Like its counterparts in Venice and Toronto, Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) is going ahead as planned this year, but it’s having to do things a little differently. There will still be the usual physical screenings and Q&A, but the regular competition sections have been ditched and more of the action will be shifting online.
The choice of festival ambassador also marks a break from tradition. While in recent years TIFF has been represented by the likes of Mayu Matsuoka, Alice Hirose and Kanna Hashimoto, in 2020 the task falls to Koji Yakusho.
“Every year they’ve picked a young, beautiful actress, so I’m not sure why they asked me this time,” quips the 64-year-old actor. “But I’m happy to do what I can to help.”
He may not look as good in a ball gown, but Yakusho brings the clout of a veteran movie star. From playing a gangster with a penchant for kinky food sex in “Tampopo” (1985) to a boorish cop flirting with the wrong side of the law in “The Blood of Wolves” (2018), he’s been a versatile and consistently watchable screen presence.
He’s also shown a dedication to cinema that’s unusual among his peers. Whereas Japan’s most bankable actors tend to split their time between films and TV dramas, Yakusho has preferred to focus on the big screen for much of his career — though it hasn’t always been the most glamorous calling.
“When I started doing films, the Japanese movie industry was going through a really rough patch,” he recalls. “The bento were much better when you did TV! With films, you’d be working through the night — the conditions were really hard.”
As the industry emerged from the doldrums in the 1990s, Yakusho became one of its most recognizable faces, both in Japan and overseas. His performance as a Peruvian Japanese cab driver in “Kamikaze Taxi” (1995) drew attention on the festival circuit, while “Shall We Dance?” (1996) and “Lost Paradise” (1997) were major box-office hits at home.
His international reputation truly took off when Shohei Imamura’s “The Eel,” in which he starred, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival in 1997. The same year, he also took the lead in psychological thriller “Cure,” the first in a series of collaborations with Kiyoshi Kurosawa that rank among Yakusho’s finest work.
“The first time I went to Cannes, we got so much attention from the press, even though (Japanese) movies at the time were being made on low budgets, and under really tough conditions,” he says. “It made me realize the power that movies have.”
Even now, the buzz of the festival experience hasn’t worn off. Yakusho says he’s disappointed that he was unable to attend the Toronto International Film Festival in person this year for the world premiere of Miwa Nishikawa’s “Under the Open Sky,” in which he plays an ex-yakuza trying to go straight.
“Yeah, that was a shame,” he says. “Film festivals are a celebration, and with Toronto in particular, the audiences are what really make it. When you’re walking down the street, people will come up to you and say, ‘I saw your film!’ It’s hard to top that.”
Although TIFF — the Tokyo one, that is — can seem rather muted in comparison, Yakusho has had a long relationship with the festival. He’s been a regular presence on the red carpet, and was treated to a short retrospective in 2018.
While he admits that he typically only watches his own films once, he says he’s always happy for them to get a fresh viewing.
“With films from the past, they’ll always contain one or two moments that are wonderful, like jewels,” he says. “It makes me happy — as someone who was involved in the film — that people can see those again.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has reconfigured the movie-going experience. Although cinemas in Japan have rebounded faster than in a lot of countries, many questions remain about the future of the industry, as film releases are postponed or go straight to streaming services.
Not surprisingly, Yakusho is a staunch advocate of watching movies on the big screen.
“When you watch a good film, there’s a sense of unity with the rest of the audience,” he says. “You can only get that at the cinema.”
So has he seen anything really good recently?
“I went to see something that got good reviews, but it didn’t do it for me,” he says, with a laugh.
The industry-wide paralysis caused by the pandemic left Yakusho with a lot of downtime during 2020. A film shoot in the spring was hastily cut short, and another one scheduled for June was postponed until next year. The release of period drama “Toge: The Last Samurai,” originally set for September, has also been pushed back.
Finding himself with so much free time, he decided to get in touch with his inner Marie Kondo.
“I was tidying up, throwing things out — it was great,” he says. “I discovered how good it can feel to get your affairs in order. I wouldn’t normally have all this time on my hands, so I wanted to make the most of it. As I get older, I can feel my strength declining, and I thought I could try to counteract that by giving myself an overhaul.”
Though he’s sanguine about the forced furlough, Yakusho says that some haven’t found it so easy, mentioning the recent suicides of a number of well-known Japanese actors.
“There are people who’ve suffered from not being able to have so much contact with others,” he says. “The work we do (as actors) really revolves around contact. When that’s completely taken away, people are left to themselves and may turn inward. I can see how that might create a dangerous situation.”
Yakusho can consider himself lucky, but he’s still eager to see things return to normal.
“The whole purpose of film festivals is to bring various movie people together,” he says. “It’s best when you can get close to each other, isn’t it?”
Tokyo International Film Festival runs from Oct. 31 to Nov. 9. For more information, visit 2020.tiff-jp.net/en.
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