“Koji Speaks with His Face Instead of Words”: Cannes Laud the Overlooked Aspect of His Acting

On May 28, Koji Yakusho, 67, won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes, one of the “Big Three” international film festivals.

By Ayako Ishizu

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On May 28, Koji Yakusho, 67, won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes, one of the “Big Three” international film festivals. The French award shed new light on Yakusho’s appeal, little recognized in Japan.

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“Japanese Acting Legend” Receives Critical Acclaim from the World

At the 76th Cannes Film Festival in France, Yakusho won the Best Actor Award for the film “Perfect Days.” The feat made him the second Japanese actor to receive the honor, since Yuya Yagira, 19 years ago.

It was about time Yakusho received the recognition, with his deserving track record. The Hollywood Reporter magazine hailed Yakusho as the “Japanese acting legend” in its tweet about the Cannes award. The man who accepted the Palme d’Or trophy on behalf of director Shohei Imamura for The Eel, 26 years ago in 1997, has received his own plaque at last.

The veteran performer who has played versatile roles in titles including Shall We Dance? (1996) and Babel (2006), has earned the biggest prize in his life at 67.

The director is the German maestro Wim Wenders, known for works including Wings of Desire (1987). Yakusho played the part of Hirayama, a quiet man who works as the cleaner of high-tech public toilets in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. From his meager apartment, the protagonist goes to work on a van filled with cleaning equipment of his own devise, does a matriculate job, is fond of plants, cassette tapes, and paperbacks, and goes to bed contentedly each night. His greatest extravagance is drinking at a small pub in Asakusa (the proprietress played by Sayuri Ishikawa) once a week.

When I interviewed Wenders and Yakusho at Cannes, Wenders said, “Koji-san is my Chishu Ryu,” referring to the actor who played a part also named Hirayama, in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). I guess Perfect Days was Wenders’ version of Ozu’s masterpiece, as a self-appointed apprentice.

At the official screening on May 25, Perfect Days earned a 10-minute standing ovation. The film itself received positive reviews from the local media, while many of those in the film industry and journalists who saw the screening had predicted that Yakusho would win the Best Actor Award. That was exactly the outcome.

Appearing in almost every scene, Yakusho presented overwhelming eloquence, speaking volumes with his facial expressions. Without uttering words, he implied the things behind the simple life of a man called Hirayama.

It is a face you could watch forever. The leading French paper Le Monde wrote that Koji Yakusho, 67, who played the leading role in Shohei Imamura’s The Eel, and is also faithful to director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, engraves emotions on the face of the loner, Hirayama. “The character performs his thankless job to perfection, as if the survival of the human race were at stake, thus rediscovering a certain dignity.”

Why the French Praised Yakusho

It is interesting that the French media unanimously described this film using the word “Zen.” Le Monde wrote “Wenders has strong Zen influence,” Le Figaro said, “Wenders film Zen actor wins award,” and the Premiere magazine ran the headline, “Zen hero.”

In France, tranquil space, time, and peaceful people are often expressed as “Zen,” with minimalist aesthetics considered as one of the ideal lifestyles. The French must have felt Hirayama’s modest life and Yakusho’s performance were “Zen sophistication.” The film reminds us that even though we seem to have the same simple routine, no two days are the same.

While it is the exact opposite of an “Instagrammable” lifestyle, no one has such a screen-worthy face as Yakusho. In the last three-and-a-half minutes where the film reaches climax, the closeup of his teary smile captivated the hearts of every audience. Wenders revealed the cinematographer was trembling with tears while shooting that scene, and he was worried whether the footage got filmed properly.

Yakusho said, “According to the script, I was supposed to cry, but Wim said it’s up to me to cry or not. Yet, the music for the scene was Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” with lyrics that gave hope or encouragement, so for me, it was quite challenging,” revealing the secret behind the teary smile.

The Joke Yakusho Said “Fell Flat”

At the post-awards press conference, a room-full of journalists from around the world greeted him with an even louder applause. Hirayama’s regular routines seem to give the impression of rituals, and a French reporter asked, “Like Hirayama, do you also have rituals?” Yakusho responded with a jest, “I go to the toilet every day. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn’t. I guess I don’t really have any rituals or things like that.”

Like this, he never lacks humor in any situation. The Japanese are said to be bad at giving speeches, yet at the award ceremony, he quipped, “I love awards,” before his speech. It was supposed to be a joke in response to the previous speaker’s comment, “Men love awards, don’t they?” But he admitted in his speech with a twinkle, “That one fell flat.”

With director Wenders. © Ayako Ishizu

Modesty is also his big charm. No matter how much Wenders and others told him he would get the Best Actor Award, he just laughed it off, saying, “Western people are good at giving compliments.” Already, foreign media speculated he may be named for international film awards such as this year’s Oscar.

Many are saying they would like to see it happen. But the veteran actor would probably brush it off with a gentle smile, saying, “I’ll take it as a compliment.”

This is a translation of the Japanese article published on May 30, 2023 on Bunshun Online.

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