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Born Ken Watanabe in Koide, Niigata prefecture, his mother was a school teacher and his father taught calligraphy.
After graduating from high school in 1978, Watanabe moved to Tokyo to begin his acting career, getting his big break with the Tokyo-based theater troupe En. While with the troupe, he was cast as the hero in the play Shimodani Mannencho Monogatari, under Yukio Ninagawa`s direction. The role attracted critical and popular notice.
In 1982, he made his first TV appearance in Michinaru Hanran (Unknown Rebellion), and his first appearance on TV as a samurai in Mibu no koiuta. He made his feature-film debut in 1984 with MacArthur`s Children.
Watanabe is mostly known in Japan for playing samurai, as in the 1987 Dokuganryu Masamune (One eyed dragon, Masamune) the 50-episode NHK drama for which he is now best known. He played the lead character, Matsudaira Kurô, in the television jidaigeki Gokenin Zankurô, which ran for several seasons. He has gone on to earn acclaim in such historical dramas as Oda Nobunaga, Chushingura, and the movie Bakumatsu Junjo Den.
In 1989, while filming Haruki Kadokawa`s Heaven and Earth, Watanabe was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. He returned to acting while simultaneously undergoing chemotherapy treatments, but in 1991 suffered a relapse.
As his health improved his career picked back up. He co-starred with Koji Yakusho in the 1998 Kizuna, for which he was nominated for the Japanese Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
In 2002, he quit the En (Engeki-Shudan En) theater group where he had his start and joined the K-Dash agency. The film Sennen no Koi (Thousand-year Love, based on The Tale of Genji) earned him another Japanese Academy Award nomination.
In 2006, he finally won Best Lead Actor at the Japanese Academy Awards for his role in Memories of tomorrow (Ashita no Kioku), where he played a patient with Alzheimer`s Disease.
Watanabe was introduced to most Western audiences with the 2003 film The Last Samurai for which his performance as Katsumoto earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Watanabe also appeared in the 2005 films Batman Begins as Ra`s Al Ghul and Memoirs of a Geisha, where he played The Chairman. In 2006, he starred in Clint Eastwood`s film Letters from Iwo Jima. He has also filmed adverts for American Express and Yakult, and in 2004, he was featured in People Magazine`s 50 Most Beautiful People edition.
Ken is divorced from his ex-wife, Yumiko, with whom he has two children: Anne, a model, and Dai, an actor. On December 3, 2005, he married actress Kaho Minami.
In 2006, Watanabe revealed in his newly-published autobiography "Dare? - Who Am I?" that he has Hepatitis C. At a PR event held on May 23, 2006 in Tokyo`s Ginza district, he said he was in good condition, but was still undergoing treatment.
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Ken Watanabe (渡辺 謙 Watanabe Ken, born October 21, 1959) is a Japanese actor. To English-speaking audiences, he is known for playing tragic hero characters, such as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi in Letters from Iwo Jima and Lord Katsumoto Moritsugu in The Last Samurai, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Among other awards, he has won the Japan Academy Prize for Best Actor twice, in 2007 for Memories of Tomorrow and in 2010 for Shizumanu Taiyō. He is also known for his roles in director Christopher Nolan's Hollywood films Batman Begins and Inception. In 2014, he starred in the reboot of Godzilla, and lent his voice to the fourth installment of the Transformers franchise, Transformers: Age of Extinction as Decepticon turned Autobot Drift. He made his Broadway debut in April of 2015 in Lincoln Center Theater's revival production of The King and I in the title role (opposite Kelli O'Hara as Anna Leonowens). In 2015, Watanabe received his first Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical at the 69th Tony Awards for his role as The King. He is the first Japanese actor to be nominated in this category.
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