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Perfect Days

Directed by Wim Wenders
Produced by Wim Wenders, Takuma Takasaki, and Koji Yanai
Written by Wim Wenders and Takuma Takasak
With: Miyako Tanaka, Kôji Yakusho, Arisa Nakano, Yumi Asō, Sayuri Ishikawa, Tomokazu Miura, and Min Tanaka
Cinematography: Franz Lustig
Editing: Toni Froschhammer
Runtime: 124 min
Release Date: 21 December 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.33 : 1
Color: Color

The great German director Wim Wenders has enjoyed a robust post-pandemic period. Earlier this year, he released Anselm about his fellow countryman, the painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer. A follow-up to the masterful film Pina (2011), it is Wenders' second 3D documentary about a great German artist. During the years of production on that picture, the then seventy-five-year-old director was invited to Japan by producer Koji Yanai to create some kind of filmed art about the Tokyo Toilet Project, an initiative in which sixteen designers from around the world were invited to reimagine several Japanese public toilets with outstanding results. Rather than placing the individual lavatories at the center of a film or series of short films, Wenders, partnering with screenwriter Takuma Takasaki (Honokaa bôi), fashions a meditative, minimalist drama about a man who cleans these facilities. Thus, we get to marvel at the innovative ways artists and architects have reconceptualized the aesthetics of public toilets in a major city known for its hospitality—a structure of three glass stalls that become opaque when occupied is a highlight—but the movie's humanist narrative centers on the humble man tasked with keeping these washrooms clean and welcoming.

The film stars Koji Yakusho, a Japanese national treasure best known for his lead roles in Shall We Dance? (1996), Babel (2006), 13 Assassins (2010), The Third Murder (2017), and Under the Open Sky (2020). He plays Hirayama, a man of few words who finds fulfillment in his work and routines and takes great pleasure in the beauty he sees all around him. He listens to Western music on his van's cassette player, reads paperbacks in local watering holes where he is a favorite customer, and every day during his lunch break, he photographs the “Komorebi” with an old Olympus 35mm camera, retrieving the developed prints every week or so and organizing the best shots in boxes in his apartment. The very end of the credits explain to us Westerners that “Komorebi” are the ephemeral patterns of light and shadow created by the sun shining through the leaves of trees.

The mostly silent Hirayama recalls another Wenders protagonist, Travis Henderson in the director's 1984 masterpiece Paris, Texas. Like Harry Dean Stanton's character in that picture, Hirayama has a past that he's left behind for reasons that, in this case, we can only guess. But unlike Travis, Hirayama seems happy with his current existence, not haunted by what he's left behind. The simplicity and order of his daily practices are only disrupted enough to provide this movie with some semblance of a narrative. Hirayama must deal with a young assistant (Tokio Emoto) who is frequently late, not as careful in his work, and constantly trying to impress a girlfriend (Aoi Yamada). His niece (Arisa Nakano) unexpectedly shows up on his doorstep one day, presumably having run away from the sister from whom Hirayama is estranged. He becomes tangentially involved in the life of a woman who owns the restaurant where he typically has his dinner.

Yakusho deservedly won the Best Actor prize at this year's Canne Film Festival, and Perfect Days is Japan's submission for the Best International Feature Oscar. It's a lovely movie that also evokes Wenders' most renowned picture, Wings of Desire (1987). Like the invisible angels who populate Berlin and comfort its mortal citizens in that great film, Hirayama's small, mostly unseen interactions with the inhabitants of Tokyo's Shibuya district in Perfect Days bring them serenity and relief. That's much the same feeling we get from spending 124 min inside the world of this film. Still, for a Wenders picture, I was surprised by the cliche nature of some narrative choices. We wonder at first if Hirayama can't talk but learn later that he only chooses to speak when addressing someone worth speaking to—Great. He's a man who lives simply, and we learn later on that this is likely by choice, not necessity—OK. He plays a tic-tac-toe game with someone he's never met after finding a piece of paper left hidden in one of the stalls he cleans—Really? That last choice and a few others seem like something I'd expect to find in a student film rather than the work of a great master. The ultra-clean digital cinematography by Franz Lustig, shot in the Academy ratio (like many of this year's most notable films), feels intentionally basic and understated. But the photography seems so rudimentary that it almost reduces the profound to the ordinary rather than finding the profound in the ordinary. I can't help but wonder if minimalist movies like this just don't play as well when shot with modern digital cameras as they did in the previous century.

Wenders' primary creative inspirations have always been the movies of the great Japanese humanist filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, and the rock 'n 'roll poetry of writer/performers like Nick Cave, David Byrne, Bono, and David Bowie, so for him to make a Tokoyo story about a guy who spends most of his free time listening to Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Animals, and Nina Simone while observing the simply beauty of his surroundings would seem a natural. Indeed, the film's best moments are when we just watch Hirayama listen to music in whatever tiny amount of space he currently occupies. Yakusho is the ideal actor for these moments and, indeed, for this film. His performance transcends any notes that might ring just a little sharp or flat.

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Wim Wenders's Tokyo story about a simple, quiet, Western-music-loving man who cleans the sparkling new public lavatories created by the Tokyo Toilet Project, stars Koji Yakusho in a performance that transcends a few notes that ring just a little sharp or flat.