Friday, July 20, 2012

No American Comparison For Japan's Leading Living Actor

Koji Yakusho. Photo by Kazuto Suetake.

While our JAPAN CUTS roundup last week only touched on this weekend's mini-retrospective honoring living Japanese screen legend Koji Yakusho, today's New York Times carries an extensive critic's notebook by Mike Hale heralding the arrival of Yakusho to NYC:
Few people know more about movies, or have a more prominent place in the world of Japanese film, than Koji Yakusho... Regularly cited over the last 15 years as Japan’s leading actor… Mr. Yakusho’s name is not familiar in the United States, but many American filmgoers, whether they know it or not, have seen his long, wonderfully expressive face and his full head of floppy black (now graying) hair.
Born Koji Hashimoto in 1956, the former municipal government worker became interested in acting after seeing a production of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths. In a nod to his previous career, he took the stage name Yakusho, which means “municipal ward office” in Japanese. After studying at the prestigious Mumeijyuku acting studio, he landed the role of historical figure Oda Nobunaga in the popular NHK series Tokugawa Ieyasu (1983). The role made him a household name in Japan and launched his career in television and film. While best known to foreign audiences for the Hollywood films Memoirs of a Geisha and Babel, his career spans an immense collection of dignified work.

Due to the sheer volume of titles (over 70 films in 33 years), Yakusho does not appear to have any contemporaries in the West. When considering similar U.S. leading men, the staff at Japan Society couldn't decide: DeNiro, Eastwood, Redford and Hanks all seemed to align themselves to various aspects of Yakusho's persona and career. In the end, there was just no comparison.

Even among his peers in Japan, Yakusho stands out for the range of quality films and television dramas. The latter half of the 1990s was his most audacious period and solidified his reputation as Japan’s premier actor. First came the feel-good hit Shall We Dance? (1996), which inspired a dance craze in Japan and a Richard Gere Hollywood remake. The film’s popularity no doubt stemmed from Yakusho’s performance as a worn-out salary man who finds renewed vigor and lust for life when he enrolls in a late night dance class.

Following that triumph, he starred in a drastically different role in Shohei Imamura’s Palm d’Or-winning The Eel (1997). Imamura, one of the maverick directors from the Japanese New Wave of the 1960s, cast Yakusho as a man on the path to redemption following the murder of his adulterous wife. He won a Japanese Academy Award for both performances. 1997 also marked the release of A Lost Paradise, based on the novel by Junichi Watanabe. It features Yakusho as a middle-aged man who has an affair with a woman twenty years younger, ending in tragedy. The film came in second to Hiyao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke at the Japanese box office and critics universally praised his performance. That year he also won the prestigious Hochi Film Award for Best Actor for Bounce Ko Gal, a topical film that dealt with high school prostitution. Yet again that year, Yakusho began his collaboration with Kiyoshi Kurosawa with Cure, in which he played an emotionally repressed detective searching for a deranged serial killer. Further films with Kurosawa include the horror-thrillers Charisma, Kairo (a.k.a. Pulse), and Doppleganger .
Koji Yakusho appears tonight at JAPAN CUTS' New York Premiere screening of his latest film The Woodsman and the Rain, followed by a Q&A session and reception. The actor also appears at the July 21 screening of his hit samurai film 13 Assassins. JAPAN CUTS also presents Yakusho’s Shall We Dance?, Chronicle of My Mother, and Cure.

Recently Yakusho directed and starred in the film Toad’s Oil, also screening at JAPAN CUTS a drama about a greedy day trader whose son has a serious accident that results in a coma. Faced with a challenge that cannot be solved by money, Yakusho’s character begins an exploration of emotions and challenges that are new to him. The film received enthusiastically positive reviews from critics and one wonders if the next stage of Yakusho’s career will emulate that of Clint Eastwood or his Japanese contemporary Takeshi Kitano. Considering his long list of accomplishments, it would not be surprising if this versatile actor became one of World Cinema’s preeminent director-performers as well.

--Lyle Sylvander

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