‘Perfect Days’ Star Koji Yakusho on the Making of Wim Wenders’ Oscar Contender

Across a 45-year career in the movies, Koji Yakusho has worked with every major Japanese director of his generation and inhabited over 80 characters, spanning salarymen, samurai, yakuza gangsters, taxi drivers, journalists, cops, killers, heroes, dancers, seducers and everymen of all kinds. But in German filmmaker Wim Wender’s latest feature, the Tokyo-set drama Perfect Days, the 68-year-old actor may have found the most natural vehicle yet for his screen persona’s unique blend of elegance and inward dignity. And he inhabits a humble toilet cleaner.

A deceptively simple character study of slowly accumulating emotional heft, Perfect Days features Yakusho in nearly every frame of its 123-minute runtime. He plays Hirayama, a man who would appear to have dropped out of life if he didn’t take such palpable pleasure in his modest daily routines. Hirayama works as the devoted cleaner of architecturally distinctive public restrooms in Tokyo’s city parks (a real-life public works project). He approaches his work with unwavering diligence and attention to detail while savoring the lunch breaks that allow him to spend a quiet moment staring up at the trees, snapping a picture or two with his analog camera to catch the way the light is streaking through the leaves that day. The film’s screenplay, co-written by Wenders and Takuma Takasaki, finds its metaphoric cynosure in the Japanese concept of komorebi, which describes the play of light and shadow through the leaves of a tree, every shimmering moment unique.

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Yakusho as Hirayama in ‘Perfect Days,’ reading a Faulkner novel before bed in his modest Tokyo apartment.

With soulfulness and precision, Yakusho carries the audience through Hirayama’s laidback daily rituals — work, tidying his tiny apartment, visits to the local bathhouse, a tall drink in a back-alley bar, tending to his collection of small plants, savoring cassette tapes of classic rock and dollar-store paperbacks of literary classics — until a series of minor disruptions ripple through his carefully constructed peace and give us a glimpse of a potentially more painful past. It’s no great spoiler to reveal how the film concludes: With an extended shot “held tight on the extraordinarily expressive face of Koji Yakusho as his character drives through Tokyo reflecting on the rewards and perhaps also the regrets of his life with the same spirit of openness and acceptance, embracing the sadness as much as the joy,” as The Hollywood Reporter‘s critic put it. It’s one of the most moving sequences to be found on a movie screen this year.

Yakusho first caught the attention of global film buffs in 1996 with his irresistible performance as an office worker-turned-amateur ballroom dancer in Shall We Dance (Wenders says he “systematically” made everyone close to him watch the film), which got a Hollywood remake in 2004 with Richard Gere in the lead. The next year he starred in the late, great Shohei Immamura’s The Eel, which won the Cannes Palme d’Or. And in one of his exceedingly few Hollywood crossovers, Yakusho arguably became the standout — in a cast that included Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett — of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s globe-spanning ensemble drama Babel (2006).

Yakusho has collected scores of awards over his long career, but Perfect Days appears tipped to introduce him to an even wider international audience. The film premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where Yakusho won the best actor prize. Perfect Days has since been selected as Japan’s official entry for the Oscars’ in the best international film category, where it is considered a frontrunner (some have also called for recognition for Yakusho in the best actor category). The movie was the opening title at Yakusho’s hometown Tokyo International Film Festival on Monday (it opens theatrically in Japan on Dec. 22, with a North American release still to be confirmed). Shortly before the Tokyo festival, THR connected with the Japanese screen icon for a brief discussion of Perfect Day‘s creation.

What inspired you about this story and character?

So, the film really centers around the beautiful public toilets in Shibuya, from The Tokyo Toilet project, which was started by Koji Yanai (president of the Uniqlo clothing chain). And I was really intrigued by the idea of a main character who was simply a janitor who cleans toilets. I found that to be a very compelling setup.

And how would you describe your process of discovering and developing this character? I understand Wim Wenders eventually shared a very detailed backstory for the character with you, although the audience ultimately only gets glimmers of it.

