Limited lines and background? Koji Yakusho saw the potential of ‘Perfect Days’

Koji Yakusho leans his elbow on a glass table, reflecting his face back to him, for a portrait.
Starring in Wim Wenders’ “Perfect Days,” Koji Yakusho found his role would have very little dialogue.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
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A popular figure in Japanese cinema over the past four decades, Koji Yakusho is pretty recognizable to most of his countrymen. It wasn’t a surprise then, that his portrayal of an everyday toilet cleaner in Wim Wenders’ “Perfect Days” was hard to hide from onlookers or the media. Especially as Wenders and his cinematographer Franz Lustig used a “documentary” approach to filming scenes in public.

“Most of the film cameras are hidden. And I’m standing by, holding my buckets and all of my gear, and a weekly paper got some pictures of me,” Yakusho says through a translator. “They saw me, and they took some pictures, and that became an article of ‘Why is this famous person holding these cleaning utensils?’ But I don’t think the general public noticed very much.”

In the original tale from legendary director and co-screenwriter Takuma Takasaki, Yakusho portrays Hirayama, a seemingly nondescript custodial worker in the Japanese capital who enjoys taking photos of trees in the park and listening to his extensive audiocassette collection. As the days progress, the audience witnesses his quiet interactions with Takashi (Tokio Emoto), a lazy 20-something co-worker, and Takashi’s street-smart girlfriend Aya (Aoi Yamada). When his teenage niece Niko (Arisa Nakano) arrives unexpectedly on his doorstep, it quickly becomes apparent there is more to Hirayama’s life story than meets the eye.

A man and young woman sit together on a park bench in "Perfect Days"
Koji Yakusho and Arisa Nakano star as a janitor and his niece in “Perfect Days.”
(Cannes Film Festival)

Wenders approached the now 67-year-old actor during a visit to Japan before he’d even written the script. All Yakusho knew was it would be a story about a janitor who works in the Tokyo Toilet Project, 17 well-maintained modern public toilets in Shibuya, Tokyo. Yakusho recalls thinking, “Wow, it sounds like there’s potential for a really unique, beautiful story.”

All Wenders told him to prepare for the role was to cut himself off from most of the outside world. Yakusho adds, “He was like, ‘Yeah, because Hirayama doesn’t have a TV, he doesn’t use the internet. He just lives in that simple way.’ And so he wanted me to prepare. But I did watch TV.”

When Yakusho finally received the script, he discovered his role was almost completely silent. He’d never played a part like this before, and it turned out to be “a lot of fun.” As there was no time for rehearsals, Wenders’ direction pretty much followed the screenplay over what was a super-tight 17-day shoot. Yakusho did some background work and spent two days training to clean these complicated toilets but found allies in the producers who wanted to know more about his character.

“They asked [Wenders] if he would share the background, and he said, ‘No, because it won’t help express anything. And if I have to speak more about this, then I don’t even want to make this film,’ something like that,” Yakusho says with a smile. “But they kept asking him, and eventually he relented and wrote a two or three-page memo that described the background of Hirayama. And so, for the second half of the shoot, I was able to use that to add some more meat to the bones, in a sense, for his character.”

Wim Wenders is enjoying a peak moment with two new films, the documentary ‘Anselm’ and the fictional drama ‘Perfect Days.’

Nov. 29, 2023


You might assume Yakusho would be concerned about Wenders tackling such an inherently Japanese story, but the actor soon realized how well the filmmaker understood how people live in old apartments in Japan, a very distinct lifestyle.

“The one thing that did kind of worry me was how they decided to light the plants in the room,” Yakusho says. “It felt like this weird lighting that was highlighting it almost like these were some marijuana plants that were found by the police or something. But I didn’t have any worries, because of the cultural differences. For example, when I was cleaning, he asked, ‘How would you clean the tatami mats?’ And I said, ‘Well, my grandmother used to wet the newspaper and put it out like this, and this is how we would clean it.’ He was really open to showing how things were really done.”

Following its premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, the film became Wenders’ best-reviewed film in decades and led to a best actor win for Yakusho from the in-competition jury.

Yakusho humbly remembers, “We were called to the ceremony, and we knew we were going to get something, and I think we all hoped it would be the Palme d’Or,” but they gave the Palme d’Or to another film, so I figured they thought, ‘Oh, well, we’ve got to give “Perfect Days” something.’ So, I got the best actor, and that’s why I think I’m the luckiest actor ever.”