When Angelina Jolie was casting the role of the Japanese WWII prison commander Mutsuhiro Watanabe for "Unbroken," she wanted an actor who could walk into a huge crowd — like a World War II POW camp — and own the place. Somebody, Jolie told her casting director, like a rock star.
Watanabe, also known as "The Bird," was a vicious tormentor of Lou Zamperini — a former USC athlete and Olympic runner — while he was imprisoned for more than two years.
Japanese rocker Takamasa Ishihara, better known as Miyavi, had only spoken English for eight months and had never acted in an American film when he auditioned for the role. The only other acting credit to Miyavi's name is a 2004 biopic called "Oresama," in which the musician played himself.
Miyavi spoke with The Frame about the challenges of acting in his first major film, isolating himself from the rest of the cast during the filming and how he thinks people will react to him playing a controversial Japanese figure.
Did you know anything about this story when you first had contact with Angelina Jolie?:
Actually, I didn't know about this book before. At first, when I got some details of the script, I was not sure if I was capable to do this because it's really risky to tackle this role as a Japanese [person], because it's really a sensitive issue talking about the war. And I didn't want to represent any negative side of Japanese culture, being a villain who tortures the main American hero, Louis Zamperini.
What perspective does the nation teach its children about its role in WWII?:
It's pretty controversial. It's pretty hard to discuss the war in Japan. Even visiting the temple is not allowed. [Japan has] hard relationships with other countries in Asia — China, Korea. I'm half-Korean, so I have my fans in Korea, China. I go to those countries to do music and we just share that moment together ... it's not political. But talking about war is really sensitive in Japan, even at school.
You had reservations about the character of Watanabe. Did you have reservations about acting?:
When I went to Australia for the rehearsal, we had no actual rehearsal. So that's why I was really surprised. And then I asked [Angelina] what I should do on set, 'cause I have no experience as an actor. She said, "It's okay. Just be yourself." But I didn't know what to do. I really tried to keep putting reality into the performance 'cause that's [the only thing] I could do. "The Bird" is an actual person, so I wanted to put humanity into the character. And I don't say what he's done to Louis Zamperini or other prisoners is right, but I also wanted to show the respect toward an actual person.
How do you get to a place where you can play somebody as cruel as Watanabe?:
It's really, really hard to play that role as a Japanese and especially the other actors — the co-stars in this film — it [was] pretty hard to keep the distance from them. I really wanted to hang out with them on set. But I couldn't do it 'cause I needed to put reality and humanity in that character. Even on set, I didn't talk to them much. It was torture to me to be alone on set without any experience, but it was fine.
How do you hope the film is received in Japan?:
What I strongly feel is that Louis Zamperini is not only an American hero, but also an international hero. Even Japanese people can respect him. In the end, he forgave Japanese people and he came back to Japan even after the hard time he had. So, I think Japanese people can receive the message of Louis Zamperini. I really want Japanese people to watch this film. The book is pretty controversial. It's not too friendly to Japanese people, but this film is quite different and it's really more human.
While Miyavi was in our studio, we asked him to play a little bit on his guitar for us. Here is Miyavi, unplugged.
"Unbroken" is released nationwide on Christmas day.