Perfect Days review: the beauty of the everyday | Sight and Sound – British Film Institute

Wim Wenders concentrates on the quiet routine moments in the life of a Tokyo toilet cleaner in a delicate, meditative film that adapts the director’s documentary approach to a fictional subject.
22 February 2024
By Nick James
The 21st-century fiction filmmaking career of Wim Wenders has been exasperating for fans of the early work of wonderment and charm that made him a pillar of the New German cinema in the 1970s and 80s. What a delightful surprise, then, that Perfect Days is his best and most winning fiction film since Wings of Desire (1987), both an example of late style evolving out of a return to first principles and, more simply, of Wenders adapting the documentary approach, which has rarely failed him, to a fictional subject.
The film follows the daily routine of Hirayama (Yakusho Kōji), a middle-aged cleaner for The Tokyo Toilet, a private contractor which manages newly redesigned facilities in the Shibuya ward. Hirayama has reduced his life to a routine worthy of a Paul Schrader protagonist, except that he seems free of the angst essential to Schrader’s subjects. He rises in his tiny apartment (lit in early morning purples and greens reminiscent of the lighting style of the late Robby Müller, the cinematographer for Wenders’ early triumphs), does his bathroom grooming, mists his plants and, crucially, as he steps out he looks up at the sky cheerily, as if greeting the new day.
A coffee from the vending machine opposite his door acquired, he gets in his work van and chooses which audio cassette he will put on. It is one of this film’s achievements that, although three of his choices, played at different points, might be considered on the nose – first, ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ by The Animals (in a film set in Japan); second, a Lou Reed song you know, from the film’s title, is inevitable; and third, a Nina Simone finale whose familiarity would normally hurt – none of them are, because there’s a delicacy at work here, a naivety that comes off mainly because of Yakusho’s exquisite portrayal of Hirayama (done, I’m told, without rehearsal).
Hirayama’s day continues with him cleaning, always removing himself when interrupted by people caught short. He has a sandwich lunch in the same garden, where he uses an analogue camera to photograph the canopy of trees, and nods at a young woman who treats him with suspicion. In the evening, he visits a sentō bathhouse and eats at his regular bar-cafe where the owner says “For a hard day’s work” when he lays the food before him. After reading Faulkner or Highsmith in bed, he dreams in black and white of shifting, overlapping, dissolving images from nature, the effectiveness of which are enhanced by the film’s 1:33:1 ratio.
Although the daily routine establishes the film’s tone and themes, its minimal script (by Takasaki Takuma and Wenders) was adapted from short stories: one dealing with attempts by Hirayama’s dilatory junior colleague Takashi (Emoto Tokio) to woo Aya (Yamada Aoi), a girl beyond his means (whose look faintly echoes Nastassja Kinski’s in Paris, Texas, 1984); another about Niko (Nakano Arisa), Hirayama’s young niece, turning up at his tiny apartment after a row with her bourgeois mother; a third concerning the romantic fate of the hostess/singer of a restaurant he frequents at weekends. A man of few words, Hirayama is more an observer of these mini dramas than a participant. Central to his attitude to life is komorebi, the Japanese word for the shimmering of light and shadow created by leaves swaying in the wind, something that exists once, only at that moment. He sees uniqueness in every event.
This reaching for a workaday wisdom is aided by the constant accretion of telling detail. I know nothing about Shinto, though I understand the cleaning of toilets is thought to be an important discipline for those studying Buddhism. It’s important, too, that in his pleasures, Hirayama sticks to analogue culture, because, in terms of the simple capturing of everyday life, cellphone video can be said to have stolen the director’s thunder. In his 1991 book The Logic of Images Wenders wrote, “I want my films to be about the time in which they are filmed, and to reflect the cities, landscapes, objects and people involved in them.” His key enthusiasm was for real life as found in front of the film camera. But as soon as we could all film everything using our phone cameras, the importance of the record being captured in analogue media needed to be justified. The argument here seems to be that the imperfections of audio cassettes and emulsion film enhance komorebi. If that’s the thought it takes to bring Wenders back to the effective delicacy of this portrait, I’m all for it.
Perfect Days is in UK cinemas from 23 February.
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