Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, leukemia survivor, fights stomach cancer

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, an Academy Award nominee for his performance in the movie “The Last Samurai” and lauded in the recent Broadway revival of “The King and I,” is fighting stomach cancer and will have to postpone plans to return to Broadway.

The lean, ruggedly handsome Watanabe, who more than twenty years ago survived two bouts of leukemia, was diagnosed “almost miraculously early” with the cancer last month and underwent surgery, he said on Twitter.

“I was really shocked, my wife and daughter pushed me to have a health check and the cancer was found. It was a very early stage and they operated immediately,” he added.

“I’ll be resting in February so my arrival in New York will be somewhat delayed.”

Watanabe, 56, became the first Japanese to be nominated for a Tony Award for his 2015 performance as the King in “The King and I” on Broadway. He had been set to reprise the role, starting from March 1, but a statement on his Facebook page said this would be postponed.

The son of school teachers in the rural northwestern prefecture of Niigata, Watanabe hoped to attend a conservatory after high school but abandoned the plan due to financial problems, going to Tokyo and straight into acting instead.

Known at first in Japan mainly for his samurai roles, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 1989, resuming acting while still gaunt and bald from chemotherapy. The cancer returned in the early 1990s but he underwent treatment again and has been in remission since.

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His real introduction to Western audiences came in 1993, with the role of a rebel samurai in “The Last Samurai,” which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

A slew of other films followed, including “Memoirs of a Geisha”, “Batman Begins”, Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” and the 2014 U.S. “Godzilla” reboot.

Approached about doing “The King and I”, Watanabe said his first reaction was “‘In English? A musical? Oh no, no, no, I can never do this’,” the New York Times reported.

But he won rave reviews and a Tony nomination for his performance, which ended in July.

Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Clarence Fernandez