Since 1979, Kōji Yakusho has played stressed accountants (Shall We Dance?), avenging samurai (13 Assassins), and convicted killers (The Third Murder). Now, in Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-set film Perfect Days, the Cannes best actor winner gets to find a bit of peace and quiet, embracing the life of a toilet cleaner named Hirayama who lives by the Japanese philosophy of komorebi. It’s a word that describes the way sunshine and shadows filter through the leaves of trees, but, in a metaphorical sense, it also alludes to recognizing the happiness and sadness of everyday life. Which means a lot to Hirayama, who provides a valuable service in a world that often takes him for granted.
DEADLINE: Wim Wenders mentioned in previous interviews that this role was written with you in mind and that you helped collaborate on the script. Can you talk about how you found out about this movie and how it came to be?
KOJI YAKUSHO: Well, it all started firstly with the Shibuya Toilet Project also known as the Tokyo Toilet Project, that involves the public toilets in Shibuya, and I was asked to play this cleaner, one of the cleaning crew. So, the story was going to take place in Shibuya with this character as the lead. But when it came to me, the idea was to maybe make a short film or a photo book, but it was something that I had not done, this type of a job. So, I was immensely interested in it, and I immediately said I’d like to be part of it.
And the producers approached me about the film and were talking about how they wanted Wim to direct it. And of course, Wim is one of the masters. And I was thinking, “Would a master like him want to make that film about the toilet?” But he immediately said yes to the offer. And then he actually was the one who proposed to make a feature film. And it became this wonderful, huge present for me.
DEADLINE: The nature of the film is so interesting because it thrives in minimalism. We don’t really know much about Hirayama outside of his dedication for his work. However, toward the end of the film, we get the smallest glimpse of what could be a complicated past via a conversation with his sister and niece. What did you make of him and his character when reading the script?
YAKUSHO: With regards to Hirayama’s past, I think he was somebody who actually saw or experienced hell. And so, that was part of my thinking as I was playing this character. But halfway through the shoot, the producer and the co-writer, [Takuma] Takasaki-san asked Wim if he could share what he thought, because Wim had actually done his own biography, if you will, of the character. And so, they wanted Wim to share that.
Initially, Wim was resistant, saying that that was not necessary, but they were able to convince him. So, I was given a note about Hirayama’s past from Wim Wenders. And in very beautiful writing, it talked about his past and especially it talked about the relationship between Hirayama and komorebi in a very specific way. And that really became the drive for me, and of course, a huge reference as I started to work on the latter half of the film.
DEADLINE: While watching this film, I thought of another character you played, Mikami in Under the Open Sky who is slightly similar to Hirayama in the sense that they are both on the outskirts of society and they both refuse love and help from those around them. It’s almost like the characters can be each other in a parallel universe. What exactly is drawing you to these quieter, more solitary roles?
YAKUSHO: Well, actually, Miwa Nishikawa, who directed Under the Open Sky, saw Perfect Days. And she actually said that she was so glad that Mikami, if he hadn’t died and if he had continued to live and was rehabilitated into society again and had gotten a job, she thought that this is what that character would be. So, you’re absolutely right about that.
The area that we shot in is called Oshiage, which is downtown Tokyo. So, the landscape was quite similar. But with regards to the solitary existence, I don’t know if Hirayama believes himself to be lonely or whether he feels lonely. I think it’s true that rather than interacting with people, he chooses to have exchanges with komorebi or trees because that gives him more comfort. And these are the things that, I think, have given him the hope to live. So, you might look at him and think that he is solitary, but I think there are people around him that love him, although Hirayama may not choose to have a deep relationship with them. So, I’m not sure if he is really lonely.
DEADLINE: There are a lot of references to komorebi usage in this film to give a glimpse into his inner thoughts or something going on with him. Did this already exist in the script or was that something that you added?
YAKUSHO: It was already written in the screenplay because the working title was Komorebi or Perfect Days. So, it had always been a huge presence.
DEADLINE: How did you end up relating to Hirayama’s lifestyle? Are there things you incorporated from your own life? Or perhaps you don’t relate to him at all?
