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Clint Takes His Latest To Japan

Clint Eastwood, right, is introduced as Japanese actor Ken Watanabe applauds at a news conference to introduce his World War II epic "Letters From Iwo Jima" in Tokyo, Nov. 16, 2006. The film is a companion to Eastwood's current Iwo Jima film, "Flags of Our Father."
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Clint Eastwood, who rocketed from TV fame in "Rawhide" to the big screen in the so-called spaghetti Westerns, "A Fistful of Dollars," "For a Few Dollars More," "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" – remakes of Japanese samurai movies – is thinking Japanese again.

Wearing his director's hat, Eastwood was in Tokyo Thursday at a news conference to introduce "Letters from Iwo Jima," the companion film to his World War II-theme movie, "Flags of Our Fathers," which focuses on the GIs featured in the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising photo and tells the story from their point of view.

"Iwo Jima" is just the opposite.

Starring one of Japan's biggest stars, Ken Watanabe – best known to American audiences for the Tom Cruise vehicle "Last Samurai" – plays a Japanese general and the story unfolds from his point of view.

It hits the theaters in Japan on Dec. 9th and will open in the U.S. in two phases: Dec. 20th in major cities and early next year in other parts of the country.

Earlier this year, as "Flags" made its debut, Eastwood said he did thorough research before filming, but stressed that his movies are not about the battle, but about the people.

"It's not about winning or losing, but mostly about the interrupted lives of young people, and losing their lives before their prime," he said. "These men deserve to be seen, and heard from."

A veteran of samurai roles, among other things, on TV and on the big screen, "Iwo Jima" star Watanabe is no stranger to the concepts of sacrifice, honor and fierce battles to the death. So playing a Japanese general might seem like a seamless transition.

Not so, says Watanabe.

Watanabe said the role took lots of preparation and research.

Watanabe said many Japanese, including the young actors in the film, were not aware of the sentiment of the soldiers decades ago. He read books to study the battle as well as the culture, attitudes and traditional language of that generation.

While Watanabe was well aware of Eastwood's abilities, he had concerns about an American directing a film from the Japanese vantage point.

"I was worried before shooting," said Watanabe, interviewed recently in Honolulu. "We wanted to explain and express the Japanese feeling 60 years ago. He totally understood. We completely had good chemistry."

Iwo Jima has come to symbolize victory in the Pacific to many Americans, largely because of the famous photograph of Marines raising the American flag atop the island's Mount Suribachi.

Nearly 7,000 Americans and more than 20,000 Japanese died in the battle in February-March 1945.

Watanabe plays Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who loses the battle for control of the eight-square-mile island.

Watanabe said working with Eastwood was the best film experience in his career because the Academy Award-winning director understood the actors and established a calm working environment on set.

"Best director in the world," Watanabe said. "It was so comfortable to shoot."

"Letters from Iwo Jima," is Watanabe's fourth Hollywood film in the past few years. He also starred in "Last Samurai" (alongside Tom Cruise), "Batman Begins," and "Memoirs of a Geisha."

Watanabe, who turned 47 on Oct. 21, said he has no regrets about his late entry into the American market. He said he was not skilled and mature enough as an actor 10 or 20 years ago. Now, he said, he can "properly express emotions."

Watanabe was here to be honored by the recently concluded Hawaii International Film Festival.

"He to us defines what our festival is about," festival director Chuck Boller said. "We talk about cultural understanding between the east and the west through film. He's perfect. He's a huge actor everywhere in the world but the United States, and he's finally breaking in here now."

The son of two teachers, Watanabe grew up in rural Niigata, Japan, known for its great rice, skiing and hot springs. He got his start in theater before finding fame in Japan with the 1987 samurai TV drama "Dokuganryu Masamune."

In 1989, Watanabe was diagnosed with leukemia. The cancer is now in remission.

The experience, Watanabe said, changed his life.

"After the illness, I thought, `How can I connect with society? What is the meaning of my life in this world?" he said. "Before that, I wanted fame and success. ... I don't need that."

Sporting a short forward-combed haircut and light goatee, the suave Watanabe appeared visibly thinner than the brawny, sword-swinging character he played in "Last Samurai."

In 2004, he was featured as one of People Magazine's 50 most beautiful people. The designation still draws a chuckle from Watanabe, whose first name translates to "modesty."

"Looks aren't important," he said. "It's your life and mind."