Perfect Days (2023)

Written by:
James Greenberg
Share This:

Everyone obviously has a different idea of what constitutes a perfect day, but it is unlikely that anyone other than the hero of Wim Wenders’ remarkable new film, “Perfect Days,” would think that it’s cleaning toilets in Tokyo. Pared down to the basics and simplified to almost a parable, the film pauses to observe and savor the everyday pleasures of a life well lived. The beauty of the movie is that ordinary things may very well look different to you after seeing it.

In some ways, Wenders’ 50-year cinematic roadtrip in search of historical roots, personal identity, and the perfect rock ’r’ roll song has always been leading to “Perfect Days.” He started out as one of the wunderkind of the New German Cinema and his early films, including “Summer in the City” (1971), dedicated to the Kinks, “Alice in the Cities” (1974), and “Kings of the Road” (1976), presented a post-war wanderlust and love of American pop culture. He later moved seamlessly from features like the much-acclaimed “Paris, Texas” (1984), about a lost soul (a haunted Harry Dean Stanton) looking for redemption in suburban America, to documentaries as varied as “Buena Vista Social Club” (1999), about Cuban music, and “Pina” (2001), a 3-D tribute to the late German choreographer Pina Bausch.

After a lifetime of creating a collection of restless characters longing to escape themselves, their country and even their present incarnation (“Wings of Desire,” [1987], follows an angel who wants to be human), Wenders has arrived at “Perfect Days” with a hero who is totally content and not going anywhere.

“Perfect Days” is written by Wenders and Japanese poet Takuma Takasaki and blessed with a performance of great subtly and warmth by veteran actor Koji Yakusho, who makes the director’s vision not only possible but believable.

Hirayama (Yakusho), a dignified middle-aged man, has made peace with his life. He does practically the same thing everyday. He welcomes the day with a smile in his tiny and well-ordered Tokyo apartment, puts on his blue jumpsuit, gathers the tools of his trade and heads out to clean public restrooms, each one seemingly a well-designed architectural gem of convenience and cleanliness. Given the differences between Japanese and Western culture, these are not the hideous and filthy pit stops that we are accustomed to in this country.

To be sure it’s not a glamorous job but it suits Hirayama perfectly. Each morning as he drives to work he pops a tape into his cassette player, usually a classic rock tune—“House of the Rising Sun,” “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”—that sets the tone for the day. On his lunch break—always in the same park—there is something reassuring and life affirming about the way he looks up through the branches of a tree. We are invited to see the world as he does.

Hirayama is a man of few words and for the first half of the film he barely speaks as the sights, sounds and people of Tokyo are reflected on his open, receptive face. From his vantage point he observes characters racing through their lives. A young goofy assistant worker drags him to a store where music cassettes are the hot new thing and introduces him to his would-be girlfriend who finds Hirayama infinitely more interesting than the boy, which, of course, he is.

He is clearly intelligent, likes to read—everything from William Faulkner to Patricia Highsmith—and visits a used bookstore weekly. His other passion is nature photography, mostly trees, for which he lovingly uses an old analogue camera. He has years of exceptional work neatly filed and stored in his apartment, documents of his days on the planet.

These are the parameters of his life, which Wenders lingers over, in no hurray to speed things along or get to the end of a car chase. This is a very skilled director at work, and it is an impressive feat that he’s able to keep the momentum of the film going as he focuses on moments rather than events. Scenes don’t so much have beginnings and ends as they start and stop, as things tend to do in the real world.

In his younger days, Hirayama could perhaps have been one of Wenders’ footloose heroes and there is an elegiac and wistful undertone as his story slowly unfolds. One senses that his equanimity has been hard won, but some cracks start to show as the outside world intrudes.

Returning home late one night, Hirayama’s teenage niece Niko (Arisa Nakano), whom he hasn’t seen in many years, appears out of the blue on his doorstep. She is a kid balanced between two worlds—the well-to-do home she’s run away from and her uncle’s pared down existence. Hirayama is kind to her and able to roll with the disruption, to a point, and they find some joy in each other’s company bicycling around the city, until Niko is abruptly retrieved by her mother, Hirayama’s long-estranged sister.

After they have gone, Hirayama’s memories, presumably of an unhappy youth and a judgmental family, come rushing back in a flood of emotions he is not used to. In a deeply felt and cathartic moment, he breaks down and cries over what’s been lost. You can tell exactly what he’s thinking and feeling.

Life goes on but other events seem to find him in his newly vulnerable state. An encounter with a dying man makes him wonder about the meaning of his life and the shadows and light around him. In a way, Wenders’ film is built around this interplay of light and dark. Sunlit parks, public landmarks and freeways give a feeling of city life by day; at night Hirayama’s dreams are a running track of shadowy images racing through the back of his mind. (Wenders employs a Japanese photographic technique called komorebi to capture the ephemeral effect of light and shadow created by swaying leaves.) The use of color is precise and purposeful throughout with much of the film bathed in a warm blue hue.

Another word about Yakusho’s extraordinary performance, for which he won the best actor award at Cannes. He calls to mind a great silent film actor with his face processing emotions with the sincerity of Chaplin and the pathos of Keaton. The last scene in which he is trying to recompose himself after the events of the past few days is one of the most moving pieces of film acting I’ve seen in a long time.

Hirayama is driving to work as the sun rises. He selects the cassette he wants for this moment in time and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” comes on. With her husky voice and smoky delivery, the song is incredibly powerful on its own as she sings “a new dawn/a new day/and I’m feeling good.” In the course of the next few minutes, Hirayama’s eyes well up and his face registers all the sadness and the joy and miracle of being alive, which is pretty much how life is sometimes.

Although I was unable to attend South by Southwest in person this year, I’ll hop aboard the hot 2024 publicist-thanking...
While the historical-clips-plus-talking-heads style of this documentary may be conventional, its subject was anything but: namely FLOTUS Lady Bird Johnson’s...
“You can’t stop the production just because somebody dies.” So says Pinny Grylls, co-director of the singular (and 2024 SXSW...
Search CultureVulture