A little while ago I wrote about my favorite J-drama actors and actresses. While they’re great and all, they don’t really get a lot of screen time overseas and while some of them star in movies, they still don’t have much international acclaim yet. There are, however, a handful of Japanese movie stars who have really made it or have started to make it, and they are paving the way for other Japanese stars to follow in their footsteps.

Ken Watanabe

ken_watanabeKen Watanabe became interested in acting at the age of 24 when a director of England’s National Theatre Company told him that acting was his special gift. The Last Samurai was the movie that introduced him to Western audiences. Ken here has been in tons of movies and I imagine that most Americans would recognize his name, or at least his face. Out of the three actors here, I’d say Ken Watanabe would be regarded as the most well known and famous.

Check him out on IMDB.

Ken Watanabe’s Best Japanese Movie

Ken Watanabe has been in a lot of movies, but I think Tampopo has to take the cake for his best Japanese one. This movie is so great that Koichi even did a full write up of it in his post Tampopo: The Movie That Teaches Us About Living Life Via Ramen & Food. And that’s really what it does. Koichi thinks it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. I’m not arguing with him.

Ken Watanabe’s Best American Movie

Letters From Iwo Jima is a phenomenal movie. It’s directed by Clint Eastwood and even has Kazunari Ninomiya from the pop group Arashi in it. Ken Watanabe has also been in Inception and The Last Samurai, both excellent movies in their own right. However, I have to give this one to Letters From Iwo Jima. This movie is fantastic and you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Hiroyuki Sanada

Hiroyuki_SanadaHiroyuki Sanada first became famous as an action star for his role in The Shogun’s Samurai in 1978. He started his career doing mostly action pieces but now is known as one of the most talented actors in Japan. He’s been in lots of movies but as far as American movies go, he’s yet to really star in one. So far he’s mostly been in supporting roles, but I hope to see this change over time. He’s a great actor and definitely deserves a bit more of the spotlight in my opinion.

Check him out on IMDB.

Hiroyuki Sanada’s Best Japanese Movie

Admittedly, I’ve yet to see The Twilight Samurai. However, it is on my list. I really need to get around to it. Everything I’ve seen and heard concerning the film sounds promising. The film has plenty of drama and action, and if you want to read more about how great it is, check it out over on

Hiroyuki Sanada’s Best English Language Movie

Okay, so you don’t actually see Hiroyuki Sanada in this trailer, but I promise you, he is in the movie. Also, I say “English language” for this one since this movie is British, but if you didn’t know you’d probably just figure it was a Hollywood movie, so it’s no big deal.

Anyway, Sunshine is great. Seeing this movie on a huge screen with a nice sound system is truly an experience. Even just writing this and looking up the trailer for the movie makes me want to go and watch it again. Hiroyuki Sanada has also been in The Last Samurai, Speed Racer, and Rush Hour 3, but I think Sunshine is definitely the best out of the bunch. The Last Samurai is a close second though.

Tadanobu Asano

tadanobu-asanoTadanobu Asano is awesome. Described by some as a cross between Johnny Depp and Toshiro Mifune, people say he’s the hippest, if not the single most important, Japanese film actor working today. I will not argue with these people.

Tadanobu Asano is one of those actors that I just love to watch. I feel like many people feel that way about Johnny Depp, so I can really understand the parallels there. I’ve seen him in tons of movies and he never disappoints. He’s slowly working his way into American movies and I can’t wait for him to get bigger and better roles.

Check him out on IMDB.

Tadanobu Asano’s Best Japanese Movie

Not only is Survive Style 5+ the best Japanese movie that Tadanobu Asano has been in, it’s just the best Japanese movie in all of the ever. I wrote about the movie before in my Top 10 Strange Japanese Films You Need to Watch post, and the movie also starts Abe Hiroshi, one of my all time favorite J-drama actors. No need for plot summary here, I think the trailer pretty much speaks for itself. You have to watch this movie.

