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Perfect Days

A beautiful, humane film from Wim Wenders
Madman Entertainment
by
ABR Arts 25 March 2024

Perfect Days

A beautiful, humane film from Wim Wenders
Madman Entertainment
by
ABR Arts 25 March 2024
Koji Yakusho as Hirayama and Arisa Nakano as Niko (photograph courtesy of Madman Entertainment)
Koji Yakusho as Hirayama and Arisa Nakano as Niko (photograph courtesy of Madman Entertainment)

German director Wim Wenders was seventy-seven when he made Perfect Days, with thirty-four feature films under his belt. Perhaps it takes a filmmaker with so much work and life experience to make something as gently meditative as his latest offering.

Perfect Days centres on Hirayama (Koji Yakusho), a man not much younger than Wenders himself. He leads a simple life, and Wenders allows us to indulge in its quotidian details at leisure.

Hirayama cleans toilets in Tokyo, and he takes pride in his work, applying himself with great rigour. The unwavering methodology of his daily tasks extends to his routines before and after work. His breakfast never varies, and the journey to work is accompanied by a steady soundtrack of rock music from the 1960s and 1970s that Hirayama plays on old cassette tapes in his car. The nostalgic sounds of Patti Smith, Van Morrison, and Nina Simone contribute to his equilibrium.

The first song we hear is The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun. It plays as the sun rises over Tokyo during Hirayama’s morning commute. This literal reference sets the tone for a string of songs in which the lyrics mirror the weather, Hirayama’s mood, or the time of day. The film’s title derives from Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, which features at the end of a typical day for Hirayama, and it captures the simplicity of his existence.

Hirayama’s enthusiasm for music is matched by his love of literature. His modest home is furnished with books, and his nightly bedtime read is another part of his tightly structured regimen. We can divine that he gets his fill of drama vicariously through the books he reads and that he has no need for it in his life. As with the soundtrack, the book titles have literal references within the film. He reads William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms and the Aya Koda essay ‘Tree’, consistent with his fascination for photographing leaves with his old-fashioned Olympus camera (he also gazes upon Skytree tower each day). Patricia Highsmith’s The Terrapin could easily be interpreted as a description of his character and lifestyle.

Koji Yakusho as Hirayama in Perfect Days (photograph courtesy of Madman Entertainment)Koji Yakusho as Hirayama in Perfect Days (photograph courtesy of Madman Entertainment)

After each reading session there is a mesmerising dream sequence. These images fade in and out briefly and echo the day that has just passed, as if Hirayama’s subconscious is sorting his experiences and committing them to memory.

Hirayama rarely speaks. He utters a mere three sentences in the first hour of the film, leaving us to speculate about how he has come to this point in his life. Eventually, clues to his past are presented to us in the form of his niece, Niko (Arisa Nakano), who arrives unannounced and begins to accompany him on his daily work round.

Wenders has straddled documentary and fiction filmmaking throughout his career, and Perfect Days was originally conceived as a documentary. Wenders was invited to Tokyo to observe the Tokyo Toilet Project, in which Japanese public toilets were remodelled by a group of international designers. What was intended to be a short documentary on the uniqueness of the facilities developed into a narrative feature film when Wenders and co-screenwriter Takuma Takasaki introduced the character of Hirayama to the production.

It may be tempting to accuse Wenders of pandering to a national stereotype, perpetuating the view that the Japanese are an exceptionally clean people with a public toilet system that is commonly remarked upon for its impeccable hygiene. The toilets in the film would indeed be the envy of any nation, but Wenders’ depiction of Hirayama’s work environment is so candid it would be unfair to claim that there is anything reductive in his treatment of the subject.

This is not the first time Wenders has directed a film in Japan. His documentary Tokyo-Ga (1985) explored the Tokyo depicted in the films of Yasujirō Ozu, spanning the 1930s to 1960s, before the advancement of technology impacted on the traditional Japanese family. Wenders interviewed Ozu’s regular cinematographer Yûharu Atsuta in Tokyo-Ga. His visual style is a clear influence on director of photography Franz Lustig in the dream sequences that are interspersed throughout Perfect Days, and the film in general feels like a response and homage to the everyday lives depicted in Ozu’s work.

Tokyo-Ga was made at the peak of Wenders’ career, between his most revered films Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987). While his documentaries have remained at a high level – consider Buena Vista Social Club (1999), Pina (2011), and Salt of the Earth (2014) – none of the narrative features he has made in close to four decades resonate like Perfect Days. A younger Wenders showed a similar fondness for the simple life with Kings of the Road (1976), but not since then has he exhibited the self-assuredness to slow down and contemplate the world around him.

Wenders praises Ozu in Tokyo-Ga for creating stories that are quintessentially Japanese yet deal with themes that are universal. The same can be said of Perfect Days, which has become the veteran filmmaker’s biggest box-office success globally and was recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Film, marking the first time a German director has represented Japan in the category.

Perfect Days is such a beautiful, humane film, it feels like an antidote to so much of what we consume as entertainment on a regular basis. Wenders invites us to follow Hirayama’s lead, to slow down and appreciate the little things around us, and to forget how others may judge us for what we do or how we appear.

It’s hard not to be drawn into this blithe existence, especially as embodied by Yakusho, who won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival in 2023. He exudes an inner serenity that one cannot help but aspire to.


 

Perfect Days (Madman Entertainment) will be released nationally on 28 March 2024.

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