'Perfect Days' shows how a quiet life can have bold ambitions

Shot in Toyko, Wim Wenders' film pays homage to Ozu and other Japanese filmmaking giants. Critics say this could be the German filmmaker's best work yet.

A still from the movie 'Perfect Days'.
A still from the movie 'Perfect Days'.

'Perfect Days' shows how a quiet life can have bold ambitions

Renowned German filmmaker Wim Wenders has enjoyed an illustrious career with masterpieces such as Alice in the Cities, Wings of Desire, and The American Friend. His latest film, Perfect Days, was up for Best Foreign Language Film at last week's Oscars.

After the COVID-19 pandemic, he was invited to Tokyo to craft a short documentary to showcase a novel initiative to bring art to the city’s public toilets.

In making it, Wenders found inspiration well beyond his initial brief. He went on to make a full-length feature film, incorporating these aesthetically pleasing public conveniences into the narrative framework of a critically acclaimed film that many believe to be his best yet.

It is a comprehensive cinematic exploration of solitude, poignantly told through Hirayama—an elderly attendant of the public conveniences—brought to life with remarkable finesse by the esteemed Japanese actor Koji Yakusho.

The theme is in line with the zeitgeist of the pandemic, which may have formed part of the inspiration for the film. But regardless of how it came about, the film is clearly a high point in Wenders' career.

It is a testament to the successful collaborative synergy between Japan and Germany, marking one of the most fruitful joint production endeavours in recent years.

Yakusho’s performance won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.

He portrayed Hirayama's life as a tapestry of solitary routines, weaving through his meticulous devotion to the cleanliness of public restrooms, the simplicity of his dwelling, the solace found in music and literature, and the ephemeral interactions with characters that flit through the reflective entries he makes in the journal he keeps.

Homage to Ozu

As the two-hour film unfolds it is impossible overlook the aesthetic influence of Yasujiro Ozu, the unparalleled luminary of cinematic minimalism both in Japan and globally.

Known for his magnum opus Tokyo Story, which is less typical of that approach, this director also made The End of Summer, and Late Autumn which feature the same feeling of understated grace, as do An Autumn Afternoon and Good Morning.

In these works, life’s pivotal moments are met with a serene acceptance, echoing the unspoken anticipation of fate. All this is encapsulated within minimal dialogue and a subdued emotional landscape to portray the profound beauty of life's quiet moments.

This method of portraying day-to-day life on screen is also seen in the works of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, particularly in his latest offering, Falling Leaves, which subtly pays homage to Ozu. It was also celebrated at the recent Cannes Film Festival.

Wenders’ journey into Japanese cinema, which he made well into his seventies, almost inevitably involved paying homage to Ozu and other filmmaking giants from the country.

These include Akira Kurosawa and his masterpiece Ikiru or To Live, which was also reimagined for a post-COVID audience in 2022, by Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, alongside director Oliver Hermanus.

Perfect Days tells the story of Hirayama’s life. He was born into affluence but turned away from privilege for a life of simplicity and solitude as a public toilet cleaner, a profession far removed from his family's wealth and his father's violent legacy.

His existence is pared down to the essentials, with a modest income barely covering his basic needs. Hirayama's detachment from contemporary life is evident.

Wenders' Japanese cinema debut pays homage to Ozu and other filmmaking giants from the country. 

He prefers American music from the '60s and '70s on cassette, uses a mobile phone only for emergencies, opts for a bicycle for transport, and reads books instead of watching television as his nightly ritual.

He is profoundly reticent in the film, his dialogue limited to a mere handful of phrases, suggesting that verbal communication belongs to the very world he has forsaken—a world of incessant noise and potential malice.

Yet, the film is not devoid of communication. Hirayama's connection to the world comes through the music he listens to during his rounds, the novels he immerses himself in—including works by Faulkner—and his silent yet profound interactions with nature.

He captures black-and-white photographs of a particular tree, expressing gratitude through a nod or a smile. When his teenage niece inquires if the tree is his friend, he replies, "Yes, it is my friend," and reveals a vast archive of photographs of this tree, meticulously organized by year.

It is a nuanced portrayal of character, showing how communication transcends spoken words and flourishes in the spaces between silence, music, literature, and the natural world.

Tic-Tac-Toe and shadow games

In a moment of unexpected connection, Hirayama discovers a piece of paper nestled within the crevices of a toilet he is cleaning, unveiling a sketch of the game "Tic-Tac-Toe."

