Wim Wenders’ ‘Perfect Days’ Is an Immaculate Look at an Antiseptic Life in Tokyo

German filmmaker Wim Wenders loves the camera and all impressions it can capture. His Oscar-nominated Japanese drama “Perfect Days,” co-written with Takuma Takasaki, merges a full array of photographic arts to showcase an ordinary man doing a routine job. In doing so we find no one is ordinary, and no job can ever be routine. The smallest of inconveniences or distractions can change the natural flow of the work. Any average person may conceal extraordinary inner worlds. 

In “Perfect Days,” Hirayama (Koji Yakusho) cleans public toilets in the bustling colorful parks of Tokyo’s Shibuya district. Every day on his lunch break, he takes a picture of a particularly endearing tree. But Hirayama dreams in black and white. The dream sequences were composed by Donata Wenders, the director’s wife who is known for blurring boundaries between painting and photography. The shimmering play of light through trees is a Japanese concept called “komorebi,” which the film expands in the monochrome sequences of Hirayama’s inner life. Some visual pieces come from the branches of his intended subject; others are scraps of memories of mundane visions of great beauty. Hirayama often stops to stare at the abstract excitement of simple objects, stains on walls, a particular stone. He keeps some as memories to impose shadows other images staining his dreams.

Hirayama proudly wears the Tokyo Toilet’s company-issued blue overalls, and is a dedicated worker who takes pride in a job thoroughly performed. It gives him pleasure, and Yakusho is an actor who can bring a tangible feeling to his characters’ emotions. His face is a palette of endless possibilities, which he internalizes to express Hirayama’s contentment, pleasure, pain, frustration, and playfulness. We never get a glimpse of boredom or tedium. The film ends on a long closeup of Hirayama’s face as every inner thought of the past few perfect days runs through his mind. Yakusho’s versatility takes the audience through everything that is felt. The sequence would be a fascinating bookend to Bob Hoskins’ final scene in George Harrison’s HandMade Films gangster classic, “The Long Good Friday.” In both cases, non-verbal communication tells more truth than any word.

Hirayama does not speak much in “Perfect Days.” He barely has any dialogue at all for the first 45 minutes. Hirayama basically grunts affirmations to his co-worker, Takashi (Tokio Emoto), during working hours, and exchanges the cutest of pleasantries to the people he runs into on a daily basis: the sentō bathhouse he soaks in at after work, the commuter bar he suppers at every evening. Though his words are short, they are never blunt. They come out with the sincerest vibration of good will, and usually attract an equally congenial post script. Mama (Sayuri Ishikawa), who owns the restaurant that Hirayama frequents on his days off, takes time from behind the counter to sing her signature song. Hirayama will later play shadow tag with her ex-husband (Tomokazu Miura) in a moment of duress. “Patricia Highsmith knows everything about anxiety,” says the clerk at the bookstore Hirayama also frequents. “I didn’t know fear and anxiety were two different things.” 

Fear does not exist in Hirayama’s world, and anxieties appear to cleanse themselves. Sadness, however, does darken the optimistic view of the central character. He gets an unexpected visit from his niece, Niko (Arisa Nakano), which causes momentary anxiety until the only real change to Hirayama’s daily routine is how many cans of coffee he grabs from the vending machine below his apartment. But a visit from his sister, Keiko (Yumi Aso), implies a problematic past, and a sorrowful event in the present. We hear vague snippets of details of Hirayama’s former, possibly affluent life, and only that his estranged father suffers dementia in the present. But the character remains enigmatic. 

Hirayama does not live in the same world as his sister, Niko’s mother, he tells his niece as they park their bicycles on a bridge overlooking waters which flow to the ocean. They promise to make the trip down the river next time, but chant “Now is now,” as they cheerfully cycle away. The connection echoes an earlier encounter with Amy (Aoi Yamada), a girl Takashi wanted do date. Patti Smith’s sonic tale of suicidal miscommunication, “Redondo Beach,” speaks to the young listener so deeply during a shared ride, she steals the cassette. When she returns it, and the audience hears the reggae-inflected bass through the exterior of Hirayama’s work van, Amy kisses the older man on the cheek. The memory will play in a fragment of discoloration in Hirayama’s dream. 

One short sequence sees Hirayama gently collecting a budding twig into an intricate makeshift newspaper seedling pot to replant in his apartment garden. He is a collector. His closets are filled with photographs, labeled by date. His dreams are assemblies of happy moments, like Amy’s appreciation of the music she heard with him. Hirayama’s collection of vintage cassette tapes is priceless, in that he won’t sell a single one at any price. He doesn’t say this, of course. Some of the best parts of music come in the space between notes, and Hirayama’s beneficent silence plays solos.

Music looms large in all Wenders’ films, and the film’s soundtrack matches its title. One of the cassette albums Hirayama eyes in a record shop is Lou Reed’s “Transformer,” which contains “Perfect Day.” The song holds a featured spot in the film, as does “Pale Blue Eyes” by the Velvet Underground. We also hear, through Hirayama’s car stereo, “Sunny Afternoon” by the Kinks, and songs by Van Morrison, Nina Simone, and Otis Redding. The film opens when Hirayama drives into work to the tune of the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.”

Cinematographer Franz Lustig films Tokyo flawlessly, giving even the commuter’s view the comfortable intensity of a passenger seat view from under the Skytree tower. Wenders, who made characters out of the settings in films like “Wings of Desire” and “Paris, Texas,” gives the Japanese metropolis breath and life. His love for the city is apparent, and long held. He made the 1980s documentaries, “Tokyo-ga” and “Notebook on Cities and Clothes.” The appreciation for both Asian philosophy and architecture are best reflected in the toilets being cleaned. Strictly utilitarian in the West, these are architecturally distinctive works of art. A see-through glass structure transforms into the model of privacy in one, others resemble temples. It’s no wonder Hirayama even checks under the far reaches of the bowls with a hand-mirror. His work is sacred. 

Keiko may look down on her brother’s chosen profession, possibly disappointed by Hirayama’s missed opportunities the audience will never know, but Wenders exalts it. “Perfect Days” celebrates the imperfections glossed over by daily surprises. A chance game of anonymous tic-tac-toe can hide behind any tile.

Perfect Days” releases Feb. 7 in select theaters.