Tadanobu Asano’s Best American Movie

Tadanobu Asano is barely in this trailer twice and he doesn’t play a huge part in the movie, but still, he’s in Thor. Tadanobu Asano has yet to have a really big role in an English speaking film, but he’s getting there. He was in Battleship (which was just awful, I’ve heard) and he will return in Thor 2. Hopefully he’ll get more screen time in the second one. I was so excited when I saw him on screen when watching Thor. I had no idea he was in it beforehand so I was really excited to find out that he was. I was happy for him. Tadanobu Asano is awesome.

So tell me, who is your favorite Japanese movie star? Have they broken out into the international movie scene yet? What do you think of the three listed above? Share your thoughts in the comments!

  • NihongoCake

    I had been looking for some nice Japanese movies to watch, and I guess your choice won’t be that bad! ;)

  • Tora.Silver

    No mention of Richard Gere?
    Tsk, tsk.

  • DefJuk

    Tadanobu Asano is the man!
    He’s the Chrono Trigger of actors.
    He’s the Chrono Trigger of humans in general…

    Much love for Tadanobu Asano!

  • Gianmarco Russo

    Tadanobu Asano is absolutely the best, even better than Johnny Depp imho. And what about Takeshi Kaneshiro? Ok, he’s half-Taiwanese, but to me is the most handsome Japanese actor nowadays. Nonetheless, he’s really talented as well.

  • John

    This post was more geared towards actors who have started to break out internationally in film, mostly English language stuff. Takeshi Kaneshiro is great though! I think the first thing I saw him in was Returner.

  • zoomingjapan

    I would argue about the other two, but I totally agree when it comes to Watanabe Ken! He’s indeed a great actor! Can’t even decide which movie I liked the best!

    Tampopo is a must-see btw.!! :)
    Now I feel like eating ramen … ^-^;

  • Latrice

    Wow I didn’t realize that Ken Watanabe was in Tanpopo! I remember watching that movie when I was in college for a Japanese culture class. I might have to see if I can get a copy to watch it again!

  • Drew Harris

    You forgot Beat Takeshi! PS – You are 100% right about Survive Style 5+


    Hat tip to Mako. A true legend.

  • John

    I proudly endorse this hat tip.

  • John

    I totally would have included him if he had more English language stuff like the 3 above do. Beat Takeshi is great though, no doubt.

  • innadee

    Awwwww yeaaaaahhhh Nino and Arashi get a mention!!! Hahaha!

    That aside, i completely agree with this list. Especially ken watanabe. He is an awesome actor, and i really loved him in letters from iwo jima. He was a bit creepy in memoirs of a geisha, but we all know that this movie was meh.

  • bananaink

    I think Beat Takeshi should be in your list. He’s just amazing.

  • John

    If he was in more English/American stuff he definitely would be included. This post was more about internationally recognized actors who do work other than Japanese stuff. But yeah, Beat Takeshi is awesome.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Whoa, he’s and actor AND a time traveller?! Amazing…

  • kidd

    aye aye for Hiroyuki Sanada! I was hoping to see Takeshi Kitano on the list too…

  • Caperu

    Sanada/Watanabe= Yum! <3

  • Sandra03

    Ken Watanabe, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Takeshi Kitano

  • Ron Moses

    What, no George Takei???

    (i’m kidding… but the man *is* fabulous)

  • Franklin

    No, no, George Takei should count. Japanese people are extremely racist – we all know that. Their language itself has racism encoded into it – you’re either “Japanese” or “not.” There is no in-between, there is no subtlety, there is no sophistication to their understanding of race or ethnicity. At least in America, we put a lot of time into finding the best and right terminology for races – even blatantly racist people acknowledge the difference between “African-American” and “black”, &c. (They may not like it, but they know about it.)

    Japanese people don’t consider George Takei Japanese. He is “Nikkei.” Nikkei technically means “related to Japan,” and is not the same as “Japanese” in Japanese language. It’s a completely separate category from “Japanese.”

