Koji Yakusho is one of Japan's most gifted and popular leading men. Whether playing a befuddled white-collar worker struggling to master the two-step or a burned-out police detective trying to unlock a series of bizarre murders, Yakusho's combination of handsome "everyman" looks and natural screen presence make him the actor of choice for many of Japan's leading directors, including Juzo Itami, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Shohei Imamura.
Born Koji Hashimoto, Yakusho graduated from a technical high school in Nagasaki and got a job as a civil servant in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo. In 1976, he became obsessed with theater after his friend gave him a ticket to see Donzoko by Maxim Gorky. His first big break was being chosen out of 800 applicants to study at the Mumei-juku (Studio for Unknown Performers) run by noted actor and '60s icon Tatsuya Nakadai. Because of his experience as a civil servant, Nakadai gave him the stage name Yakusho, which can mean either "municipal office" or "acting versatility." In 1983, he got a major role as feudal warrior Oda Nobunaga in a TV miniseries about the life of the first Shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa. Later, he played the Man in the White Suit, who gleefully transgresses all social norms involving food and sex in some of the most memorable scenes of Juzo Itami's Tampopo (1986).
For much of the '80s and early '90s, Yakusho appeared in a handful of films, along with a number of television shows, until he landed the lead in Shall We Dance? (1996), in which his awkward missteps on the dance floor and shy attempts at getting to know the object of his affection seemed to embody the typical Tokyo office worker. His performance clearly struck a chord with audiences, as it was the biggest film of the year in Japan and one of the highest-grossing Japanese movies abroad. In 1997, he solidified his standing as a leading man in three of that year's most popular and talked-about films. As Yamashita in Shohei Imamura's prize-winning Unagi, Yakusho delivered a masterfully deadpan performance as an ex-con trying to reconstruct his life after murdering his wife. In Yoshimitsu Morita's popular Shitsurakuen, the second-highest grossing film of the year after the record-breaking Mononoke Hime (1997), Yakusho played a middle-aged editor who falls into a passionate, self-destructive relationship with a married woman. Finally, in cult favorite Cure, directed by maverick auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Yakusho brilliantly played a cop pushed to the edge of the abyss by his search for a string of seemingly unconnected murders. Since then, Yakusho has teamed up with Kurosawa for License to Live (1998) and Charisma (1999).