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Ken Watanabe: Samurai of the silver screen

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Talk Asia: Ken Watanabe
  • Japanese actor is one of the stars of summer blockbuster "Inception"
  • Recovered from leukemia to continue acting and make a number of Hollywood films
  • Career began in theatre before film and TV roles often as enigmatic warriors

(CNN) -- One of the stars of this summer's Hollywood hit, "Inception", Ken Watanabe has fought his way to the top of his profession.

He started out as a theatrical actor in Japan in the 1980s, later finding fame in his homeland through TV and film roles often playing noble warriors in historical dramas or enigmatic tough guys.

His biggest challenge came away from the lights and cameras when he was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 29. Fortunately he was able to continue acting while visiting hospital for treatment. However a return of the cancer five years later had an even more profound affect on him.

"When I got relapse, I thought my life would be meaningless if I did not make a comeback as an actor. It was a kind of sense of duty. That's how I faced [it]," he told CNN.

I thought my life would be meaningless if I did not make a comeback as an actor.
--Ken Watanabe

"One good thing was that it gave me a time to reflect on my way of life, to think how I had connected myself to society. I had very vague image about the work of acting until then... We could connect to society because there are audiences who watch our performance."

Making a connection to a worldwide audience came with his role alongside Tom Cruise in 2003 film "The Last Samurai". It also helped Watanabe expand his own horizons.

"It was good that after growing in my career and seeing kind of a limit in myself, in a way Hollywood told me that it was not a limit at all... It opened me up to go as far as I can," he said.

Now 50, Watanabe has continued to make movies in Japan after his Oscar nominated performance in "The Last Samurai" but has maintained his Hollywood credentials with roles in Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Batman Begins".

His global profile is also growing, but he has the new battle of avoiding being typecast.

"As a Japanese actor, I really want to work with a lot of actors and actresses in the world and many directors who have many different kinds of talents. I feel like nationally doesn't matter at all."