Perfect Days is a Late-Career Masterwork from Wim Wenders

Koji Yakusho plays Hirayama in Wim Wenders Perfect Days, a quiet man who lives a life in solitude, working with great pride as a public toilet cleaner. We meet him as he starts his daily routine where he wakes next to his library of literature, rolling his shikibuton away before tending to his room of saplings. He trims his moustache ever so finely, then dresses in his Tokyo Toilet uniform with a comforting towel tucked around his neck before heading out the front door with the sense of optimism that comes with the promise of a new day. After purchasing a coffee from the vending machine outside his apartment, he slips into his van and shuffles through his audio cassette collection, selecting from the musical stylings of The Animals, Lou Reed, Otis Redding, Van Morrison, to surround his space before driving to the first facility on his route to clean.

Perfect Days ambles forward with a quiet ease as Wenders uses the filmic form to reflect Hirayama’s introspective nature, in turn, encouraging the audience to peer into their own internal world. Hirayama is a man who embraces the quiet harmony that comes with an ordered routine, rarely talking as he lets the world around him nourish his spirit. Moments of comfort slip into his workflow – a lunchtime sojourn in the park sees Hirayama observing the trees as they eek their way further into the sky, photographing the light slipping through their leaves, leading to the occasional capture of rare brilliance (a post credits still explains the Japanese word for this act, untranslatable to English) – and as they do, we see why Hirayama is an insular soul. This is his version of a rich, full life. Cinematographer Franz Lustig respects Hirayama’s personal space, following his daily routine in an intimate and curious fashion, giving just enough distance to feel like we’re not imposing.

Koji Yakusho presents the internal mindset of Hirayama with an informed ease: a slight smile emerges after he finishes a novel, the barely perceptible slow blink of satisfaction that arrives after leaving a toilet in immaculate condition, or the sense of relaxation that he feels when he bathes himself after a day of work. So comfortable is Koji Yakusho’s turn as Hirayama that it’s easy to feel the actor and the character merge into one, with both having decades of life experience that have formed a considered spirit who does what he can to enrich the days of others, while also being keenly aware of his limits and the limits of what he can do for his fellow citizen.

Perfect Days is tonally adjacent to Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson and David Lynch’s The Straight Story, and like those films, Wim Wenders subdued experience is one that’s free from pointed moments of drama or tension. There’s no grand reveal about how Hirayama came to live a life of solitude, nor does his sense of wellbeing and comfort ever get truly threatened. Instead, Hirayama weathers Tokio Emoto’s chaotic and energetic co-worker Takashi, a character who embodies chaotic energy of the bulldog in Paterson. Takashi’s work ethic is minimal, as he struggles to understand why anybody would dedicate time, energy, and care to the act of cleaning a toilet, especially when he has a date with a ‘nine out of ten’ girl to rush off to, Aya (Aoi Yamada).

Takashi’s disordered life disrupts the flow of Perfect Days ever so slightly as his eagerness to wrap up work and kick on with Aya, who is clearly uninterested with him, is thwarted by his scooter sputtering out. After cajoling Hirayama into letting him use his van, Takashi drives off on his date as Hirayama sits in the back as an unexpected third wheel. Takashi pokes and probes at Hirayama’s life with a dismissive line of questioning; it’s not cruel, but it does show how difficult it is for Takashi to empathise with the life of others and to see why Hirayama would want to live the life of a toilet cleaner.

In some ways, Takashi acts as a surrogate for a certain demographic of the audience, the ones that would ask just why you’d want to watch a film about someone cleaning toilets. In the short description for the film, you can almost anticipate the dismissive jokes, but it’s within that description that part of Wim Wenders intention for Perfect Days emerges. Here, Wenders wants you to consider the toilet. Specifically, he wants you to consider what a clean public toilet does to your mind, and by extension, what creative architecture does as well. For many, the use of a toilet is something that requires a level of alternative preoccupation that takes your mind off the action at hand – flitting endlessly on your phone, to think about your day, reading a book, or even engaging in toilet yoga. Equally so, we’re often put into a state of alertness or apprehension when we’re using a public toilet: what state of cleanliness will the toilet be in? Will there be other people? How do I limit the sounds of my bodily functions? Effectively, it’s hard to relax in a public toilet, yet that’s something that we see Hirayama do as he moves through his routine.

