You wouldn’t expect an award-winning acting role to come from something called the Tokyo Toilet Project, but that’s what happened for veteran Japanese actor Kôji Yakusho. The project, which involved bringing in artists and designers to create 17 special public toilets in advance of the Olympics in 2021, was originally going to involve a series of short films, and financier Koji Yanai asked Yakusho if he’d participate.
“I said, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting. I’d love to be a part of it,’” Yakusho said in Japanese through a translator. “And then they said they were going to ask director Wim Wenders, and I thought, ‘Oh, there’s no way he’s gonna say yes.’”
But Wenders, whose films include “Paris, Texas,” “Wings of Desire” and “Pina,” did say yes, and the series of shorts turned into the feature “Perfect Days,” Japan’s entry in this year’s Oscars international race. The film is a gentle and moving character study of Hirayama, an elderly man who happily cleans toilets for a living, with Yakusho delivering a performance of few words but great dignity and grace.
“There weren’t a lot of lines in this film and it wasn’t really about the lines,” he said. “So that really piqued my curiosity when I saw the script. And when we started shooting, it felt like we were shooting a documentary of my life, or rather Hirayama’s life,” said Yakusho. “There were no rehearsals, we would just go straight into shooting takes. It felt almost voyeuristic in a way that was very different from everything I had done until then.”
He paused. “These kind of films don’t actually get made very often in Japan. I think this might be like the last time that it happens. I feel like I had a rare and fantastic experience.”
Yakusho was worried that audiences in Japan, where he’s been well-known since starring in the hit “Shall We Dance?” in 1996, wouldn’t accept him as a cleaner. “Wim wanted to cast someone that felt like a real janitor,” he said. “For me to come across like that, I think, is very difficult. But I hope I was able to do it, and come across not like an actor, but like one of those janitors at the toilets.”
He succeeded in that well enough to win the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, where “Perfect Days” premiered. But that doesn’t mean Yakusho, who has appeared in the international films “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Babel”in the past, is ready to pursue a career outside Japan at the age of 67.
“I don’t speak English well,” he said. “I don’t avoid being in foreign films, but I think the best way of getting people to see me is for me to make films in Japan. If people see a Japanese film that I’m in and love the film and love me, maybe that’s great for Japanese films as well as for myself.”
Still, he admits that working with a non-Japanese director like Wenders has its perks. “Actors and filmmakers of my generation are very familiar with his work and look up to him,” he said. “I think everybody’s jealous that I got to act in this film.”
And as for the many viewers outside Japan who’ve watched “Perfect Days” and wondered if all the public toilets in Tokyo country are spotless works of art … Well, the answer is no. “They’re very unusual in Japan as well,” he said. “These toilets were designed by world famous architects and artists. And these 17 toilets are also cleaned three times a day, which I don’t think happens in any public toilet anywhere else in Japan, that’s for sure. But Mr. Yanai created these toilets as part of preparation for the Tokyo Olympics to show the Japanese spirit of of hospitality. He put forward the idea and used his pocket money, his spare change, I guess you could say.” He laughed. “And he continues this effort today, which I really respect. But you’ll never see such clean toilets or such beautiful toilets anywhere else in Japan.”
And how hard was it to learn how to clean those toilets up to their standards?
“One of the staff members from the Tokyo Toilet Project taught me for two days how to clean the toilets,” he said. “And then he came to set every day that we had a scene that took place at a toilet. That was really helpful. After the shoot, they told me, ‘Hey, you can start working at our company tomorrow if you like.’”
A version of this story first appeared in the International Feature Film issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.