This was a hellish request from Wim [Wenders]: that I don’t watch any TV, that I don’t use the Internet.
When Kōji Yakusho picked up the Best Actor prize at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival for his leading role in Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days, it was the first time a Japanese actor took the honor since Yuya Yagira, at the age of 14, back in 2004. Upon hitting the stage to accept his award, the 67-year-old jokingly said, “I wonder if I have finally caught up with Yagira.” Already a widely recognized figure among his countrymen, he added, “I must work hard not to disgrace this award.”
Since premiering at Cannes, Perfect Days has gone on to become one of Wenders’ best-reviewed films, and has also been shortlisted for the Best International Feature Film Academy Award.
Yakusho shot to fame in 1996 portraying a salaryman-turned-amateur ballroom dancer in Masayuki Suô’s Shall We Dance?—a film that would later receive the Hollywood treatment as a Richard Gere vehicle. Yakusho’s international exposure with the film also led to his very own Hollywood outings with films like Memoirs of a Geisha. In fact, he was shooting that very film in Los Angeles when Alejandro G. Iñárritu cast him in the globe-spanning ensemble drama Babel.
Hailing from Nagasaki, Yakusho didn’t always intend to become an actor. In his early 20s, he was knocking around as a civil servant—his stage name, Yakusho, translates to “government office”—before transitioning to acting. For Yakusho, training under Japanese screen icon Tatsuya Nakadai in his “unknown actors” program, Mumeijuku, meant that art had become imitations of civilian life.
In Perfect Days, Yakusho embraces the life of an unassuming custodial worker in Tokyo named Hirayama, who approaches the work of cleaning public toilets with unwavering diligence and attention to detail. On his lunch breaks, Hirayama savors quiet moments of staring up at trees, snapping a picture or two with his analog camera. He lives by the Japanese philosophy, “komorebi,” which describes the play of light and shadow that filters through the leaves of trees.
At this year’s Cannes, Wenders revealed that he had watched the original Shall We Dance? three times—a film he “systematically” made everyone close to him watch as well—before approaching Yakusho with an offer on one of his regular visits to Japan, even before a script was written. And when that screenplay arrived, Yakusho was surprised to find a role that was almost entirely silent. So how did he prepare? “This was a hellish request from Wim: that I don’t watch any TV, that I don’t use the Internet. But I was told I could watch some sumo wrestling,” Yakusho tells Anthem. “I thought he was joking. But it turns out that was his image of Hirayama and what he wanted me to imbue. I promptly ignored his entire request and continued to watch TV and use the Internet.”
“As an actor, I consider figuring out the background of a character part of the job. This time, the script didn’t have a lot of descriptions about his past so I really had to imagine what it was,” he recalls. “However, the co-writer, Takuma Takasaki, and the producers also wanted to know more about his past and they asked Wim if he could share more. Wim rejected such a request and said that it was not necessary. But eventually, he relented after their insistence and shared a memo he had written about Hirayama’s past. That was really helpful for the second half of this shoot.”
Irrespective of how he got there, Yakusho soulfully carries the audience through Hirayama’s persistent daily rituals—at work, in tidying up his apartment, visiting the local bathhouse, having a tall drink in the same back-alley bar, tending to his collection of small plants, and finding small joys in his audiocassette tapes of classic rock and dollar-store paperbacks of literary classics. Then, a series of minor disruptions ripple through his carefully constructed tranquility, offering glimpses into a potentially painful past. Hirayama is someone who would appear to have dropped out of life if he hadn’t taken such palpable pleasure in his modest routines. In particular, the act of capturing “komorebi” and methodically cataloguing the photos in boxes by months and years is something only Yakusho himself can explicitly unpack. “To him, every single moment is never to be repeated. He has his rituals, but they are never exactly the same. So I’m not sure if he looks at these photos again or not, but he wants to capture these precious moments of ‘komorebi,’” explains Yakusho. “He thinks about where the wind comes from. I think these photographs are a gift to himself. It’s a representation of the gratitude he feels for every moment. That’s why he documents every day.”
A deceptively simple character study of slowly accumulating emotional heft, Perfect Days features Yakusho in nearly every frame of its 123-minute runtime. We ask the actor what he thought of the finished film: “I saw it for the first time in a screening room with the crew before we went to Cannes. Honestly, it’s hard for me to be fully objective,” he goes on. “When I first saw it, I went in with a lot of worry and concern because we had filmed so much of Hirayama’s routines. I wondered how this is going to become a film. I was happily surprised that this pleasant and nice tempo was created out of his routines. Hirayama is enjoying every moment. He reads and goes to sleep every night, which seems simple, but he really has a very rich experience every day. I also thought, ‘Wow, you can just show a person living their life and that can be a film worth watching.’”
Perfect Days is one of the best films of 2023, showcasing one of the year’s best performances.
Neon will release Perfect Days in 2024.
[Editor’s Note: This is a companion to Anthem’s previously published Wim Wenders interview.]