Perfect Days

Following a Tokyo toilet cleaner's daily routine, this Oscar-nominated film from acclaimed German director Wim Wenders is as blissful as cinema gets.
Sarah Ward
Published on March 28, 2024


When Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' enjoyed its initial sublime movie moment in Trainspotting, it soundtracked a descent into heroin's depths, including literally via the film's visual choices. For three decades since, that's been the tune's definitive on-screen use. Now drifts in Perfect Days, the Oscar-nominated Japan-set drama from German filmmaker Wim Wenders (Submergence). This slice-of-life movie takes its name from the song. It also places the iconic David Bowie-produced classic among the tracks listened to by toilet cleaner Hirayama (Kôji Yakusho, Vivant) as he goes about his daily routine. Fond of 60s- and 70s-era music, the Tokyo native's picks say everything about his mindset, both day by day and in his zen approach to his modest existence. 'Perfect Day' and Nina Simone's 'Feeling Good' each also sum up the feeling of watching this gorgeous ode to making the most of what you have, seeing beauty in the everyday and being in the moment.

Not every tune that Hirayama pops into his van's tape deck — cassettes are still his format of choice — has the same type of title. Patti Smith's 'Redondo Beach', The Animals' 'The House of the Rising Sun', Otis Redding's '(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay' and The Rolling Stones' '(Walkin' Thru the) Sleepy City' also rank among his go-tos, all reflecting his mood in their own ways. If there's a wistfulness to Hirayama's music selections, it's in the manner that comes over all of us when we hark back to something that we first loved when we were younger. Perfect Days' protagonist is at peace with his life, however. Subtly layered into the film is the idea that things were once far different and more-conventionally successful, but Hirayama wasn't as content as he now is doing the rounds of the Japanese capital's public bathrooms, blasting his favourite songs between stops, eating lunch in a leafy park and photographing trees with an analogue camera.

As proves accurate for most folks, the cycle that Wenders and co-screenwriter Takuma Takasaki (an advertising creative director and an author) have scripted for Perfect Days doesn't vary wildly as time elapses. While the sky is still dark, Hirayama awakens in his minimalist flat, slips into his work overalls and gets a canned caffeine fix from the vending machine outside. From there, he drives from toilet to toilet, putting out his sign to notify those passing that the commodes are getting a wash, meticulously scrubbing porcelain and wiping basins, and barely being paid any attention. His midday break brings greenery, that snap and maybe rescuing a sapling to take home to nurture. By evening, he reads William Faulkner, Patricia Highsmith and Aya Kōda. Unless it's his day off, when he turns his cleaning skills to his apartment — and does laundry, gets his photos developed, purchases new books and has dinner out — the pattern repeats.

Wenders, making his best fictional feature in years and a movie every bit as magnificent as his Berlin-set 1987 masterpiece Wings of Desire, goes zen himself with his handling of Perfect Days. He's happy with cinematographer Franz Lustig (who also lensed his most-recent documentary Anselm) largely peering on documentary-style patiently and gracefully, taking in the ins and outs of Hirayama's days as serenely as Hirayama navigates them. Perfect Days spies the revealing minutiae, though, including a gesture that's extraordinary in its simplicity, ease and impact. Each morning, as black starts to turn grey in the heavens above as he departs for work, Hirayama stands on his doorstep, peeks at the weather in store, then smiles. A face merely tilting upwards has rarely felt so profoundly tender, touching and essential — and like it says everything about the most blissful way to cope with living.

Yakusho won the 2023 Cannes Best Actor prize, alongside gongs from the Japanese Academy and Asian Film Awards, for his rich and majestic performance as Hirayama. The Tampopo, Shall We Dance?, Memoirs of a Geisha and Babel star isn't required to utter much, but this could easily be a dialogue-free movie — except the lyrics of all-important tunes, of course — thanks to his deeply internalised portrayal. To witness his efforts as Hirayama is to understand all that's within the character, usually behind an expression of pure dedication, tranquility or both — and regardless of whether he has assistant Takashi (Tokio Emoto, House of Ninjas) along for the ride, or the latter's girlfriend Aya (Aoi Yamada, First Love); is playing noughts and crosses with a stranger in an endearing fashion; suddenly has his niece Niko (Arisa Nakano, Anata no shiranai kowai hanashi gekijouban) for company; or is lending an ear to someone else's troubles over the quiet drinks he's sipping by the water.

With such a diligently naturalistic performance at its centre, Perfect Days tells you how to view it: by soaking up every minuscule piece of this entrancing film. Wenders wants his audience taking it in as Hirayama does all that surrounds him, valuing the small details as much as the bigger picture. The next step: holding onto that feeling and perspective after the projector stops rolling. Can a drama embody mindfulness so completely that watching it leaves its viewers embracing the ups and downs of their own standard existence afterwards, reassessing what they truly want, and rethinking how they approach the full spectrum of emotions from disappointment and monotony to joy and satisfaction? In answering that, there's before Perfect Days and after Perfect Days, because this transcendent picture gives the heartiest yes possible to that question.

To grasp fulfilment in your work, to treat your ears to great music and your mind to excellent reading, to clutch as much time as you can in nature, to appreciate everything around you: that's Perfect Days' prescription for perfect days. It's a recipe for an ideal movie experience, too — and how committed the feature is to mirroring what it depicts doesn't go unnoticed. Take its toilets, which are all architectural wonders around the Shibuya neighbourhood. As everyone should, and as they're crafted to inspire, Perfect Days rejoices in their design, as well as in the fact that such striking creations cater for humanity's most-basic bodily functions. They're real. Tours now take visitors between them. There's no playing tourist with what that they, Hirayama and Perfect Days represent, though — finding value, meaning and perfection in life's ebbs and flows can only be a genuine pursuit.


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