With a career spanning four decades, Koji Yakusho has been both a star overseas (“Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Babel”) and an award-winner at home, most notably for his 1996 breakthrough “Shall We Dance?” But through it all he has maintained a Tom Hanks-esque nice guy image.
That has been my own impression, at least. In 2009, I was set to interview Yakusho about his directorial debut, “Toad’s Oil,” but misread the directions and arrived nearly an hour late. Yakusho was waiting patiently, though, and answered my questions thoroughly, to my eternal gratitude.
I reconnected with Yakusho, now 62 (he’s a New Year’s baby), last month at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). He was there to receive the event’s Cinema Legend Award for career achievement. First, I attended a public question-and-answer session where he reminisced about his early days in the business, beginning with a 1978 audition for Tatsuya Nakadai’s famed Mumeijuku acting studio.
He was instructed to wear a name-tagged swimsuit for the first-stage audition, so he wrote his name on a piece of fabric and stuffed part of it into the suit. As he hopped about on stage, he said, “some of the fabric fell out — it looked like a fundoshi (loincloth).” Cue audience laughter.
Surviving “by some miracle,” Yakusho misheard instructions for the second-stage audition and showed up once again in a swimsuit while everyone else was wearing street clothes.
“I got extremely nervous so I just tried to read the lines as loud as I could,” he reminisced. Nonetheless, he was one of four applicants, out of 800, accepted to the school. This anecdote made me feel somehow relieved: At least we had bungling in common.
After the Q&A, dozens of onlookers lined up to take selfies with Yakusho; he smiled genially for all of them. Yes, he’s still the patient guy I met in 2009.
The following day I finally get my own 15 minutes with him backstage during the awards ceremony.
Thankfully, Yakusho blanks when I mention the earlier interview but is surprised when I tell him I’ve seen Kazuya Shiraishi’s “The Blood of Wolves,” a dark crime drama in which Yakusho stars as a scruffy detective who doesn’t play by the book. “That’s coming out in May, isn’t it?” he asks.
Set in contemporary Hiroshima, the film resembles “Battles Without Honor and Humanity,” Kinji Fukasaku’s 1973 classic five-part series inspired by a real-life gang war in Hiroshima and nearby city of Kure.
“The writer of the original novel is a fan of the series,” Yakusho says, adding that he prepped for the role by revisiting the series himself. “Both the series and the novel use the Hiroshima dialect, so I wanted to see it for that. I’ve liked the series for a long time but I didn’t exactly use it as a reference. It’s from a different era. It covers the prewar to the early postwar period, whereas the new film is set in the 1980s.”
Yakusho may not have channeled “Battles” series star Bunta Sugawara, but he seemed, I say, to enjoy playing a similarly dirty hero.
“Any actor would enjoy playing that sort of ‘dirty’ role,” Yakusho replies. “It was a good feeling.”
Yakusho also appeared last year in first-time director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s cross-cultural comedy “Oh Lucy!,” playing a shy salaryman in the same English-conversation class as the middle-aged heroine. The film screened at SGIFF, the latest of many festival showings that began with Cannes. Why, I wonder, did he accept a supporting role for a low-budget film by a new director?
“I didn’t know the work of the director (Hirayanagi), but when I read the script it was really interesting,” Yakusho says. “Also, it fit into my schedule.”
I tell him that the film reminded me of “Shall We Dance?,” in which loves blooms for Yakusho’s salaryman at a dance school.
“The school (in ‘Oh Lucy!’) is like the dance class in ‘Shall We Dance,’ that’s true,” Yakusho says. “Like the way (the heroine) enters the building trying to work up her courage for the English conversation class. Then she puts on a blonde wig and finds that courage. All that is like what made ‘Shall We Dance?’ so special.”
Yakusho’s character is absent for much of the film, but reappears for important scenes at the end. Did Hirayanagi tell him how to make the transition? “Not at all,” he says. “It was more like, ‘Let’s try it out, let’s give it a go.’ She didn’t tell me directly.”
In selecting a role, he adds, he looks first for a good script; the director comes second.
“If the script is bad, even a good director will find it really hard to make a good film,” he explains. “But with a basically strong script, you can make a pretty good film — even with a pretty bad director.”
My own “good director” for 2017, I tell him, was Hirokazu Kore-eda for “The Third Murder,” the legal drama that topped my “best Japanese films” list for the year. In that one Yakusho plays an ex-convict.
“Kore-eda is thorough, especially in writing the script,” Yakusho says. “Even when actors are doing a group reading of the script, he’ll say ‘Let’s rewrite it here.’ And even during a shoot he’ll say, ‘This will work better here’ and rewrite. He’s from the documentary film world so he’s OK with rewriting the script on the spot.”
But Yakusho’s character, I add, remains an enigma to the end. Did he find it hard to get a handle on him?
“Not really, I found him fascinating — it was a really interesting role,” he says. “He’s like a three-dimensional puzzle. Not that I had anything in common with him, but human beings really have those sorts of multiple layers.”