So, in this film, the idea of komorebi — or the light and shadow that shimmers through the leaves of a tree — is a very important concept. And the relationship between komorebi and Hirayama is a very strong and interesting one. As an actor, part of what I do is develop the character by imagining what’s not in the script, creating a fuller backstory and reflecting that into the character. But there was so little description of this character’s background in the script, so that could have been challenging.

I never asked director Wenders for more backstory, but our producers had been appealing to him for more info. Wim’s response was always that he wouldn’t be making this film if it could all be explained by a few words sketching out a backstory. But eventually, he relented and shared his vision of the character’s background with me in the second half of the filming process. It became a really important and helpful part of becoming Hirayama in those scenes in the latter half of the film. It helped me add more depth.

You mentioned the concept of komorebi and how important it is to the character and his philosophy of life. Could you elaborate on that a little?

I think it’s something that’s helped Hirayama persevere in life. He’s got this very simple routine. But when he’s resting or taking a moment to reflect, it’s like the komorebi is kind of watching over him. By its nature, komorebi is different every time you experience it, so it’s always fresh for him. It’s kind of like a little gift of life that only he gets to witness every day, which brings him a lot of happiness. I think Wim would be able to go much deeper into this … but there’s also the sense that Hirayama is working in Tokyo, surrounded by all this inhuman concrete, but there are these quiet times when he gets to see the komorebi in the trees, and through that experience, it’s kind of like he has this slow life in a forest even though he’s in one of the world’s biggest cities. It think it’s much less interesting for people to hear as an explanation compared to experiencing it in the film. That’s why I initially resisted elaborating, but here you’ve gotten me talking about it. Oh well… (Laughs).

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Hirayama’s simple daily routines get an emotional twist when his niece (Arisa Nakano) pays him an impromptu visit.

You inhabit this character so fully, I couldn’t help but wonder whether there were aspects of Hirayama that you relate to personally. Have there been times in your life when you lived as simply as he does, or wished that you could?

While we were filming, it seemed like everybody on the cast and crew was saying how envious they were of Hirayama — and how they wished they could live like that. The way he lives brought me back to memories of being a boy — the way everything was just simple and fun. Just the act of running was an incredibly exhilarating experience. My earliest years came to mind when I was exploring Hirayama’s character.

I have to ask about the creation of the closing shot. It almost felt like an emotional komorebi, where there are light and dark feelings flashing across your face in close succession, yet there’s also a sense of balance and a feeling of acceptance that shines through at the same time. It’s really remarkable. What were you striving for in that moment and what was your method for creating it.

Well, the crew spent a lot of time lighting the car that I would drive in that scene, so I was waiting in a bathroom. And I think my best performance actually happened when I was rehearsing in the restroom by myself (Laughs). But I’m not sure how the audience felt in the end. I think we as humans don’t cry only when we’re sad. And I think Hirayama, after meeting his family again who really knows his past, felt that his future might be a much brighter one in that moment. I wasn’t really sure how it would turn out if he was laughing and crying at the same time. But I knew that, in the end, it would be left to the audience to determine how that moment should be interpreted. And so, yeah, we just kind of had to see what would happen in the moment.

Hirayama is very diligent and skilled in how he goes about his actual work of cleaning the toilets. Was that something you needed to practice or were you already an accomplished cleaner?

I spent two days training with The Tokyo Toilet project folks. They gave me hands-on experience in this and they were also on set with us most of the time to continue to instruct me on how to properly clean the toilets. Honestly, I think the practice of this was one of the most important parts for creating the character and the whole film. We would go into the actual dirtied toilets and it really depended on the day what kind of condition they were in. Humans, unavoidably, of course, dirty these restrooms. But maybe if they go in and experience a really clean and well-cared-for space, then they will be inspired to leave the toilet just as clean as they found it. That sort of civic feeling is what The Tokyo Toilet folks told us the project was created to inspire — and that really left an impression on me. It was a big part of the experience of making this film.

Are you the kind of actor who can easily leave the work on set when you return to your own life, or do characters tend to consume you and linger inside you?

While we’re filming — and this is the same for any role for me — I feel like I’m never fully separated from the character. I feel like the character’s somehow hooked into me a little bit. I tend to see things through their perspective, even in my daily life. But the moment that I wrap a shoot — the moment that I’m fully done — there’s always this feeling of release, where the character completely let’s go of me.

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