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Ken Watanabe to Take a Break From Hollywood and Help Japan

The actor will focus on disaster recovery this year.

KESSENUMA, NORTHEASTERN JAPAN – Ken Watanabe won't be working in Hollywood this year as he will continue focusing on the recovery of the tsunami-devastated northeast coast of his home country.

“I was in LA a week ago and I told my agent that I have to be in Japan this year, maybe next year I'll think again about projects in Hollywood,” said Watanabe while in the port of Kesennuma working on documentary about disaster recovery.

Watanabe was filming an as yet untitled hour-long documentary for Japanese public broadcaster NHK on the themes of courage and hope in the communities that were slammed by the tsunami. The film is set to air at the end of March as part of NHK's extensive coverage to mark the one-year memorial of the disasters.     

The star, Japan's only Hollywood actor, visited more than 20 evacuation centers in the northeast in the months after the tsunami and has been working to keep the survivors' plight in the public consciousness.     

Watanbe also said that he wants to make a film about the events of March 11, 2011, which killed nearly 20,000 people in Japan and triggered the worst nuclear crisis in quarter of a century.

The northeast Tohoku region has a special place in Watanabe’s heart, the actor said, having helped launch him into the big time with a role playing a 17th century warlord from Sendai, the biggest city to be hit by the tsunami. Watanabe played Date Masamune in Dokuganryu Masamune (One-eyed dragon, Masamune), the 50-episode NHK Taiga Drama in 1987 that peaked with ratings of nearly 50 percent.

“We spent a long time shooting on location around the region and got a lot of help from local people, I feel like it’s my second hometown,” said Watanabe. 

Having faced death 20 years ago before recovering from leukemia helped him relate to the disaster survivors, said Watanabe.

“Having the experience of suffering a very serious illness also affected the way I approached my acting,” continued Watanabe. “Witnessing the disasters and the recovery will have an effect on my career too but I'm not sure how yet.”

Beyond the Tsunami, a 30-minute special about the recovery of Japan’s northeast, will be hosted by Watanabe and was co-produced by Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, NHK and Bang Singapore. It will accompany the six-part Discovery Channel series Rebuilding Japan. The programs will premiere in Japan on March 4, and then across Asia and Europe between March 5 and 11, the anniversary of the earthquake.    

Twitter@GavinJBlair