Embracing this silent invitation, he marks an "X" on the paper and returns it to its hiding spot, only to find an "O" added by an anonymous opponent the following day.

A still from the movie 'Perfect Days'.

This silent exchange continues until the game concludes, with a note of gratitude from the stranger at the bottom of the page, eliciting a smile from Hirayama.

This exchange casts a poignant light on the theme of loneliness versus the enforced solitude of the pandemic, illustrating how communication can be at once entirely subtle but also deeply profound.

The narrative deepens when, towards the film's end, Hirayama interacts with another stranger via the children's "Trampling on Shadows" game, where people playfully mingle with their silhouettes.

Together, they wonder if their shadows deepen when they intersect, a symbolic and philosophical question which remains unanswered as the unfamiliar duo reclaims a moment of playground whimsy.

These shadows serve as Hirayama's conduit to the world, bridging his past and present, embodying the dreams and silhouettes that haunt his sleep, figures from lives he may have touched or never encountered.

Silence emerges triumphant in Hirayama's world—a poignant backdrop of life's enigmas.

Tokyo's serenity 

This pervasive silence envelops not only Hirayama but also extends to the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, typically characterised by its cacophony, development, and modernity.

Under Wenders' direction, Tokyo transforms into a serene landscape reminiscent of a bygone era. Highways and tunnels blend seamlessly into this tranquil tableau, starkly contrasting the city's usual vibrancy.

Yakusho's nuanced portrayal of Hirayama shows how communication flourishes in the spaces between silence, music, literature, and the natural world.

It's as if Hirayama's introspective silence and profound inner peace have seeped into the urban fabric, lending the city a poetic aura far removed from its contemporary reality.

This metamorphosis even touches the public toilets Hirayama tends to, spaces generally associated with transience and disregard. Through his meticulous care, these facilities become as welcoming and familiar as his own home, mirroring his tranquil state.

Quietude and reflection

Amid the global tumult of relentless news cycles and the digital barrage of social media, Hirayama's existence resonates with the quietude and reflection prompted by the pandemic.

This period momentarily presented humanity with a vision of a world prioritising empathy, reconciliation, and an awareness of the importance of human connections.

Yet, as Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz remarks in Children of the Alley, society is prone to forgetfulness. The initial collective introspection fades, giving way to the resurgence of conflicts, wars, and animosities, as recent events in Ukraine and Gaza have starkly demonstrated.

Perfect Days, therefore, stands as a poignant reminder of the quiet, profound realisations that emerge from silence and introspection, challenging the viewer to reconsider the values that govern our lives in the face of humanity's recurrent amnesia.

A journey to a golden era

Through Hirayama, Wenders also embarks on a nostalgic journey back to the 1960s, a golden era imbued with hope for reshaping the world for the better.

A still from the movie 'Perfect Days'.

The soundtrack of Hirayama's life – featuring Patti Smith, the Rolling Stones, Nina Simone, Van Morrison, and Ray Davis – serves as a portal to this transformative decade.

The period was also marked by the West's enchantment with Asian spiritual practices, including Zen Buddhism, Haiku, and Tanka, which was a serene counterpoint to the tumultuous industrial age that bore the scars of two world wars.

Wenders arrived in Tokyo in the aftermath of the profound global upheaval wrought by COVID, coupled with the reflective wisdom that often accompanies advancing age. Hirayama embodies not just Wenders' worldview but also stands as a testament to it.

In a modern age plagued by forgetfulness, as Naguib Mahfouz laments, and the frenetic pace of life critiqued by Milan Kundera in his novel Slowness, Wenders' cinematic universe unfolds at a more contemplative pace. The perfect days of its title are defined by their tranquil monotony and the simplicity of life as it unfolds.

Within this sense of serenity, we witness Hirayama engaging in acts of gentle care, whether tending to a delicate plant or greeting the dawn with a smile as if the mere act of daylight breaking and the sky's steadfast presence are reasons enough to celebrate the new day.

This celebration of life's offerings is mirrored in the film's closing scenes, where Yakusho's portrayal of Hirayama produces a profound emotional resonance.

As he drives home in his pickup truck along nearly empty streets, the music of Nina Simone's Feeling Good accompanies his journey. The camera lingers on his face in a close-up, capturing the transition from a smile brimming with gratitude to the edge of tears.

This poignant ambiguity suggests a complex intermingling of joy and a mournful reflection on life, capturing the bittersweet essence of existence.

font change

Related Articles