YAKUSHO: There’s nothing actually we have in common, but Hirayama is somebody who is very content in the way he lives his daily life. And I was very envious of that, that very simple way of life. He has a profession, a job that he loves, and he puts everything that he has into it. And then he gets to relax, going to the baths and then have a little bit of his favorite drinks, reading his favorite books. And then when he goes to sleep, he probably doesn’t have anything that he feels that he wasn’t able to get to do that day. So, he is absolutely fulfilled. And within being fulfilled, he’s able to quietly go to sleep, and I was very envious of that.
DEADLINE: What did the prep work look like for this film? Did you follow around the Tokyo Toilet crew? There’s a lot of stillness, patience and peace in Hirayama’s mannerisms as well, how did you manage to tap into that?
YAKUSHO: Hirayama has these trees that he calls his friends. I naturally imagined him to have seedlings, [these little] children of his friends, the trees, that he would look after and growing in his own home. So, that was actually something that I did as a hobby, and it’s something that I suggested. But I didn’t think there would be so many plants in Hirayama’s room, so that was a surprise [on set], even though it was my idea.
As for the technical [toilet] cleaning training, I did do prep work on my own before Wim asked me to do that. It was complicated because the cleaning depends on the toilet, as they are all different, what tools you use or what cleaning liquids you would use. And it’s not about just washing it with water, everything was done by hand. So, there were many steps, and it was quite complicated to learn.
DEADLINE: Because this film focuses on the subtlety of Hirayama’s life, can you talk a bit about watching the film and how a particular scene resonated with you, that perhaps you didn’t think was going to translate well on screen when filming it, but ended up being impactful anyway.
YAKUSHO: In the screenplay, there were no descriptions of Hirayama smiling or laughing at all. But then when we’re actually filming, Wim would say, “OK, maybe you could suddenly smile here or show a smile. Or in this scene, can you be the most angriest within the whole film?” And so, I was thinking as I was acting these scenes that, “Well, it wasn’t in the screenplay.” But then, of course, I got to see the film and I understood how those subtle moments of expressions of him smiling or being angry was something that connected the character to the audience. He became much more familiar to the audience. That was interesting.
DEADLINE: Thinking about your own two decades-plus career trajectory and this movie’s theme of reflecting upon one’s own life, what are some of the things you think about your own legacy as an actor in your journey so far? What keeps you going?
YAKUSHO: The motivation that continues to work in my case is when I see other incredible works created by other incredible peers in this industry. And then I had this feeling that, “Oh, but I’m in the same profession with these wonderful people.” So, that galvanizes me. It gives me great courage to go forward. For me, it’s not about my work, but I’m more inspired by the incredible work that the others are creating.
DEADLINE: You won best actor at the Cannes Film Festival for Perfect Days, what was that like to be recognized in that way?
YAKUSHO: The jury had a passionate discussion and then ultimately chose me for best actor, I feel incredibly fortunate. And I feel that award was given to us all, including Wim and the crew and the cast. I feel like still that somebody’s going to come from Cannes and say, “That was a mistake. Please give it back.”
DEADLINE: The ending can be interpreted in so many ways. You’ve got that Nina Simone song “Feeling Good” playing as Hirayama was being confronted about something difficult from his past, his coworker quits on him, so he’s left to pick up the slack, and he’s just driving away with this look of either happiness or sadness, sometimes both. What is your interpretation of the ending?
YAKUSHO: Well, actually, we did two angles. And the second setup was them shooting a frontal shot of me. And the lighting took so much time that I was waiting for a very long time in Hirayama’s apartment toilet. And so, by the time they called me, I was really tired from waiting. But in any case, you have that Nina Simone song, which has a certain energy. And although because the lyrics are in English, they might not directly speak to me, I, of course, knew what it meant. And I was playing that scene reflecting on Hirayama and on my own life as well. But basically, to me, that was Hirayama being happy. That was the feeling that I had when I was playing that scene.
But when you’re driving and you have a favorite song come on, music has a strange power that affects us. Doesn’t it? And suddenly, all these emotions well up within you. So, I was reminded of that as well.