Kōji Yakusho never expected to win awards for his performance in Perfect Days, let alone the Cannes Film Festival's prize for Best Actor. Then again, the film has defied his expectations from the very start. "When the producers shared that they wanted Wim Wenders to direct it, I thought, 'There's no way he's gonna fly to Japan to make a movie about toilets,'" Yakusho recalls. "But Wim said yes right away."
Perfect Days, which was chosen as Japan's official entry for Best International Feature Film at the 96th Oscars, stars Yakusho as Hirayama, a modest janitor who spends his days listening to '70s American rock music, reading classic literature, and cleaning public restrooms. The film was shot over just 17 days, and the actor turns in a largely silent performance that nonetheless speaks volumes. "I figured that it might be the only time I'd get to be in a movie with so few lines," he laughs.
"Wim always used to say that he envies Hirayama, the way he lives and the leisurely pace at which time seems to go by for him," Yakusho says of the character, who finds great joy in the mundanity of his routine. "I felt that, too."
Yakusho is no stranger to working with revered filmmakers. Throughout his career, the Nagasaki native has not only worked with celebrated Japanese auteurs like Shōhei Imamura (The Eel), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure) and Hirokazu Kore-eda (The Third Murder), but he has starred in Oscar-winning international co-productions like Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel. Still, Perfect Days has been a highlight of a sterling career.
"To see audiences give a standing ovation after the film is something I've never experienced in Japan. It's a bit hard to believe that it's real," Yakusho says. At the same time, he believes that the film offers the world "an introduction to the people of Japan."
"Films have a tremendous power not only to move people but to also be a form of foreign diplomacy," he explains. "They can introduce viewers to new cultures and worlds."
Below, Yakusho shares with A.frame five films that made a lasting impact on him, including the Wenders-directed character study that the actor says taught him a powerful lesson about the power of cinema.
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa | Written by: Masato Ide, Hideo Oguni, Ryûzô Kikushima & Akira Kurosawa
I have to pick Red Beard. I think my character in Perfect Days is, in his own way, similar to Toshiro Mifune's doctor in that film. It's a movie about all the people who are treated at this small, poor clinic, but it's done with a lot of humor. It was mostly filmed on set, and the sets are all just so beautiful. I love that it shows you all these young people watch Mifune's character work and then start on their own paths. It's a really beautiful film about learning to value and have respect for life.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese | Written by: Paul Schrader
I saw Taxi Driver when I was quite young, and I thought, "Man, Robert De Niro is so cool!" Your perception of Travis Bickle, of course, changes as you get older. I also got to see New York in the film before I'd ever seen it in person, and I really got a sense of the people who lived there and all the things that churn within the city. I felt like the film carried a smell with it. Taxi Driver really made me recognize and realize the power of film.
Directed by: Robert Clouse | Written by: Michael Allin
I had never gone to a film where the audience went as crazy as they did when I saw Enter the Dragon. Most of the young people who left that movie walked out and started kicking telephone poles, including myself! As an action film, it totally astounded me.
Directed by: David Lean | Written by: Robert Bolt
The biggest thing that struck me about Ryan's Daughter was the scale of everything. It's a visually massive film, and I was really struck by the beauty of it. I went to see it for the first time in my younger days, and there was an intermission in the middle. Sarah Miles' character gets married in the first half and then has an affair just before the break, and I remember sitting through the break and being so angry with her! I very impatiently awaited the second half, and when the film was over, it really made me feel something about the unpleasantness of humanity. I've rewatched it on DVD several times since then, and I'm always amazed by how beautiful the imagery is throughout it.
Directed by: Wim Wenders | Written by: Sam Shepard
Paris, Texas is one of my favorites. Like my character in Perfect Days, Harry Dean Stanton doesn't talk a lot throughout the film. At first, there's no real explanation for its story. It just sort of immediately leaps off the screen at you. The music in that film is so incredible, too. It taught me that a lot of a movie's power comes from its music.