critic Leonard Maltin said in an email to AP.
While Watanabe takes Eastwood's starring role in "Unforgiven," veteran Akira Emoto plays the sidekick previously portrayed by Morgan Freeman. Yuya Yagira, named best actor for "Nobody Knows" at the 2004 Cannes film festival, plays the younger, troublemaker cowboy. Koichi Sato plays the villainous sheriff, the role that earned Gene Hackman a supporting actor Academy Award in Eastwood's film.
Watanabe also is set to be in the 2014 "Godzilla" remake, as well as in the upcoming Martin Scorsese film, "Silence," based on Shusaku Endo's novel about the historical persecution of Christians in Japan.
He shrugs it all off.
His switch to U.S. movies has proved refreshing, delivering that feeling of starting from scratch. He loves feeling like the new kid on the block, reliving that same uncertainty and thrill when he started out in the movies in his 20s.
And that's important for an actor and something he can bring back to Japanese movies, too, he said.
"Actors are always afraid of ending up like overcooked old soup over time. What's risky is that you don't realize this has happened, and you just get thick and boring," he said.
"Going abroad was like getting a new pot to cook everything again. I was a rookie, a new self. And they were asking me: Who are you?"
Watanabe stressed he was proud of the legacy of Japanese films, a legacy he has helped create in a career spanning more than three decades, following legends like Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai.
Kei Kumai, the late director of "Sandakan No. 8," said he knew instantly that Watanabe was destined for stardom when they met in the 1980s, recognizing that he boasted the same power to focus that characterized Mifune.
"He possessed that charm only stars have, the power to attract people," Kumai wrote in his 1996 memoirs.
Watanabe's success highlights the long-lasting power of the Japanese movie industry. The U.S. raked in $10.8 billion a year at the box office, China $2.7 billion and Japan $2.4 billion, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Watanabe stressed he has gone to Hollywood as a Japanese actor, and nothing else. That's critical for his identity, he said.
Sometimes he worries the old glory of Japanese movies may be fading. He hopes his "Unforgiven" might help win over new foreign fans.
After working with Eastwood on "Letters From Iwo Jima," Watanabe liked the intuitive way the American director worked, leaving so much to the actors, often not even rehearsing.
Once toying with the idea of directing, Watanabe says after "Unforgiven," he's convinced again of his true calling.
"I don't think I can ever get that cruel," he said of its director Lee, with a laugh.
Lee demanded multiple takes from his actors, despite the freezing weather, and hung Emoto on ropes for hours and clubbed him with a real stick to film one scene.
Still, Lee had only praise for Watanabe's acting.
"Ken never waffles. Regardless of the situation, regardless of the colors of the place he finds himself, he is always rooted solid," Lee said in a statement.
"His role must speak through his back. It's not when he is saying his lines. He speaks after he has finished talking, when he is listening to someone else, when he is silent."