Film can feel like a medium where ambition feels intrinsically geared towards a search for the grandest scope, the largest scale, to fulfil the potential of the art form. An admirable pursuit, but there is something beautiful about a director reaching the audience and swaying them with the smaller things in life. Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days is such a film.
Perfect Days revolves around toilet cleaner Hirayama (Koji Yakusho), and in the vein of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, revels in the mundanity of everyday living, and a quiet appreciation of life as it is. Through his daily routine of cleaning toilets and his quiet solitude, Wenders guides us into the patterns of Hirayama’s life.
In an opening stretch that evokes his very own Paris, Texas, like Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis, we are introduced to Hirayama without words. We see the quietly disciplined way with which he gets himself ready, ensuring he has everything he needs for work. How his eyes light up as he steps outside his door, contemplating the sky. The relaxed, simple joy he experiences as he plays a cassette of various vintage rock songs on his morning drive. Not a word is spoken through this sequence, yet we’re already learning so much about Hirayama, and this extends to him at work.
On the job, Hirayama conducts himself with quiet diligence, regulating himself to the background when others are around. Even then, Yakusho’s wonderfully expressive face articulates every moment, Wenders often closing in on Hirayama as he goes about his duties. There’s a certain serenity in watching his routine: in seeing him so content with his work, the joy of going to his favourite restaurant every evening, treating himself to a relaxing onsen bath, reading a book before bed.
Even when Hirayama’s daily pattern is disrupted, and he encounters a series of figures who intrude upon his life, Perfect Days maintains its signature low-key tone. Here, each of these interactions offers new insight into Hirayama. There’s Tokio Emoto as his lazy, lovelorn colleague, Takashi, and his mysterious, yellow-haired girlfriend, Aya (a magnetic Aoi Yamada). There’s also his niece, Niko (Arisa Nakano), with whom he shares a wonderful rapport, as well as an unexpected reunion with his sister, Keiko (Yumi Asou).
Elsewhere, Min Tanaka pops in and out of the film, a delightfully enigmatic presence as a homeless man. Sayuri Ishikawa, the restaurateur, delivers an especially rousing Japanese cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun.’ However, it’s Tomokazu Miura as Tomoyama who leaves the strongest impression in a particularly poignant scene with Yakusho.
To divulge more of the details would be to spoil the beauty of this film, which, in its no-frills approach, finds ultimate meaning in the littlest elements. Seeing Hirayam’s daily routine thrown out of sync is fascinating to watch; Toni Froschhammer’s editing is crucial to this, throwing us off from the gradual relaxing rhythms in the film’s opening, and having fun with gently disordering it as the story progresses.
Franz Lustig’s cinematography, too, is exquisite, finding the beauty in the streets of Tokyo and deftly navigating its way through Hirayama’s household, and the toilets he so meticulously cleans. It is a gorgeous looking film, with Wenders emphasising naturalism in every regard apart from the surreal dream sequences that bookend each of Hirayama’s days, pacing the film wonderfully in showing how each of his days impact him in a different way.
The film’s heart, of course, is Yakusho, who gives the performance of a lifetime that deservedly earned him the Cannes Film Award for Best Actor. From the very first frame, he perfectly captures Hirayama, and, what’s more, invites us to acquaint ourselves—and eventually fall in love—with this modest, quiet fellow. While often silent, though no less expressive, Yakusho finds humour in the most unexpected moments between the other actors, and can reduce you to tears with just the slightest shake of his head.
Wenders knows what a valuable asset he has at the heart of this masterful film and makes use of Yakusho’s talent to its full potential. Perhaps best encapsulated in the scenes of Hirayama listening to his cassettes: an eclectic selection of needle drops ranging from The Velvet Underground to Van Morrison to Patti Smith to, of course, Lou Reed’s eponymous song, all building up to a close-up of Yakusho’s face that needs to be seen to be believed. It will leave you feeling all sorts of emotions all at once—a stunning finish to this masterpiece.