Japanese actor Koji Yakusho has played diverse characters in the films of critically acclaimed directors such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Masayuki Suo and Takashi Miike. In 2005, he was cast for the first time in a Hollywood film, Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.” In 2009 he made his directorial debut with “Toad’s Oil,” and since has become the quintessential Japanese actor in fact as well as in name. He has been in over 60 titles and works constantly, which leads us to imagine that he must have stoic belief in acting. However, in person, he gives the impression of “water.” Like water, he flows; he floats on a stream and transforms into anything when he reaches his destination. And when he overflows, he begins to move again and enjoys flowing sedately, eternally. His attitude toward life might lead him to be a world acclaimed actor.
Koji Yakusho visited NYC to attend his retrospective at Japan Cuts! where he talked about his new film “The Woodsman and the Rain” and his acting career.
This year’s Japan Cuts! focuses on you and will screen six of your works. They will screen my latest works and some films which are much older and have not been able to be seen on a big screen so often, so I’m very happy about it. And I’m very honored that people in New York can see my work in cooperation with Japan Society, which has been one of my dream places to show my films. I actually would like to see the films at a place like this with the crews whom I worked with because it’s very interesting for us to see people’s reactions outside of Japan. I see the films that I work on only once, in a screening room, but I enjoy watching my films with an audience when I go to film festivals overseas because I learn how they are interesting from the audience.
There is a big article about you recently in The New York Times that says you are now in the position held by Japanese actors like Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai, and Hollywood actors such as Tom Hanks and James Stewart.Thank you to the writer. We are trying very hard to make Japanese films right now, but those Japanese actors that were mentioned worked in the golden age of Japanese cinema and I believe that there are many actors who are influenced by them unconsciously. In addition, I’m a big fan of them, so I’m very honored.
You went to Tokyo from Nagasaki but at first you didn’t pursue acting. What was the reason that you auditioned for Mumeijuku theatre workshop, which is very hard to get in?I was impressed by theatre when I went to see my master Tatsuya Nakadai’s play. And when I began seeing theatre often, I happened to know that there was a theatre workshop which was run by Mr. Nakadai. I was a city employee back then but went to the audition for Mumeijuku. It was an extremely narrow entrance to get in, like 1 in 200 was able to get in, but I was lucky to pass the audition and start my career as an actor. I remember when I just got in Mumeijuku, Mr. Nakadai was featured at Japan Society in New York. That’s how I found out about Japan Society, and I thought Mr. Nakadai was really a great actor to featured at the place like that.
You played the lead character Katsuhiko, a lumberjack in the center piece film for Japan Cuts! “The Woodsman and the Rain.” What were you the most aware of to play the roll?I asked people who actually worked in lumber how to use the tools, about trees and woods. I spent a few days with them and I got the sense to play the roll. It was difficult to operate a jumbo at first, but, as I got used to it, I had fun operating the machine. When we work in local areas, people there help us a lot. They are very cooperative and many of them work with us as our film crew. “The Woodsman and the Rain” is to show our gratitude to their kindness. When we began filming, it was only a week after the huge earthquake in Japan, so the cast and crew were worried if we were really able to make this film. But we worked on the film very hard because this film has the power to make people smile, and we wanted people who suffered from the disaster to smile, if only for a moment by this film.
The young film director in “The Woodsman and the Rain,” who was played by Shun Oguri, is unsure about what he is doing but he starts to regain his confidence because Katsuhiko respects him. I believe there must have been a time that you were unsure when you had just started your career. Who respected you as an actor besides Mr. Nakadai?Well, I’m still not that confident, but I think my family was always by my side. They had honest opinions either if I did great job or not. Film directors and cast members whom I worked with taught me a lot of things, but there were some film (technical) crews who said to me like, “You did great job.” I was able to go on my career because they gave me courage to pursue it.
You were in foreign films too. Did you have a different feeling when you worked on them?I believe so, but wherever the films were made it’s the same. For example, it’s really the same for actors who perform in front of cameras even though there are a lot of people on the set for a big budget American film. However, there is a huge difference between Japanese films and those big budget foreign films in how much time there is to create one film. For Hollywood films, great talents from all over the world gather together, so I would like to work on one again when I encounter the right film that I want to work on.
What was the difference in the process of making the film between foreign films and Japanese films?Actually the atmospheres of the working environment for “Memoirs of a Geisha” directed by Rob Marshall and “Babel” directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu were totally different. The crews and the environment for “Babel” were similar to Japanese films that I had worked on. I was able to recognize who was doing what. While filming the part of Japan for “Silk,” directed by François Girard, they respected the Japanese way to film. But the biggest differences were they had much more time than Japanese films. They probably have a larger budget than Japanese films. In the past there must have been time to take time to create films in Japan too, and I really envy that kind of environment, to work on one scene for days. Because in that environment actors had to go through a lot of dilemma to be close to the directors’ visions, and, because of that experience, actors eventually became much bigger then what they were. Today, it’s becoming more difficult to create the perfect scene where every actor’s performance is perfect in the strain. Shuichi Okita, the director of “The Woodsman and the Rain,” carefully shot only necessary scenes because he had a concrete vision. So he rehearsed a lot and took time to shoot for the scenes that he really wanted in his film. He is a rare talent in today’s Japanese film industry.
You directed “Toad’s Oil,” so did you give opinions to young film directors like Mr. Okita?I basically work on myself to be close to the vision that the director has. For example, when we shoot a scene, we rehearse and I show what I prepared for the scene. Then the director decides whether my performance is right or not. If my performance is different from their vision, I just take that off of me and try to understand what they want. I believe that’s what actors should do.
How would you like to work in film from now on?In today’s Japanese cinema, there are a lot of films that are based on TV dramas, comic books and literature, so there are not many films that use original screenplays. If films are based on bestselling books or hit TV dramas, the estimation of the box office is not so different from the actual box office. I think it’s important to care about the box office for cinema to be retained, but I hope there are more original films that the audience can not predict what would happen in the darkness of a movie theater. I would like to work on those kind of films.
Looking back on your acting career, could you talk about the films that changed your life?I’m not working for TV that much right now, but when I decided to focus on film was the year that I worked on three films: “Shall We Dance?”, “Sleeping Man”, and “Shabu Gokudo.” Meeting those film directors influenced me a lot, and I enjoyed playing those three different characters: an ordinary Japanese salaryman, a guy who owns a electric store and a yakuza who loves crystal meth. That year was a lot of fun. Back then Japanese cinema was not successful in the box office, but the director of “Sleeping Man,” Kohei Oguri, told me to work in film and that motivated me to focus. Also, today, we are able to watch TV shows from the past anytime at home, but back then TV shows only replayed on TV, so that I wanted to work on film which would remain semi-permanently. And it was attractive for me that film has possibilities to be shown to people all over the world at film festivals.
text by Taiyo Okamoto
The Woodsman and the Rain © 2011 Kitsutsuki to Ame Film Partners