In Perfect Days, an Ordinary Life Tenderly Amplified

Francis Rogerson ‘26 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

 Spoilers ahead. 

The click of a cassette tape. The rush of wind in the trees. The tumbling of a soda can into a vending machine port. The spritz-spritz of water spraying onto a houseplant. These are just a few of the sounds that fill up the landscape of renowned German filmmaker Wim Wenders’ new film Perfect Days, a film dominated by lone sound and image, in less of a grand artistic sense and more of a pedestrian, monastic one. In other words, Perfect Days is about the subtle rhythms of everyday life. There is very little dialogue but plenty of communication: minute gestures take the place of explicit expressions, and feelings are articulated through the image rather than speech. Emotions are amplified, not diminished, by their mundane simplicity. It is uniquely fitting, then, that Wenders, serving as not just the director but the co-writer as well (alongside Takuma Takasaki) doesn’t even speak the language of his characters. With over fifty years behind the camera, he knows that his images are far more potent than any words he could conjure up. 

It seems that Wenders shares this outlook, at least in a philosophical sense, with Hirayama (Koji Yakusho), the protagonist of the story. A middle-aged toilet cleaner, Hirayama lives a solitary existence, content in his daily routines which repeat weekly, staid yet extremely fulfilling; he even sticks to the same old habits on his days off – the bookstore, the baths, a bike ride to the photo lab, a nap, some dinner, then home. On weekdays, he wakes up, makes his bed, waters his plants, puts on his uniform, grabs a soda, and drives to work. He then makes the rounds to the various public toilets he tends to around the city, stopping now and then to take a photograph using his pocket-sized camera, paying tribute to his favorite tree as he eats his egg salad sandwich in the park. Once he’s done, he stops by a familiar restaurant for some dinner – the chef knows him, but it feels as if it’s never occurred to either of them to learn each other’s names. He then  goes home, reads his Faulker, and does it all again the next day. Throughout it all, he barely says a single word to anyone; not his brash young co-worker, not the other restaurant patrons, not the strangers who use the bathrooms he so diligently cleans. One starts to wonder if he can talk at all. This, plus a few minor deviations – all eliciting scant words that suggest great wisdom underneath his shyness – is all that happens.

To languish in such a seemingly unadventurous way of life for two hours has the potential to alienate an audience. Is one really expected to spend a whole movie with someone who does the same thing every day? And worse, someone who’s happy about that? On paper, sure, it’s a boring conceit. But, Wenders and Yakusho understand how to imbue this snippet of Hirayama’s life, a story that lacks a typical narrative arc, with potent weight and meaning. The film recalls the hallmarks of Wenders’ idol, the legendary Japanese auteur Yasujirō Ozu, who is known for his groundbreaking depictions of working class domestic life in Japan in films like Tokyo Story and Floating Weeds. Wenders conjures up a cinematic language that eases the audience into complete tranquility. With small simple joys magnified and granted titanic meaning, the most unassuming and unglamorous moments are rendered with meticulous grace, enriched by how truly ordinary they are. The film is reminiscent of Tokyo-ga, Wenders’ 1985 documentary/essay film. It explores the work of Ozu through interviews with his collaborators as well as plentiful footage of Tokyo cityscapes and daily life, with Wenders in voiceover further illuminating and contemplating his relationship to the city and Ozu’s body of work. Wenders worships Ozu, and before Perfect Days, one could tell as much from his other films, especially because Tokyo-ga functions as a tribute film. The mission of his career, at least in part, was to emulate the moods that Ozu cultivated, filtered through his authorial voice. Now, watching his latest project, it’s clear that this is the closest he has gotten, and will probably ever get, to reaching the heights of a man whom he reveres as a “sacred treasure of cinema” (Tokyo-ga). Perfect Days has themes of tradition, family strife, the plight of the working class, and the strength of community – all hallmarks of Ozu, yes, but Wenders translates these moods into the modern day, where they are so unattached from our current way of life that they feel like a breath of fresh air. Mirayama has no TV, listens exclusively to cassette tapes, takes photos not to post online but to put away in boxes and archive them in his closet, and carries a flip phone he uses only once. It is hard to imagine anyone in this century living in such a way, let alone contently. But Mirayama does – and how beautifully, too. 

The film is transfixing, anchored by Yakusho’s magnetic, marvelous presence, soaring as both a graceful homage to Ozu and a fascinating diversion from some of Wenders’ own artistic trademarks. From a man whose films are often about people on the road, on the run, and in search of answers, here is one about finally sitting still. The film’s final sequence exemplifies this magnificently. As Mirayama drives to work once again, he listens to a cassette tape of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” For almost the entire length of the song, the camera holds on to a closeup of his face, and Yakusho displays a breathtaking ability to communicate nearly every recognizable emotion by subtly changing his expression over and over as if he’s unsure how to feel. Is he smiling or crying, tearful or joyful? 

Early in Tokyo-ga, Wenders remarks in voiceover the difficulty of capturing human sight on film, crafting images as they are rather than as the camera sees them. As he watches a movie on a plane without sound, the images seem empty, “feigning and imitating emotion. It felt good just to look out the window.” He shows us what he’s looking at, the wing of the plane against the blue sky. “If only it were possible to film like that, I thought to myself. Like when you open your eyes sometimes. Just to look. Without wanting to prove anything.” Watching Perfect Days, one cannot help but feel that he has finally realized such a sentiment. Yakusho looking directly into the camera is about as arresting a final shot as you could hope for, but Wenders doesn’t end things there – he shows us what Hirayama is looking at, the long stretch of road ahead of him and the sunrise on the horizon. Giving the audience a chance, like Wenders, and like Ozu before him,  just to look. 

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