The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - PERFECT DAYS | The Movie Waffler


The day to day life of a Tokyo toilet cleaner.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Wim Wenders

Starring: Kōji Yakusho, Tokio Emoto, Arisa Nakano, Aoi Yamada, Yumi Asō, Sayuri Ishikawa, Tomokazu Miura

Perfect Days poster

There's an unconfirmed anecdote about how when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space his jubilation at looking down at our planet from a vantage point no other man had ever reached was disrupted by an irksome ticking sound. It seemed to be coming from the spacecraft's complex control panel, but after taking it apart Gagarin was unable to locate the source of the sound, which was becoming increasingly annoying. How could he spend weeks in a tiny cabin without this noise driving him mad like the guilty protagonist of an Edgar Allan Poe story? Gagarin decided he would simply find a way to live with the noise, to make it as unnoticeable as the beating of his heart. And so he did.

If you don't have Gagarin's mindset, a routine can drive you mad. If, on the other hand, you accept that every day will be pretty much the same as the previous or the next, you ironically start to notice the minute disruptions to the pattern, and these small changes become things of beauty.

In Wayne Wang's Smoke, Harvey Keitel's shopkeeper takes a photograph of the same Brooklyn street corner each morning. It might seem like a pointless endeavour, but when another character is brought to tears after seeing his late wife in one of the photos, we realise that monotony is a false concept created by boring people. There is beauty in patterns. You just have to look. In the modern world we spend a lot of time staring and not enough time looking. We rarely look up because we're too arrogantly certain of what's above us. We can't see the heavens for the clouds.

Perfect Days review

One man who looks and sees and understands is Hirayama (Koji Yakusho, best known to western audiences for his role in 1996's Shall We Dance, a film that kickstarted a turn of the century revival of interest in Japanese cinema), the protagonist of Wim Wenders' Perfect Days. Following the lead of his compatriot and contemporary Werner Herzog's Family Romance, LLC, Wenders has opted for Tokyo as the setting of his latest drama. The film began gestating when the German filmmaker was invited to observe a project that saw several of Tokyo's public toilets redesigned as art pieces. Rather than making the expected corporate documentary, Wenders teamed up with Japanese screenwriter Takuma Takasaki to devise a film based around a man whose job it is to clean such facilities.

It's hard to think of an occupation looked down upon as much as that of a toilet cleaner. It's the sort of potential career parents and teachers use to scare teenagers into getting good grades. Negative assumptions are made about the sort of people who clean toilets. In the west the role is usually occupied by immigrants. You might worry that a movie whose protagonist occupies such a position will inevitably fall into the category of poverty porn, but Wenders has no such intent. Hirayama's job is irrelevant; he might just as easily be donning a shirt and tie and toiling in an office all day. He probably didn't envision toilet cleaning as his career, but he's found a way to live with it, and that way is to take pride in his work.

It helps that Hirayama is so receptive to the world's beauty. He wakes in the morning not with groans but with a smile. He rolls up his mattress and places it in the corner of his modest apartment, waters his plants and dons his uniform, a blue jumpsuit, draping a towel around his shoulders as though he's an athlete heading out into the pre-dawn world for some early training. As he drives from one public toilet to another he listens to his collection of cassettes. He's likely heard each one hundreds of times, but the expression on his face when the guitar chord of The Animals' The House of the Rising Sun strikes up gives the impression of a teenager discovering rock music for the first time. When a horny young co-worker, Takashi (Tokio Emoto), insists he co-opt Hirayama's van to drive his stripper girlfriend to her place of work, she hears Patti Smith's 'Redondo Beach' for the first time, and falls in love so much that she steals the cassette, later returning it when she realises she has no idea how to play it.

Perfect Days review

Hirayama's philosophy of appreciating the world for what it gives rather than for what you can take from it is contrasted with Takashi. Upon discovering Hirayama's collection of cassettes, his immediate reaction is to ask what they might be worth. He doesn't mean what they're worth to Hirayama, but what their market price might be, and he tries to convince Hirayama to sell them in order to fund his dating. Takashi is the sort who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Hirayama sees value in everything. For Hirayama, life is an ongoing transaction that always leaves him with enough spare change.

The idea of taking joy in the smallest of interruptions to patterns is conveyed through Hirayama's daily routine of observing the subtle shifts in the canopy of his favourite tree. Like Keitel in Smoke, he takes a photo of the tree from the same vantage point each day with a film camera. As he later sorts through the developed photos he tears some up and places the others in one of two containers. A random observer might struggle to tell the difference between which photo goes in which box, but Hirayama knows. In his sleep he even dreams about the tree, as though its branches were tickling his conscience. When he discovers a sprout at the base of the tree he gently plucks it and takes it home, appreciative of nature's unspoken offering.

Perfect Days review

If a man looks up as often as Hirayama does, he'll regrettably occasionally see someone looking down on him. While the film never judges Hirayama's station in life, some of the supporting figures that drift through the film inevitably do, like the mother who wipes her lost child's hands after he's been lead by the hand of Hirayama. When Hirayama's troubled teenage niece stays with him for a few days after falling out with her mother, we're offered hints of a more comfortable life he left behind. When Hiroyama's estranged sister (Yumi Aso) shows up in a chauffeur driven car to retrieve her daughter she's clearly uncomfortable in her brother's presence. "Do you really clean toilets?" she asks. Hiroyama doesn't respond verbally but we see the hurt the question has caused. He's not ashamed of the answer, but the question stings nonetheless, like when people ask why you're not married or why you don't have kids; there's no pint giving an answer because they really just want to ask the question. Society has developed narrow parameters for what constitutes happiness, contentment and fulfilment.

Perfect Days may refuse to look down on its protagonist, but it doesn't whitewash the nature of his work. Not to get into national stereotypes but if I had to clean toilets in any global city, Tokyo would be pretty high on my list of preferences. That said, we're left in no doubt that it's demanding physical labour. When Hirayama is forced to pull a double shift due to an absent co-worker, we see him grow frustrated at how he's been treated. The angry voice message he leaves with his employer is the most vociferous he gets in the whole movie. That Hirayama is able to stand up for himself in this way makes us reevaluate his taciturn responses to most of the people he meets. Hirayama could argue the case for his life, but why bother? People have already made their mind up about him. Those who watches Wenders' film may think about how they view those they consider "worse off," and might start noticing the beauty of the non-material world. Wenders offers you a perfect two hours. What you make of the other 22 in your day is up to you.

Perfect Days is on MUBI UK/ROI now.

2024 movie reviews