Wim Wenders is back. Not that he’s necessarily gone anywhere. In fact, the German filmmaker has been busier than ever as a documentarian (Anselm, his 3D study of artist Anselm Kiefer, is due out this year as well). It’s just that it’s been a long time since he’s directed a fictional film that’s on the level of his masterworks Wings of Desire, The American Friend, or Paris, Texas. Now comes Perfect Days, a thoughtful, meditative character study that’s the best narrative feature he’s helmed since 1991’s Until the End of the World.
Perhaps a change of scenery did him good. Like his contemporary of the New German Cinema, Werner Herzog, Wenders loves traversing the globe in search of stories (his nearly five hour Until the End of the World takes place on no less than four different continents). Perfect Days finds him returning to Tokyo, Japan, a city he’s captured on film many times, most notably in his documentary of famed Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, Tokyo-Ga. Wenders has always had a natural talent for creating a sense of location, and here, working from a script co-written with Takuma Takasaki, he presents Japan’s capital city not as an exotic locale but as a place where real people live and work, just like the town you’re from.
He shows us a few days in the life of Hirayama (Kôji Yakusho), a janitor who cleans the city’s public toilets. The pristine commodes are a marvel of public service, dutifully tended to by Hirayama. We get glimpses of his everyday routine, and there are echoes of Ozu in the opening scenes of Hirayama tending to his plants, driving to work, doing his job, enjoying his lunch in the park, taking photos of trees, reading books in bed, and waking up to do it all over again. He visits a public pool, eats at a noodle restaurant, picks new plants in the forest to take home. On his way to-and-from the various bathrooms, he listens to cassette tapes of Lou Reed, Van Morrison, Nina Simone (Wenders has always had a keen ear for needle drops, and Perfect Days features one of his best movie soundtracks). He chats with his younger coworker, Takashi (Tokio Emoto), watches a homeless man in the park, and makes eyes towards a young woman who eats her lunch on the bench next to his every day. He finds comfort in the cycle repeating.
And then, bit by bit, his daily ritual is disrupted in ways I wouldn’t dare spoil here. We learn more and more about Hirayama’s past, what eventually led to him cleaning toilets for a living, the family he never sees. Gradually he opens himself up more and more to the people around him, including those he can only communicate with through a game of tic-tac-toe. There are discussions of life and death, the meaning of it all, as when Hirayama stumbles upon a divorced couple sharing a tender hug when one learns the other has a terminal illness; Hirayama later shares a beer and a cigarette with the sickly man who, faced with the end, can now appreciate the small moments he so rarely cherished. It all leads to a final moment of such quiet, profound beauty one can only sit in appreciation of a director finding the perfect summation to his deceptively simple story.
Yakusho won the Best Actor prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, playing the kind of person we walk by everyday without ever really noticing that they’re there. It’s not just that they’re quiet and unassuming: it’s that they’re doing a daily task that most of us would turn our noses up at. At one point deep in the film, Hirayama’s estranged sister, Keiko (Yumi Asô), asks him if he’s really cleaning toilets, and our heart breaks at the cruelty of her questioning, having witnessed how much pride his job brings him.
Hirayama is surrounded by people desperate for something more out of life than what their daily routines can offer. Takashi wants to take his girlfriend, Aya (Aoi Yamada), out on an expensive date – difficult to do on a janitor’s salary. At one point, Hirayama lets the young couple ride in his van, and he introduces them to the cassette tapes that went out of fashion long before they were old enough to appreciate music. Takashi finds out the vintage tapes can be sold for a hefty price at a local record store, and he begs Hirayama to let him do it so he can have enough cash for a fancy date. Aya, meanwhile, simply wants to listen to her favorite tape one more time in the van. How often we sacrifice long term pleasures for short term enjoyment.
Wender is a director who reaches for the heavens and seeks to bring us along with him. His Paris, Texas and Kings of the Road are epic sagas of ordinary lives defined by loneliness and isolation. Perfect Days has a lot in common with these films, but the one it reminded me the most of was Wings of Desire, in which Bruno Ganz plays an immortal angel who yearns to become a mortal man. There’s a scene in which Peter Falk, playing himself, describes the pleasures of drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette, human pleasures that the angel can never fully appreciate because he isn’t truly alive in this world. The implication is clear: better to live and have to die than to live forever and never truly live.
What is it that makes a perfect day? We so often feel the need to fill our lives with adventure that we forget to truly appreciate them. We have convinced ourselves that if we can “make something of our lives,” to have a meaningful career and pack every moment with excitement, we’ll somehow be able to avoid the inevitability of death and disappointment. Yet for all the thrills that can come from skydiving or climbing Mount Everest, we lose sight of how much enjoyment can be had eating our lunch in the park, listening to our favorite cassette tape, or staring at a beautiful tree. At one point in the film, Hirayama imparts his niece, Niko (Arisa Nakano), with words of wisdom: “Next time is next time. Now is now.” Tears fill my eyes as I type these words, remembering what they mean in the context of this scene and for our lives more broadly.
After seeing Perfect Days at this year’s AFI FEST, I decided to kill time at a coffee shop before my next screening. Within the hustle and bustle of festivals, it can be difficult to appreciate the multiple films you’re watching each day, the overpriced sandwich you’re cramming in your mouth for energy in-between, the caffeinated drink you’re guzzling so as not to fall asleep. Of the thousands of cups of coffee I’ve had in my life, none have tasted quite as good as the one I had that day, sitting in silence, in total appreciation of a perfect day.
This review is from AFI FEST 2023. NEON will release Perfect Days only in theaters later this year.