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Perfect Days Is a Gently Astonishing Film About Finding Joy in Everyday Life

7 minute read

The more complex and threatening the greater world seems, the more we seek to patrol the borders of our own lives. If you spend any time at all on social media, or even if you don’t, you might feel as if you’re doing modern life all wrong if you’re not decluttering your house, editing your closet down to a single beige capsule, carving out meditation time in the middle of a stressful day. The pressure to live simply is almost unbearable.

The antidote is Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days, a movie as transcendent as a zephyr. The extraordinary Japanese actor Koji Yakusho plays Hirayama, whose life, it may seem at first, is defined by his job: he cleans public toilets in Tokyo, and every day he zips himself into a blue jumpsuit (The Tokyo Toilet is emblazoned across the back, jaunty as the name of a sports team), retrieves his keys and flip phone from a narrow shelf in the entryway of his compact apartment, and drives through the city making his rounds. To New Yorkers, in particular, the toilet facilities under Hirayama’s purview probably look pretty clean to begin with. Even so, he polishes mirrors to a sterling gleam, wipes down faucets and levers with care, and inspects a toilet’s underside with a small mirror to ensure he's scrubbed every inch of it.

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It's not so much that Hirayama is dedicated to his job; it’s more that the ritual of doing it right means something to him. Besides that, his workday is so much more than work. He takes lunch in a public park, noting the tracery of leaves against the sky, maybe even snapping a picture of it with the small camera he carries with him. On his drive to work, and in the travel time between toilet facilities, his small van is filled with sound, music that pours from his cassette deck. The song might be the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” or the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” though it never plays all the way through—there’s a time for music and a time for cleaning toilets, and when Hirayama reaches his next destination, the singers’ voices are clipped off mid-phrase, the stories they’re telling left in a kind suspended animation.

All of this makes Perfect Days—which has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best International Feature category—sound like a simple exhortation to live in the moment, to take pleasure even in tasks that could be considered drudgery. There’s nothing wrong with summing it up that way; and yet doing so threatens to crush the delicate surface of this gently astonishing movie. Wenders—who cowrote the script with Takuma Takasaki—is one of those filmmakers you’ve got to keep your eye on. His 1987 Wings of Desire, made shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, told the story of an angel, played by a soulfully leonine Bruno Ganz, who observes the lives of humans from a high perch above Berlin, only to find himself longing to become human too. The film became a touchstone for a whole generation, speaking to the restlessness and longing that young people of the Reagan era believed to be exclusive to them, although of course it wasn’t. Not all of Wenders’ films over the years—and he’s made many—have had that kind of impact, but documentaries like the 2011 Pina (about choreographer and dancer Pina Bausch) and the more recent Anselm (about the sobering, ruminative work of painter Anselm Kiefer), both rendered in 3D, are proof of his adventurous spirit and his eye for evocative details.

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Perfect Days is like none of those films, at least in any strict sense. Yet there’s something inexplicably Wenders-like about it; he’s a filmmaker who looks for joy in the corners, and finds it. His lead actor is the perfect partner here. Yakusho is extremely famous in Japan; American audiences may have seen him in the 1996 art house hit Shall We Dance, or in Takashi Miike’s 2010 samurai bloodbath reverie 13 Assassins. His performance here is nearly wordless, reliant on his ability to listen rather than to simply react. When Hirayama leaves the house for the day, he greets the outside world with a quiet, inquisitive smile: What might be in store for him today? He seems tuned in to signals—from nature, from other human beings—that we too should be able to hear; somehow, in the clamor of our own specific and personal distractions, we’ve lost the ability, but Perfect Days suggests we can get it back.

The not-so-secret secret of Perfect Days is that no day is actually perfect, though each has a texture of its own. The pattern of leaves against the sky is never the same because the color of the air changes with the weather and the seasons. Some days, probably often, Hirayama’s lackadaisical co-worker Takashi (played, wonderfully, by Tokio Emoto, as chaotic as an unmade bed) will show up late—and then one day he quits, without giving notice, and we see the exasperation on Hirayama’s face. He’s neither a saint nor a pushover.

And although Hirayama spends most of his free time alone, reading in the evenings, tenderly misting his plants in the morning, he’s alive to others who enter his orbit: there’s Aya (Aoi Yamada), with her blonde Louise Brooks bob, the bar girl with whom Takashi is infatuated, who hears Patti Smith’s “Redondo Beach” for the first time on one of Hirayama’s tapes and instantly falls in love with it—the only appropriate response, and one that marks her as a kindred soul to Hirayama, and maybe to us. Hirayama at first seems like an eternal loner, but he does have a family. One day his teenage niece, Niko (Arisa Nakano), shows up unannounced, having run away from home. This episode gives us a whispering glimpse into Hirayama’s possible past, though we still know so little about him beyond his relationship with the here and now.

In Perfect Days, that’s all that matters. On Hirayama’s day off—the only day he wears a watch, which on workdays is left safe at home on his shelf—he cycles to a small bookstore for fresh reading material. The owner knows him, and she’s happy to share a conspiratorial observation about the gifts of, say, Patricia Highsmith or midcentury Japanese novelist Aya Kōda. As evening approaches, he cycles to a small restaurant, where the hostess also knows him; she passes him free drinks, while the other customers grumble about having to pay. A little later, she’ll sing a song in Japanese, immediately recognizable as a version of “House of the Rising Sun.” Her voice is like pale amber honey, the color of regret—we want to hear all of this song, but it too drifts away before she can finish.

The idea, maybe, is that in seeking a comfortable closure—to a song, to a movie, to a random day—we’re looking for the wrong thing. That’s what Perfect Days, its title borrowed from one of the most beautiful songs Lou Reed ever wrote, is about. We seek meaning in everyday life, not realizing that life every day is the meaning.

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