Director: Wim Wenders
Writers: Takuma Takasaki, Wim Wenders
Cast: Koji Yakusho, Yumi Aso, Tokio Emoto
Duration: 123 minutes
In an early scene in Perfect Days, a Wim Wenders directorial, you have a distressed boy, whose sobbing is audible through the doors of the closed restroom. Insinuation here is that he is lost, and searching for the parent. Hirayama (Koji Yakusho), a Japanese public toilet cleaner, gently assists him in this quest. Once his frantic mother finds him, she urgently whisks him away from Hirayama, and then takes out a tissue and wipes the boy’s hands. When they are hurrying in the opposite direction, the boy turns and smiles gratefully at Hirayama, which squeezes out a good-natured giggle from the old man. Two things become clear: When we pay heed to the woman’s callous act of prejudice, we realise how interwoven this sway against his job profile is in an average person. But it also registers with us how Hirayama narrativized his own life: a meaningful focus on what gives respite.
The film has spun-out, meditative sequences of Hirayama cleaning the public restrooms. He carefully wipes the sink bowls with a cloth. He mindfully checks the cleanliness of the commodes with a mirror. He spritzes the mirror with a cleaning liquid, and scrubs it meticulously. The floor is dutifully mopped. The toilet paper is punctually replaced. There is an elegiac quality to this scouring.
The camera lyrically swerves from Hirayama’s twinkling eyes, his genial demeanour, to what selectively holds space for him: green leaves mildly ruffling in the wind - abundance of sunlight foraying its way through the trees. He eats his lunch at a presumably fixed time on a park bench, where mild awkwardness ensues when he observes a young woman who is eating her lunch and catches him mid-stare, and then stares back at him with equal rigour.
His dreams unfold in black and white. They are floaty, inexact and possess mundane recounts of the day.
It is not (just) that the mundane is romanticised in Perfect Days. Every aspect of Hirayama’s day, and life, from the morning when he wakes up and deposits his bedding at the corner of the room, adorning his work garbs, his work shifts, his lunch break, his cassettes where he amasses records of Nina Simone, Van Herring etc, his small array of saplings that he gives devoted care to, the second-hand book shop he frequents and borrows the works of Patricia Highsmith and William Faulkner — are part of an artful construction of profound contentment. There is a philosophical clarity in this curation. On the one hand, it feels obvious what the philosophy could be — moving away from the hustle, away from the dystopian attention economy. But also, there is a mystery here. Who is Hirayama? Why does he live alone? Where is his family? Did he ever have any lovers?
The movie is divided into four chapters. There are slips of information through other characters: A much younger co-worker chides him for his reticence. The “situationship” of the younger co-worker remarks upon his great taste in retro English-language music. His romantic yearning comes to the fore when he goes to a bar, and seems smitten by the owner, who has a beatific voice.
During the third act, however, when we see his niece, who has run away from home, waiting for him outside his apartment, it almost feels jarring. Perhaps, for someone, whose each day is so diligently planned that the routine presents itself like neatly pressed linen, this is a disruption. It is through this dynamic a substantial portion of his former life is revealed: we find out that his family is far more economically comfortable than he is. They disapprove of his profession. The niece’s mother, his sister, changes the topic whenever her daughter brings him up. He is estranged from his father, who Hirayama would not even visit in the hospital.
This lathers this narrative about the pursuit of contentment with an additional complexity. This pursuit is an emotionally-driven response, rather than just a value-based one. But then, such is the pursuit of contentment, where both personal context, and idiosyncratic interpretations, swirl and impose on each other.
After his niece leaves, Hirayama has a short phase which is a cesspool of inconveniences. The younger colleague quits, and consequently, Hirayama ends up taking up more shifts. This interruption leads to slight chaos in the schedule. It is evident though that this bad phase, rather than a catastrophic event that snowballs into a series of mishaps and becomes something more dictating, is rather like a dog’s itch that needs to be expunged so that the devised routine can be restored. An assurance of safety underpins this cosy narrative here.
Clocking in at 123 minutes, it makes you wonder if such generous sequences focusing on the ordinary, and the mundane, can chafe. We are living in a film landscape where one of the biggest financial successes in film history, Marvel Cinematic Universe, is churning out one episodic venture after the other about the multiverse, and its endless possibilities. The movie that won an oscar this year is also about the multiverse too: Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022). These narratives have cultural and emotional resonance. Our attention spans are greedily, anxiously sprawled across everything and yet unable to grasp onto nothing.
Perfect Days is not a chiding of this poor ability to pay attention. But it is an anecdote. With a quiet, but intense conviction, it offers up something simple, and singular: To love, is to pay attention. And to pay attention, is to dignify. In the last scene, as Hiramaya drives to work in the morning, his face contorts, and accommodates both darker and jocular shades of his emotions. He is, perhaps, taking cognizance of lingering melancholies, but sorrow, and catharsis, soon recede, and make way for a hopeful buoyancy.