By Beatrice Loayza.
Published in Cinema Scope #96 (Fall 2023).
Is Wim Wenders back? If he is, I’m not sure it’s such a good thing. Perfect Days, the tenth film by the German director to compete at Cannes, is a working-class yarn about the pleasantly banal routines of a toilet cleaner named Hirayama (Yakusho Koji), a beguiling loner with a beautiful soul who is harbouring a trauma that is never fully articulated by the film. Sound familiar? Hirayama is a throwback Wenders Man, resembling, most flatteringly, the characters played by Rüdiger Vogler in the director’s breakout films Alice in the Cities (1974), Wrong Move (1975), and Kings of the Road (1976), and Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis in Paris, Texas (1984). The new film’s balance of natural splendour and urban congestion, as well as the long drives scored by a jukebox of American hits from the ’60s and ’70s, is classic Wenders as well, as is the film’s attention to Hirayama’s sleep patterns, with fluttering black-and-white dream sequences that signify the tight-lipped protagonist’s rich inner life.
Throughout the past two to three decades, Wenders’ narrative work has left much to be desired. His moody, pointedly philosophical melodramas have been flat, bizarrely written, and overstuffed with nutty personalities and cloying affectations. At best, they represent a period of (failed) experimentation, an inclination underscored by the director’s turn to 3D cinematography beginning with 2011’s Pina. (Anselm, a corny but formally accomplished 3D documentary about the artist Anselm Kiefer, was the second Wenders appearance at this year’s Cannes.) Perfect Days, by comparison, is simple, a focused character study that is sustained by Yakusho’s controlled performance. Wenders’ mawkish impulses, together with a register of gentle propriety and restraint, reads like an approximation of the humanist Japanese drama exemplified by the films of one of Wenders’ cinematic lodestars, Ozu Yasujiro.
Perfect Days is Wenders’s third feature connected to Japan, following the Ozu documentary Tokyo-Ga (1985) and Notebooks on Cities and Clothes (1989), a profile of fashion designer Yamamoto Yohji. While it’s clearly a narrative film, employing Wenders’ regular beats at a brisker, more quaint and optimistic pitch than usual, there’s a documentary element to it as well, which also plays like another tribute to the marvels of Japanese craftsmanship. Wenders devised the film (which began as a commission) in connection with a glossy public initiative, the Tokyo Toilet project, which oversaw the construction of over a dozen new restrooms in the city’s Shibuya district. These aren’t just renovated restrooms, however—they’re essentially works of art, each one conceived of by a prominent designer with the goal of countering negative opinion about public potties in order to normalize their use. One scene, for instance, showcases the ingenuity of one of these restrooms, fashioned by the acclaimed architect Ban Shigeru. The glass walls of these stalls, each one a different colour of the rainbow, are translucent when unoccupied; when a stall is in use, the walls fog up, which Hirayama cheerfully demonstrates to a confused English-speaking tourist.
Maybe this is just my surly inner New Yorker speaking, but I growled at the improbably pristine state of the bathrooms while watching the film. I’ve no problem believing that the public facilities in the Shibuya district, one of the capital’s major business and tourist hubs, are indeed scrupulously maintained, encouraging good behaviour among their patrons. But in the context of the film itself, which purports to capture a broader range of the city, the cleanliness felt too much like a fiction meant to prop up a stereotypically Zen-chic vision of urban Japan, for which any trace of bodily discharge would seem like a glitch from another universe.
All of this made a bit more sense after I read about the film’s PSA dimensions, which drew my attention to the parallels between Wenders and Takasaki Takuma’s script and the Tokyo Toilet project’s mission statement. Hirayama tends to most, if not all, of the gleaming facilities/objets d’art, though his tremendous work ethic is attributed to his exceptional nature rather than the ideals set out by the initiative. (The project’s website states that each of the toilets are cleaned three times a day, and undergo monthly checks and various other scrupulous inspection processes.) Hirayama’s co-worker, Takashi (Emoto Tokio), a goofy slacker a few decades his junior, pokes fun at Hirayama’s dedication, mocking the special cleaning tools that he purchased himself as well as his neat uniform, a cute navy jumpsuit worn by all members of the project’s cleaning staff. These stylish outfits are described on the project’s website as part of the effort to destigmatize the job itself—they were designed by Nigo, the artistic director of the luxury label Kenzo.
The film’s claim to profundity hinges in part on Hirayama’s sober commitment to the task—his belief that what he’s doing genuinely matters—against the widely held belief that janitorial work is at the scummy bottom of the occupational totem pole. Wenders beseeches us to imagine Hirayama happy, which, like Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016), is easily achieved when even the grimmest settings have their charms, and the so-called simple life is put forth as a mannered—and self-congratulatory—kind of poetry. Hirayama understands the great beauty and dignity of life’s simple pleasures—listening to music, taking photographs, reading a good novel before drifting off to sleep—activities that Wenders shows him performing in solitude almost daily. Yakusho’s world-weary gaze instill these routines with a melancholy that is later somewhat explained by the brief appearance of people from Hirayama’s past life. When his sister arrives to retrieve her teenage daughter—who had run away to stay with her “favourite” uncle—it’s obvious by her clothes and chauffeured vehicle that Hirayama’s family comes from wealth, and that Hirayama has detached himself from them out of some kind of ascetic resolve. “Is it true you’re cleaning toilets now?” his sister asks, incredulous that he could willfully stoop to such a living.
Takashi, a broke idiot who watches YouTube videos as he cleans the toilets (one hand grips the sponge, the other his phone), is a millennial punching bag opposite Hirayama’s wizened working-class hero, a comment on the termite-brained younger generation’s contempt for tradition and discipline. Most egregiously, at least for a nostalgic like Wenders, when Takashi discovers Hirayama’s extensive cassette tape collection, his immediate thought is to cash them in at a trendy record store—he, of course, doesn’t realize that you can’t put a price tag on Lou Reed. Hirayama is something of a reactionary angel, silently preaching the gospel of a more meaningful life culled from the practices of yore.
It helps that Hirayama is sexless, yet adorable: there will be no funny business between him and Takashi’s crush, a sex worker by implication, when she approaches him wanting to listen to his cassette collection. Thanks to him, she has found her new obsession, Patti Smith’s “Redondo Beach.” (“Is this on Spotify?” she asks him, bizarrely—is this supposed to be a dig at inferior audio formats?) When Hirayama’s teenage niece crashes at his place, he insists on sleeping in the storage room, scurrying away, somewhat scandalized, when she moves to change from her pajamas to her day clothes in front of him; later, he’ll inadvertently introduce her to William Faulkner. I find the myth of such a being condescending, with Hirayama’s reticence a shorthand for a vibrant interiority which we’re all too willing to read as a universalizing Goodness—the kind we might intuitively feel when we, like Hirayama in the final scene, listen to a favourite song that makes us sad and happy and convinced of something preternaturally deep within the sounds and lyrics. With people, however, there’s usually a reason that one avoids the particulars.
Germany, Japan, Perfect Days, Wim Wenders