    Well, I say fuck that. Fuck all of that. I may not be Japanese, but I believe everyone has a right to their heritage, and to be accepted by their ethnic brothers and sisters (getting to Britain to do just that was my one goal in life before I came to Japan). This is a man who has served and suffered for his ancestral homeland, though he was not born there, in the US concentration camps during WWII. America put him in a camp because he’s Japanese, yet in his own ancestral homeland, he isn’t even given the dignity of the word.

    George Takei is maybe THE most important Japanese actor in the world, as he broke more ground than any of the men listed above, and has done more to change perceptions and prejudices. George Takei belongs on this list (I’ve noticed Tofugu does a LOT of that – missing really, really important and obvious points in their articles…hm…); you can say, “He’s not actually Japanese,” but as fans of Japan, don’t we kind of have some ability – perhaps even a responsibility? – to do right where Japan does wrong? If the Japanese won’t give the man the dignity of his ancestry, then we sure as hell can. Loving Japan doesn’t mean repeating or multiplying their sins out of slavish thoughtlessness.

  • bah

    “Described by some as a cross between Johnny Depp and Toshiro Mifune, people say he’s the hippest, if not the single most important, Japanese film actor working today.”

    Seriously, if you’re going to quote directly from IMDB, you should at least cite it. Otherwise it’s called “plagiarism.”

  • Jim

    Hiroyuki Sanada was also in a few episodes of LOST as the character Dogen. Love him! Asano-san needs to get a new agent in America. I was happy to see him in Thor and only watched Battleship because he was in it but I don’t think Hollywood knows what to do with him. Love all of his Japanese movies, though.

  • Reptic

    Hmm… perhaps you’re taking this a bit too seriously. You say the Japanese won’t give the man dignity of his ancestry because they call him 日系 (nikkei), yet isn’t that them giving him recognition? The word simply means of Japanese descent, which is exactly how I and many other Americans would refer to him. Yes, sure, people would colloquially say he is “Japanese” but that’s just in the context of being a Japanese-American, not that he is actually Japanese.

    I know you may not see it this way, but there is very much a difference between Americans and the people of their ancestry. It’s a cultural thing, and most of the “ancestral” people recognize this. Just look at what happened when the Japanese invited a mass immigration from Brazil of Japanese descendants. Within a short time the government regretted this as they realized that Brazilians did not fit in with the Japanese culture and offered them money so they would go back. Maybe these immigrants would be Japanese to you, but to the actual Japanese they were Brazilians.

    Your case may be an exception, as it seems your ancestry is British, and considering you speak English you most likely live somewhere that is very culturally similar to your ancestry. Perhaps this is why it’s easier to go back. I know for me this wouldn’t work the same — I recognize that I differ greatly from the people of my ancestry. Perhaps George Takei does view himself as Japanese and he really is experiencing some kind of great injustice. However, there is a strong chance that he recognizes himself as someone who is of Japanese descent, but is ultimately American.

  • John

    I totally didn’t even think about that, haha – man, what an oversight on my part.

  • Tara Skarbek

    No Shido Nakamura? :)

  • John

    I was just saying what they said. He’s described by some as those things, the “people” being those on IMDB or whoever IMDB got that info from. IMDB was describing him as such, if I knew who IMDB contacted that said those things I would have said explicitly who did, lol. I have a link to IMDB right after that section – thought that was good enough. I wasn’t tryna pull the wool over anyone’s eyes or nuthin!

  • DefJuk

    Well, I’m not saying he can’t time travel or anything… How Chrono Trigger is the best video game of all the video games Tadanobu Asano is the best actor of all the actors, best winner of humanity… I kinda like the time travelling thing though, maybe that’s actually really real? That would almost amaze me.

  • John

    Yeah, I think he has a lot of potential and western movie makers just don’t know what to do with him yet like you said. I didn’t see him in Battleship and he didn’t talk much in Thor. How is his English? I can’t remember. Does he speak with much of an accent? Ken Watanabe and Hiroyuki Sanada have absolutely no troubles with English, but I can’t for the life of me remember how Tadanobu Asano is with the language.

