Japan Cuts 2012 Interview: Japan's Leading Man Kôji Yakusho

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
The 2012 edition of Japan Cuts may be drawing to a close this evening, but we still have a few more treats up our sleeve. And this may be the best yet! Cementing himself as a star in his native Japan on the TV drama Tokugawa Ieyasu in the 1980s, and only getting more popular since, Kôji Yakusho was the guest of honor at this year's fest. And why not? The man has left an undeniable mark across seemingly every genre, and through a few international productions. If you've seen Tampopo, Shall We Dance?, Cure, Babel, or 13 Assassins, then you know very well of the man's astronomical range and electric charisma as a performer. Our correspondent, The Lady Miz Dive was fortunate enough to sit down with Yakusho for a chat about his latest The Woodman and the Rain, directing a film of his own, the state of jidaigeki (period film) in Japan today, and acting in international productions. This interview is being cross-published on her website The Diva Review.  

The Lady Miz Diva:  Welcome to New York.  How does it feel to be the Guest of Honour at the 2012 Japan Cuts film festival?
 
Kôji Yakusho:  I come from a small area outside of Nagasaki called Isahaya, so for a country boy like me to have a whole retrospective in New York like this is a great honour.
 
LMD:  There's a lovely moment in your new film, "The Woodsman and the Rain" where your character, a lumberjack living on a mountainside, sees himself on film for the first time and your face registers everything he's thinking.  Do you remember the first time you saw yourself on film?
 
KY:  Yes, I actually do remember the first time I saw myself onscreen.  A childhood friend had an 8-millimeter camera and filmed me at a beach and he had a screening and he said, "Why don't you come see the footage?"  I remember being slightly taken aback by seeing my own moving self on the screen and sort of having sense of maybe even detachment, of, 'Is that person on the screen really me?'  So, I tapped into those memories for that scene.
 
LMD:  "The Woodsman in the Rain" follows the story of a young director making his first film.  You have directed a film, "Toad's Oil", but it's only been the one and I wondered why that was, and did you relate to any of the struggles of the young director in the film?
 
KY:  For my first film, I had a much better crew, so it was a lot more fun.  But it is true that in my first film I was a little taken aback by what it means when you're a director; that you constantly have to make decisions about everything right now.
 
LMD:  Did your experience as director change your perspective as an actor?
 
KY:  Yes, my directing experience did significantly affect myself as an actor.  Before I had directed, I would just come on to the set as an actor, and on some intellectual level, I understood how much work went into creating a set and how much the crew worked hard to prep it.  But having now done that once as a director, having directed the whole crew to prepare the set and how much work it takes for them to bring it all together and also having done that work, {I understand} how much expectation they have of the kind of performance that the actors are going to deliver.  For me, I really feel like I have to be on my toes constantly because the crew is your best friend as an actor, but also they'll see right through you if you're taking shortcuts.
 
LMD:  I had the honour of speaking with your mentor, the great actor, Tatsuya Nakadai some time ago and I asked him what it was that gave actors of his generation like himself and Toshiro Mifune such a strong, masculine, larger-than life presence onscreen?  He said it was because they'd all grown up watching Marlon Brando.  You also have that same commanding presence that those actors do.  Who did you watch that inspired you?

KY:  Certainly, I grew up watching Mifune-san and Nakadai-san, but in terms of international actors -- and of course I'm conscious of Brando -- but definitely it was the Robert De Niro of Taxi Driver and The Godfather Part 2.
 
LMD:  You are one of the rare Japanese actors that is recognised in the West and has made a number of notable films outside of Japan.  I wondered about the comparisons of making films in the West versus filming in Japan?  Is there a comfort level that's different?  Does it interfere with your approach as an actor?
 
KY:  Well, the language... {Laughs}  Actually, I would say other than the slight inconvenience of having to have a translator translate the director's words, it's not really all that different.  I mean, no matter how big a Hollywood film it is, in general, there's only one or two cameras, and mostly the crew is doing something similar, and Japanese soundmen look more or less like international soundmen, and the lighting crew is kind of the same.  So it feels comfortable in that sense.
 
LMD:  Is it important for you to appear in international productions?
 
KY:  As long as the part is right for me, then I am interested.
 
LMD:  I've spoken to many young Japanese actors who want so much to make films abroad.  What advice would you give them?
 
KY:  Certainly, I would encourage them to spread their wings and try acting abroad, but I think it's also important for them to act in their own country's films.  I think there is a limit to the number of roles that are being written for Japanese actors in international films, so don't give up on your own film industry.
 
LMD:  You've played in so many different film genres, is there one that is particularly close to your heart, or one that you would like to explore further?

KY:  I feel that period films, jidaigeki, or what you would call samurai films here, it's so hard to make them now.  It's a very distinctly Japanese genre that was built up especially by the crews over the years and they're all now really quite old men.  I think that genre needs to be constantly being made if we're not to lose their wisdom and their expertise.
 
LMD:  What is next for Kôji Yakusho?
 
KY:  My new film that's directed by Masayuki Suo, who directed Shall We Dance? will be out this fall, and I'll be starring in another samurai film this winter.
 
Bonus Question from Kôji Yakusho's Japan Society Q&A:
 
LMD:  You've mentioned the samurai film is very dear to you.  Can you tell us why and how the samurai film can appeal to younger audiences today?
 
KY:  The samurai film is getting harder and harder to make in Japan; they're expensive and it seems to be according to some research that Japanese young people don't relate to them as much anymore.  But what's happening is the people who really carry that legacy of the knowledge of how to really make the nuts and bolts of how to make a samurai film, they're getting older and passing on, and the samurai film has such a powerful place in Japanese cinema.  I really feel that we need to learn from the people who are moving on before it's too late.  When I was growing up, we played samurai when we were kids with swords.  Young Japanese kids don't play that anymore, so when the actors are training for the sword scenes, they have to start from scratch.  But I really feel that it's a legacy that needs to be protected in Japan.  Also, there are so many historical characters, fictional and real, from our Japanese past that could actually be so empowering.  Their stories, their lives could be so empowering for Japanese people today and that's another reason why they're important.
 
~ The Lady Miz Diva
July 20th, 2012
 
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