'Perfect Days' Lingers on Life's Fleeting Moments of Beauty

Directed by Wim Wenders

Starring Kôji Yakusho, Tokio Emoto, Arisa Nakano, Sayuri Ishikawa, Yumi Aso, Min Tanaka

Photo courtesy of Elevation Pictures

BY Mila MatveevaPublished Nov 15, 2023

Every day, Hirayama (Kôji Yakusho) wakes up before the sun and prepares methodically for his job cleaning public toilets in Tokyo. Wim Wenders's latest film Perfect Days follows this ritualistic existence, one day at a time — Hirayama watering his plants, buying a vending machine coffee outside of his apartment and getting in his van, grabbing a bite at the same spots — the routine keeping him grounded and more or less content. At work, he is focused and committed, even investing in his own supplies and tools, while his younger, tardier colleague Takashi (Tokio Emoto) questions why one would put so much effort into doing something just to have to do it all over again.

While at first each day appears exactly the same, variations stand out from the constants. Hirayama is attentive to the beauty that exists in his day-to-day, and he seeks it out in various ways: by soundtracking his drives with a collection of rotating cassette tapes (the Animals and the Rolling Stones one day, Otis Redding and the Kinks on another), through his still photography, and just by looking up at the changing sky every day. He is particularly drawn to the trees he sees on his job route and dreams of them in black and white, Maya Deren-esque images at night. These dreams mirror his photography, and when he gets his film rolls back from the lab, he goes through each stack of developed prints quickly — an artist who knows what he's looking for and has been at it for some time.

Art and a life pursuing it, in big or small ways, is the driver of Perfect Days, which acts as a love letter to dreamers who chase the unknown and then wake up to do it all over again. Throughout the film, Hirayama tries to capture the ephemeral among the daily minutiae, refining his own art, while being a great appreciator of the works of others.

Revolving around his own controlled world, like nurturing trees from seedlings that he finds in parks at home, Hirayama is as much a craftsman as he is a daydreamer. The film's aspect ratio also highlights the contained and purposeful aspect of Hirayama's life, composed in shades of purples, greys and greens. When the predictability of his surroundings and the expectation of his routines are disrupted, he's noticeably rattled. The illusion of the control he has is shaken up by Takashi quitting his job (forcing Hirayama to work late), as well as his niece Niko (Arisa Nakano) unexpectedly turning up at his apartment after running away from home. But a new day is a new chance and more time to curate perfection again.

The film's soundtrack is tied up in nostalgia, adding colour to Hirayama's present and providing him with another source of beauty while also offering moments of connection with the people in his orbit. Takashi's unrequited crush (Aoi Yamada) takes to Patti Smith's "Redondo Beach" while getting a ride in Hirayama's van, so much so she steals the cassette before returning it later and professing how much she loves it. The characters connect with each other across generational boundaries through the music and, importantly, through physical media — cassettes, photographs, books — that can be passed on, stolen, missed, touched, ripped apart. The earnestness is adhered to so tightly in these scenes that it can veer on twee, but the preciousness resists becoming cloying and instead remains simply sweet.

Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" can be seen as a nucleus of the film, both for its title and because a few versions of the song are heard throughout. The song's lyrics lend themselves to all the little things Hirayama finds that "keep him hanging on." Like the art it holds so dear, Perfect Days captures the awe, contentment, curiosity, delight and melancholy of existing that stretch out over a lifetime, but that can be evoked instantly when distilled into a song or image. Hirayama's face is so emotive while listening to these songs, viewers are left wondering how much of what is sung about in these songs are things he has lived or relates to. What do these song remind him of — happiness or pain?

"Aren't you ever lonely?" Takashi asks — a question that's never answered. We can only infer the life Hirayama has lived: layers of meaning attached to songs, images and people, but still yearning for something that hasn't been found.
(Elevation Pictures)

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