  • Jim

    Asano does not do as well with English, IMO, but he does have more lines in Battleship (terrible movie) than Thor. I think I remember him showing a little humor as well. I think maybe some Indie film or quirky directors might give him better roles, more along the lines of what he does in Japan..

  • Milos

    Good list, John. I actually agree with the three you picked (though my current favorite is Koji Yakusho, he hasn’t had much, if any, cross-over exposure in America).

    Disagreements of taste:

    1) I think Last Samurai is Watanabe’s best American movie, and certainly his best performance in an American movie – admittedly a minority view, since most people think that movie was mediocre-to-sucky. And it is deeply flawed. Still, it is relentlessly entertaining, not least because of KW’s amazing performance.

    2) Not really a disagreement, but more of a comment – the Twilight Samurai is amazing. It truly lives up to its reputation, and I’ve watched it about once a year since it was released on DVD in the States. Comparing Sanada’s quiet, vulnerable Twilight to his character in The Last Samurai convinced me of what a great actor he is. What range!

    3) I’ve always thought Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Bright Future was the best Japanese film Asano played in, although his role was small compared to Jo Odagiri’s (another good actor). However, I think the best movie he played in, period, was neither American nor Japanese, but a Thai movie called “Last Life in the Universe.” Worth checking out if you haven’t already.

  • Brandy Kratz

    Great choices! Ken Watanabe and Hiroyuki Sanada are both awesome and not to mention hot! But Mako and George Takei should have been mentioned as well.

  • I am Man

    No Kimutaku?

  • KOH

    I don’t see what’s wrong with separating Nikkei with Japanese. Most Asian languages do have this word for North Americans with Asian ancestry.
    And having the word nikkei doesn’t mean Japanese don’t see George Takei as a non-Japanese. Simply look at how many Japanese actors / singers are of mixed race or foreign nationals. I guess you’re being overly sensitive

  • “That Guy”

    Woah buddy, calm down. You seem a tad confused as to your stance, attacking everyone from the Japanese language to the US government of 70 years ago to Tofugu…

    Also, “concentration camps” is a serious misnomer. Cool your jets, dude.

  • Heather

    Thanks for this John! I only knew Ken Watanabe. I haven’t watched many Japanese movies at all yet & wasn’t sure where to start. Also, I don’t understand the flack for not having an actor that isn’t currently IN Japan on this list. I really only expected to see Japanese actors currently IN Japan to be on this list anyway. Aren’t these lists normally “straight from Japan” kind of things? In addition to that any of these lists would have personal preference & I appreciate you always asking for other’s favorites as this also gives me more to hunt down! ;o)

  • Hohoho

    Not even a single female? When did the movie industry in Japan became this biased?

  • Meredith Peruzzi

    I wonder how Japanese people see Nesmith, of EXILE fame. I have never actually asked anyone about it. (His father is African-American; his mother is Japanese.)

    As for George Takei, he’s fluent in Japanese (but cannot read it). He definitely has ties to Japanese culture despite being an American. I suspect that Japanese Star Trek fans happily claim him.

  • Riechan

    Arashi fan here too! Had the same reaction as you haha!

  • Cam Abi

    Ken Watanabe is probably my favorite Japanese Actors next to Takeshi Kaneshiro! Too bad Takeshi hasn’t really made any English speaking films.

  • Syed9098

    But Battleship was awesome. I like Tadanobu Asanos role in that awesome movie.

  • Mimi

    Tadanobu once called Renaissance Man by TIME magazine was a good choice, I would put him way before most actors. Too bad though that movies he did for HOllywood were crap, just because these producers doesnt think he is bankable enough for the Western genre viewership. BUT you know WHAT? he has his own huge cult following in the West- They need to realize this guy is GOD!. He is king of offbeat roles, amazing talent and doesnt do work for the money- yeah check out his independent movies from other countries and you will how important his craft is. IChi, Rampo Noir, Invisible Waves etc.. this guy is pure talent and he has his own rock band too- with him in vocals- together with Japanese director Sogo Ishii- that awesome brain explosion type music he did for Electric Dragon 80000 V is just pure magic.