A man of many parts

movie & TV November 02, 2018 01:00

By Donsaron Kovitvanitcha
Special to The Nation

9,378 Viewed

Japanese actor Koji Yakusho, who has made his name both at home and internationally, is honoured with a retrospective at the Tokyo International Film Festival

One of the biggest and most prestigious film events in Asia, the 31st edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival got underway late last month with a showcase of movies from around the world. 

This year’s special retrospective programme, a popular annual event held as part of the “Japan Now” section, honoured actor Koji Yakusho, screening five of his films, namely Masayuki Suo’s “Shall We Dance?” (1995), Imamura Shohei’s Palme d’Or winner “The Eel” (1997), Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure” (1997), Shuichi Okita’s “The Woodsman and the Rain” (2011) and Kazuya Shiraishi’s 2018 release “The Blood of Wolves”.


Koji Yakusho was honoured at the Tokyo International Film Festival 2018, which presented five of his works in a retrospective programme as part of the Japan Now section. The actor himself attended the festival to meet his audience.

One of the most familiar faces of the Japanese film world, Yakusho has been working in the industry for almost 40 years. Starting his professional career at the Chiyoda municipal ward office, he entered the entertainment world in the late ’70’s, and has since appeared in stage plays, television series and films.

“As a young man, I’ve never had a passion for acting”, Yakusho, 62, tells The Nation. “I happened to get a ticket to a stage performance from a person who couldn’t go. I didn’t have much interest but I went. It was a performance of Maxim Gorky’s ‘The Lower Depth’ with Tatsuya Nakadai playing the main character. It really moved me and made me want to become an actor. I wanted to move people like that.” 


A scene from "Cure" (1997)

He started learning about acting from Tetsuya Nakadai, considered as one of the greatest actors of Japan. “Tatsuya ran an acting school called MemeiJuku. It was there that I learnt the basics of acting. I took those with him to the set and learnt the rest there,” he says, 

His first, albeit small, film role came in 1979 with “Hunter in the Dark” but it was his portrayal of Shinji Nakano in NHK’s 1983 television series “Tokugawa Ieyasu” and as the title character in “Miyamoto Musashi” the following year that shot him to fame. 

That recognition led to a role in Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” (1985), a film that was also successful in the western world. 


In "Shall We Dance", Yakusho plays Shohei Sugiyama, a successful salaryman.

Now a major star, Yakusho had a chance to work with the greatest filmmakers of Japan and other countries, such as Masayuki Suo, whose “Shall We Dance?” became a big hit in Japan and around the world and was eventually remade by Hollywood with Richard Gere in the lead role. He also collaborated with Koreeda Hirokazu, Takashi Miike, Shinji Aoyama, Koki Mitani and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, with whom he worked on “Babel” (2006) as well as with Rob Marshall on “Memoirs of the Geisha” (2005).

“I worked with Kiyoshi Kurosawa many times,” says Yakusho. “I did “Cure” with him. He had written the screenplay years before and we spent a long time talking about it. I was involved in the process of creating the script, and I like the finished film very much. That was memorable for me and was the first film on which I worked with a director I really admired.”

He also has fond memories of Kohei Oguri’s “Sleeping Man”, which was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1996. 


Yakusho in "The Blood of Wolves"

“It was a special moment,” he recalls. “I had only one page of dialogue, in the scene where there’s just an old woman and myself. When we read it, it took less than a minute but the director wanted me to make it three of four times longer. That was difficult. It wasn’t the dialogue that was the problem. I had to make up the entire history of the character! That was a culture shock for me. I realised that acting is something that can fill pauses and space. I learnt a lot from that.” 

Yakusho rarely has a chance to watch his films with the audience and he finds it special. “It only really happens at film festivals and it’s interesting to see their applause, and see how they react, and how they enjoy the film. That’s when I am so glad to be an actor,” he says.

As a veteran who has worked with so many filmmakers, Yakusho quite naturally has his favourites. In addition to Kurosawa, he particularly loves the works of Kenji Mizoguchi and Shohei Imamura. “That was such a golden age of Japanese cinema,” he muses. “Just by watching these great masters, there’s so much that we can see.”


In "The Eel", Yakusho plays a man who opens a barber shop and spends his free time communing with the pet eel he got while in prison.

He has mixed feelings about the film industry of today. “When I first worked in this industry, we had no chance to see ourselves when we acted on the set unless there was an 8 mm camera there. Actors these days can. They know the angle and how it will look in the take. They don’t seem to have much tension about being on camera,” Yakusho says. 

“When I started, films were shot in black and white. That evolved into Technicolour and now we are in the digital age. I find it sad that the old way is dying. Young actors will never be shot on film because film is dead,” he laments.

Yakusho is also sad about the shift from the big screen to new media, which he feels reflects a decline in the film industry as a whole. 

“In the past, fashion – in fact everything – was dictated by film, but now entertainment like games and TV drama is more powerful. For someone who has spent a lifetime in the film industry, this is a bit sad,” he says.