Kōji Yakusho is one of the greatest actors alive by any metric. In Japan, he’s been nominated for a whopping 23 Japan Academy Film Prize acting awards, and has worked with some of the greatest Japanese directors of all time — Hirokazu Kore-eda, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Masayuki Suo, Takashi Miike, Shinji Aoyama, Kon Ichikawa, Hideo Gosha, Juzo Itami, and, of course, Shōhei Imamura.
However, Yakusho has also made a huge impact around the world, his star power and handsome solitude bringing acclaim to films like Shall We Dance? and Memoirs of a Geisha. He is one of the rare international actors to break out into mainstream recognition without resorting to speaking English, thanks to films like Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Babel. In 2023, he achieved what’s arguably the greatest international recognition an actor can receive, winning Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for director Wim Wenders’ beautiful character study, Perfect Days.
Perfect Days is a pure character study, following a man named Hirayama as he goes about his week. Each day is essentially the same — he wakes up, gets ready for work as a public toilet attendant, waters his plants, listens to music on his drive to work, eats lunch by the same tree, bicycles to the same restaurant, and reads before bed. He’s quiet, almost comically so, but he’s immensely expressive in his subtle joy and contentment. His life may get shaken up a bit by the sudden arrival of his niece, but this isn’t a sentimental or melodramatic film. Wenders is more interested in elucidating the beauty of simplicity, helping viewers to rediscover the joy and wonder of little things through the eyes of Hirayama.
We spoke with Yakusho about Perfect Days, which is now nominated for Best International Film at the 2024 Academy Awards. You can watch our video interview above.
No Lines, No Drama, Just Komorebi
It’s a difficult thing to create a complex, subtle, and emotionally powerful performance with very few lines and little drama. Bill Murray accomplished this beautifully in Broken Flowers and Adam Driver did the same with Paterson; Delphine Seyrig mastered it in Jeanne Dielman, and so did Hidetoshi Nishijima in Drive My Car. Yakusho has delivered a stunning version of this with his perfect Perfect Days performance, which is an amalgam of wonderment, melancholy, nostalgia, joy, loneliness, empathy, and curiosity, all in the shape of one mysterious, entrancing man.
But how does an actor approach a role like this, which lacks the normal dialogue, action, and drama of most films? We wondered if Yakusho ever worried about this. “So, in the first half of the film, obviously I saw that there were basically no lines. And there are a lot of scenes that are very routine in terms of actually just going through these daily motions,” explained Yakusho. He continued:
So I did have, sort of, worry and excitement about how Wim Wenders is going to cook this up, essentially. I had never acted in a piece like this before. So in many ways, I looked forward to what it was going to become. And I felt that it was also the type of film that I would want to see. So there was a lot of excitement.
There’s a fundamental principle at work behind Perfect Days, one which corresponds with its study of simplicity and lack of conflict and drama. “Komorebi” is a Japanese term that loosely refers to “sunlight filtered through trees,” something which is certainly filmed frequently in Perfect Days. But the word means much more than that. It connotes a kind of contentment, a peaceful joy that is deeply connected with nature and humanity.
So how does Perfect Days bring komorebi to life? “Every morning, Hirayama feels the komorebi, and that’s definitely something that was in the script,” said Yakusho. “It was like the sun was giving this gift of a moment in time, this picture through the leaves of the trees.”
The 30 Best International Movies of 2023, Ranked
From drama to comedy and everything in between, the world of ‘foreign film’ has produced the most amazing movies of 2023.
“Partway through shooting the film, Wim gave me a memo which explained a much deeper relationship between the komorebi and Hirayama. And so the moments where Hirayama would look up and smile and see this komorebi made a lot more sense. It wasn’t just the komorebi, though. It was also just trees in general, or just sunlight in general. Really, all the gratitude that he felt for all of that was really important.”
The Emotions Behind Perfect Days’ Ending, Explained
- Release Date
- February 7, 2024
- Kôji Yakusho , Tokio Emoto , Arisa Nakano , Aoi Yamada
- 2hr 3min
- Master Mind, Wenders Images
While Yakusho delivers a tour de force performance throughout the film, what he and Wenders do in the final scene of Perfect Days is unforgettable. It’s an unbroken shot of Hirayama driving to work, listening to Nina Simone, and smiling. But the emotions which wash over the man’s face are so dynamic, so fluid, and so complicated that it will stir your soul and have you asking questions about just what’s going on in Hirayama’s mind. What better way to find out than ask the actor?
“So I think Wim purposely gave a lot of room for interpretation in that moment, for the audience to sort of get what they needed to get from that moment,” began Yakusho, before continuing beautifully:
But one thing I can say for sure is that humans don’t laugh or cry just when they’re feeling happy or when they’re feeling sad. It can be the other way around. In that moment, he might have been laughing because he didn’t know why he was crying. But in another way, I think he was going to have a very happy future. A happy life. And for me, it was a very hopeful moment.
And it’s a very beautiful film. Perfect Days will be released in North American theaters from NEON beginning Feb. 7th, 2024. You can find showtimes and get tickets here.