Perfect Days is the creative result of Wim Wenders invitation by Yanai Kōjito (president of Fast Retailing) to observe the Tokyo Toilet Project, an initiative that saw public toilets in Shibuya undergo a redesign to change the publics perception of what a public toilet is. The toilets themselves are stunning creations that invite investigation, curiosity, and even a touch of play. As Hirayama cleans the Yoyogi Fukamachi Mini Park toilets, a user asks him in a concerned manner how they use them. When he shows them how the glass changes from transparent to opaque at the push of a button, she laughs loudly, pushing the button herself. In the opaque toilet, her laughter continues to ring forth, amplifying the absolute joy that creative design can bring forth.

Perfect Days acts in harmony with this initiative, adding to the appreciation of great art and architecture, acknowledging the role they play on our daily state of mind becoming the thematic backbone to the film. As Hirayama navigates his route, he sees the Tokyo Skytree towering over the city. He neither rejects nor reveres the Skytree, merely observing the artificiality of its bright lights as they blink in the darkness of the night, conjuring a version of the rare brilliance that Hirayama waits patiently for during his lunch break. The motif of the Skytree plays against the presence of trees, shown by the saplings that Hirayama delicately tends to in his home. In a sea of buildings, it’s unlikely that these trees will ever reach their mammoth heights, but for Hirayama in his own personal forest, their presence is nurturing enough.

Hirayama’s toilet cleaning moves in synch with his appreciation of music and literature. During the chaotic date, Aya slips on Patti Smith’s Horses, an album that instantly resonates with the young woman. Later, the two share a moment of connection where Hirayama recognises the manner that Aya sees herself in Smith’s vocals. It’s a scene that, in less assured hands, could have slipped into complicated territory, but here, it’s evidence of how eagerly Wenders seeks out the best in people.

Hirayama absorbs novels regularly, picking up classics for a dollar. He sleeps with the tome next to his head, as if the words will permeate further into his mind. Nature and literature fill his subconsciousness, giving us the deepest glimpse into how Hirayama sees the world: harmonious, learned, and culturally enriched. Wenders flows into an experimental tone when Hirayama slips into sleep, where black and white images of sunlight flitting through the branches fill his mind, before he awakes and the function of his routine commences again.

Author Mr Hidesaburo Kagiyama has written about how ‘a clean environment leads to a clean spirit’, in that by striving for a clean environment at both work and home, the life of the cleaner is enriched, and by virtue, enriches others too. In later scenes where Hirayama supports his runaway niece, Niko (Arisa Nakano), as she seeks her own form of routine away from her solipsistic mother, we’re able to fully appreciate just how transient the impact of Hirayama’s clean spirit is. While Niko is not in his life frequently, his lifestyle resonates in her mind, and when she joins Hirayama on his route, she sees the way to her own personal path to comfort and spiritual cleanliness. It’s in these scenes that Hirayama is at his most expressive, seeing himself in the young Niko and finding comfort in the family life that he has been shut off from.

Koji Yakusho received the Best Actor award at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, a worthy recipient in a year where similarly gentle films like Anh Hung Tran’s The Taste of Things (Best Director) and Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves (Jury Prize) were also recognised. Like these magnificent works from modern masters, Perfect Days invites continued consideration and thought long after it’s finished and is a welcome late-career masterwork from Wim Wenders.

Director: Wim Wenders

Cast: Koji Yakusho, Tokio Emoto, Arisa Nakano

Writers: Wim Wenders, Takuma Takasaki

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Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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