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Ken Watanabe stars in the new crime show 'Tokyo Vice'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The world of organized crime in Japan is center stage in "Tokyo Vice," a new HBO show in which an American reporter and transplant to the country must learn to navigate the relationship between mobsters, a corrupted police department and newspaper deadlines in order to get to the bottom of some really nasty, violent crimes. The show is set in the late 1990s against Tokyo's neon lights and nightlife, where the feared yakuza rule, and only a few people dare to stand up to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOKYO VICE")

KEN WATANABE: (As Hiroto Katagiri) The roots of the yakuza run so deep, we can never get rid of them. Tokyo has been stable these last few years, but now Shinzo Tozawa and his men have come from Kansai to try and claim a local gang's territory. That's what you saw.

RASCOE: Japanese actor Ken Watanabe plays the role of Hiroto Katagiri, a police detective frustrated by his department's inability to fight crime. And he joins us now from Osaka, Japan.

Ken, welcome.

WATANABE: Hi. Good morning (laughter).

RASCOE: Good morning. "Tokyo Vice" is set at the end of the 1990s. Do you have a sense of what organized crime in Japan was like at that time? And what did that era bring to the show's setting?

WATANABE: 1990 era is really chaos because economy, depression - all of that society feeling is so worrying about some future. Then government started anti-gangster law. Then gangs - gang company need to survive. Then they start fighting. And then post department (ph) the button also - just attachment to the gang. It's so interesting era and so emotional. So my character is, like - looked like a color gray, not white, not black.

RASCOE: He's kind of in the middle. He's not...

WATANABE: Right.

RASCOE: So he's a police officer.

WATANABE: Right.

RASCOE: But he also - he knows about the gangs. It's a complex relationship.

WATANABE: Right.

RASCOE: But he also doesn't want to compromise his integrity. So, I mean, what did you think about that? How do you balance all of that in a character?

WATANABE: I met the novel writer, and I asked the cop's feeling of something. He's very gentle guy and this soft voice. But approach to the gang is different faces - so secretly strong and scary.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

WATANABE: And I really enjoying my role.

RASCOE: And so the series is based on a book. And so there is this character in the show played by Ansel Elgort, and he plays the American reporter Jake Adelstein. I guess I wanted to get a sense of why you feel like your character seemed to be drawn to Jake because Jake is an outsider, but yet he seems to love the Japanese culture. And, like, why was your character drawn to him the way he was?

WATANABE: At the beginning, I didn't trust him. Yeah, who are you? Why do I...

RASCOE: Yes.

WATANABE: ...Know him or something?

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah.

WATANABE: American guy to get in the underground field or something. But I received about his passion. THen I tried to teach as we tried to close the distance episode by episode, story by story.

RASCOE: Yeah. Yeah, I - you know, I know that you were an executive producer on this show. I do want to address something regarding your co-star, Ansel Elgort. You know, he was accused of sexual assault in June of 2020, right after you started filming. How did you think through that decision, like, you know, when these allegations came up during this project?

WATANABE: Sorry. I cannot understand about the allegation.

RASCOE: So, you know, as issues like this come up in productions, like, how does that affect your thinking about a project? Or does it affect your thinking about this project at all?

WATANABE: Yeah. I cannot understand about the feeling of the Hollywood peoples and Hollywood industries. And then I cannot have a - I don't have a comment. Sorry.

RASCOE: You don't have a comment on it. OK.

WATANABE: Yeah.

RASCOE: So, I mean, getting back to the project...

WATANABE: Right.

RASCOE: ...In America, you are known for your roles in "Godzilla," "Inception." My husband loved you in "The Last Samurai." He just went over the whole plot with me when I told him I was doing this interview. You have been nominated for an Oscar and Tony Awards, but you're also one of the biggest stars in Japan, like, having won the best actor award there twice. Is there a difference, like, being a star in Japan versus being in the United States?

WATANABE: I'm not recognized about star.

RASCOE: Oh, you're not - you don't get recognized?

WATANABE: I'm just acting.

RASCOE: So you don't look at your career as like, I'm a movie star. You're looking at the characters.

WATANABE: Just actors, yeah.

RASCOE: You get recognized in the street, though. Do you? Or do you not?

WATANABE: No. You know, just good point of COVID-19 is caps and masks. Nobody...

RASCOE: And the masks (laughter). Nobody recognizes you.

WATANABE: Right.

RASCOE: Hey, weren't you in "The Last Samurai?" Oh, my goodness. So nobody's doing that. And so many of your roles show you as very tough, very serious. You're nobody to be messed with. What is Ken Watanabe like offscreen? Are you so tough and serious?

WATANABE: Don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: Well, you're laughing now. So you don't seem as intimidating. So do you like to laugh and joke and have fun offscreen?

WATANABE: Yeah, sometimes. You know, I live in a mountain house 2 hours driving car from Tokyo. It's very quiet. So boring life. It's so good for me.

RASCOE: OK (laughter).

WATANABE: After shooting, you know, just - I need to just drop out to the character after the work, then go to the next. It's my style of life. Yeah, it's so boring life I need.

RASCOE: Because you save all the excitement for the movies.

WATANABE: Yes. Yes.

RASCOE: That was Ken Watanabe, who stars in "Tokyo Vice," out now on HBO Max.

Ken Watanabe, thank you so much for joining us today.

WATANABE: Thank you. See you in the "Tokyo Vice." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.