Filmart: Japanese Screen Icon Koji Yakusho Reflects on 40 Years of Filmmaking (Q&A)

Koji Yakusho - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of the subject

The Asian Film Awards honoree discusses how he is still hoping to perfect his acting before he retires, guerrilla shooting on the streets of Tokyo with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and why he would love to work with Clint Eastwood.

Across a four-decade career, Koji Yakusho, 63, has played samurai warlords, salarymen, gangsters, murderers and policemen, winning acclaim and awards in Japan and across the globe. He first came to the attention of international audiences in 1996 with Shall We Dance? — Richard Gere reprised his role in a 2004 U.S. remake — which he followed by starring in the 1997 Palme d'Or winner The Eel, directed by Shohei Imamura. In the mid-2000s he appeared in two Hollywood productions: Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha and Babel, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

Yakusho, who has been chosen as the recipient of the Excellence in Asian Cinema Award at this year's Asian Film Awards, has worked with nearly every major director in Japan and continues to appear regularly on the big and small screen. Before the Asian Film Awards, which will be his first trip to Hong Kong, he talked to The Hollywood Reporter in Tokyo about his love for his craft, what keeps him motivated and how he might be persuaded to play a "mysterious Asian."

You received the Cinema Legend Award from the Singapore film festival at the end of 2017, you were showcased at the Tokyo film festival last year, and now the Excellence in Asian Cinema Award in Hong Kong. How do you feel about all these awards, and why do you think you're attracting so much attention now?

I've just reached that age, haven't I? (Laughs) But realizing people from other countries also watch my films makes me feel both wonder and gratitude. It makes me glad I've been able to do what I do.

You've played such a wide variety of roles in so many genres, from samurai dramas to comedies to yakuza thrillers. Do you find some more challenging than others?

No, they're all hard work. However, with samurai dramas, they're challenging because their whole way of life was different — from eating to greetings — it takes a lot of work to get that right and be realistic. However, it's an important part of Japanese film that we have to preserve. I'd like to see more of them made. There's a place for those based on reality and fictional ones.

How do you select projects, and has that changed over the years?

I choose scripts that I can imagine will become the kind of film I'd want to watch. There are also cases where the plan is to adapt a novel and do the casting before the script, but if possible I want to read the script first. Sometimes you have to trust the director and scriptwriter. When I was younger I had a strong desire to face the challenge of working with lots of directors and writers. But these days I wonder how many more years I can keep on doing lead roles, so I want to choose my projects more carefully. I'd like to work on films where there is enough time to spend on preparing properly and making them. That's hard with Japanese films, which have tough schedules.

You directed a film about 10 years ago called Toad's Oil but haven't done another since. Any reason?

We have planned to do a few, got scripts together, scouted locations. But in the end, it's been an issue of raising enough money. I would like to if I had the chance.

Did directing change the way you thought about and approached acting?

It did. I'd always tried to approach acting work conscientiously, but after that experience I really appreciated how much preparation goes in before the cast arrives and how much rests on what we deliver. It made me even more determined to prepare properly. It made me realize how much a director is responsible for. I was also the lead, so I wasn't behind the camera a lot of the time. I don't know if you can call that real directing.

Are there any Japanese directors left that you want to work with but haven't yet?

A lot of the good directors have died. As I get older, the number I want to work with again gets fewer. I haven't worked with Kiyoshi Kurosawa for quite a while now. I want to do that before long. We're both the same age and we're getting on.   

How about overseas directors? You appeared in Memoirs of a Geisha and Babel about 15 years ago. Are you interested in working internationally again?

Clint Eastwood is getting on as well, but he's incredible. I'd love the chance to work with him. I don't want to play a "mysterious Asian" role, but if I could play a Japanese character. Roma director [Alfonso] Cuaron is amazing, and Danish director Susanne Bier.

I am in the Chinese film Wings Over Everest, which is due out this year.

But I don't really speak English, even though I did in Memoirs of a Geisha, which was strange. In Babel I played a Japanese character and spoke Japanese. Inarritu was a superb director, very easygoing, but he got angry about not being able to get permission to shoot in Shibuya and other places in Tokyo. We shot some of it guerrilla-style and caused a traffic jam on the expressway. People were shouting abuse at us, and then the police ended up coming. They came again and took one of the crew away. The director wanted to do it again, but the Japanese staff told him they were going to get arrested.

Was it very different from Japanese sets?

Actually not. Memoirs of a Geisha was different because it was big-budget, but Babel was shot mostly with one camera and a smaller crew, so not so different. One thing that really left an impression was, before we started shooting, we all held hands and closed our eyes in silence for a minute, then threw roses up in the air, like a prayer to the gods of film. I'd work with Inarritu again even if it was a "mysterious Asian" role. (Laughs)

You've been acting for more than 40 years. What keeps you motivated?

I always think I haven't got it quite right, but in the next film I'll finally nail it. I guess that's the drug of this business for me, which has kept me going for 40 years. When I was younger I wanted to appear in the films of lots of directors and see how they would make use of me. As my career has continued, one of the things I've enjoyed is the interactions you can have with your fellow performers that really create drama. That makes me glad I was able to be an actor.