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Watanabe steals the show at Tokyo premiere of 'Inception'

By Kyung Lah, CNN
Ken Watanabe walks the red carpet to meet with fans at the Tokyo premiere of "Inception."
Ken Watanabe walks the red carpet to meet with fans at the Tokyo premiere of "Inception."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Director of "Inception" created the role of "Saito" in "Inception" just for Ken Watanabe
  • Watanabe is Japan's favorite son, the most visible face of this island nation in Hollywood
  • His signature charisma has made him a mainstay in Japanese television and film
  • His scene-stealing role in "The Last Samurai" in 2003 turned him into an international star

Tokyo, Japan (CNN) -- Leonardo DiCaprio is the star of this summer's blockbuster, "Inception." But on the sweltering night at Tokyo's premiere of the movie, you might have mistaken Ken Watanabe as the film's top-billing actor.

"Watanabe Ken-san desu!" said the announcer to a crowd of a thousand screaming fans, as Watanabe stepped onto the red carpet.

Waving notebooks and markers for the Japanese actor to sign, fans screamed "kakkoii" ("you're cool" in Japanese). Watanabe walked along the red carpet, signing his name as his kimono-clad wife looked on. Fans snapped pictures on mobile phones with his every step.

"It's so hot and there are really patient people [here]," said Watanabe, as he paused at our camera. "I'm proud of my country."

It's a mutual feeling. Watanabe is Japan's favorite son, the most visible face of this island nation in Hollywood. His scene-stealing role in "The Last Samurai" in 2003 turned Watanabe into an international star, but he was already a household name in his home country.

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Watanabe started as a stage actor in Tokyo and became a star on a long-running television series in the 80s called "Dokugan-ryu Masamune."

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His signature charisma made him a mainstay in Japanese television and film, even through a life-threatening battle with leukemia. After "The Last Samurai," roles in more Hollywood films followed: "Batman Begins," "Memoirs of a Geisha," and "Letters from Iwo Jima."

Christopher Nolan, the director of "Inception," was so smitten by Watanabe's acting skills that he created the role of "Saito" in "Inception" just for the actor.

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That Watanabe continues to work in Hollywood despite English being a second language speaks volumes about his screen presence.

Leonardo DiCaprio calls him a "national treasure."

"He should be treasured here in Japan," said DiCaprio. "He should be looked at as someone Japan should honor."

Watanabe is not the only Japanese connection to "Inception." The film was partially shot in Tokyo.

"We shot the first two days of the movie on top of a tower in Tokyo, overlooked the entire cityscape," reflected DiCaprio.

"It has a very dreamlike effect. A lot of this movie has to do with the architecture of the human mind. You see this sort of surreal, blue light over the midst of the cityscape of Tokyo. And it has a pretty profound effect in the beginning of the film."

For Watanabe, the release of the movie in his home country is certainly having an effect on him. "I'm really proud to show this project. It's my country and really honored to join this project. We can show our project [in Tokyo]. It's really [an] honor."