The Austin Chronicle

Perfect Days

Rated PG, 123 min. Directed by Wim Wenders. Starring Kōji Yakusho, Arisa Nakano, Tokio Emoto.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Feb. 16, 2024

In 1987’s Wings of Desire – still German filmmaker Wim Wenders’ most celebrated work – an angel details the activities of humans he’s recently observed: “A woman in the rain folded up her umbrella and let herself get drenched. A schoolboy described to his teacher how a fern grew out of the earth and astonished the teacher.” These mundanities of life are a marvel to the angel, the human condition so intoxicating he trades in his wings in order to become a mere mortal.

Less showily but just as profoundly, Wenders’ newest film, the Oscar-nominated Perfect Days, takes similar pleasure in just being alive. Kōji Yakusho (Shall We Dance?) plays Hirayama, a sixtysomething toilet cleaner in Tokyo. On first introduction, the camera documents the beginning of his day, starting with the pre-sunrise scrape of a neighbor’s broom that so reliably wakes him, he doesn’t require an alarm clock. We watch Hirayama go through his regular routine: tending to his plants with a spray bottle, trimming an already neat mustache, buying a canned coffee from the vending machine outside his house. We are learning his routine so that we may better understand later deviations. But also, Wenders is setting the pace, fine-tuning our expectations. This is the kind of movie where you’re going to watch a guy brush his teeth more than once. And you’re going to like it.

That has everything to do with the mesmerizing presence of Yakusho, who took the Best Actor prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. His Hirayama – kind, pragmatic, principled – doesn’t speak often. Instead, he communicates largely with his body – a nod to acknowledge a stranger, a bow to greet a tree, and a big, beaming smile when he pops a well-worn tape into his van’s cassette player. Hirayama is an American culture junkie (not unlike Wenders), cycling through Velvet Underground, Otis Redding, Patti Smith, and Nina Simone, and devouring books by William Faulkner and Patricia Highsmith.

The books and the music keep Hirayama company; he lives a mostly solitary existence. That doesn’t mean his days aren’t full or without meaning. During breaks in his workday, he’ll pause to admire the shadows cast by leaves. (A note about the bathrooms Hirayama cleans: They’re part of something called The Tokyo Toilet Project, a collection of imaginatively designed public restrooms, and they’re very cool.) Over lunch break, he uses a point-and-click camera to capture a moment from his day – a tree, his visiting niece. The point is, he is alert to sensation, and by association, we become alert too. The film becomes a kind of meditative act.

Notably, Hirayama uses black-and-white film; his nightly dreams, when watery snippets of his day wash out of him, are also illustrated in black-and-white – another callback to Wings of Desire, where the angels’ perspective is rendered in black-and-white, humanity in vibrant color. (Powell and Pressburger pulled that trick first in 1946’s majestic A Matter of Life and Death, so emphatically casting its lot with the living.) The lack of color here makes sense – whether in photos or dreams, they mark moments when Hirayama experiences life from a remove. Mostly he is present – astonishingly present – and the perfect conduit for this stirring film’s gentle admonition: That the very best time to be living is now. Now. Now.

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