‘Perfect Days’: Cleaning the toilets of Tokyo
‘Perfect Days’ stars Kôji Yakusho

What is life for? How do you spend the brief time that we have on earth? What makes you happy? Will your work make you free?

Hirayama, portrayed by actor Kôji Yakusho, is a public toilet cleaner in Tokyo. In his brilliant new film Perfect Days, German director Wim Wenders follows him around on his daily routine. Day after day. Hirayama is quite thorough, fastidious even, cleaning bowls, latrines, basins, the entire waste collection and disposal spaces using various brooms, brushes and solvents.

Every day he rises early, drinks his coffee, drives his aging van from pit stop to pit stop, listening to old 8-track tapes as modern Tokyo whizzes by him. He eats his meals on park benches. Sleeps on a floor mat in a tiny, modest apartment. He uses an old camera to photograph komorebi, the sunlight filtering through the trees. His life unrolls slowly in front of us, as he infuses joy into basic tasks, appreciating small pleasures.

Eventually, we get a narrow, elliptical window into what has shaped his life. Limited encounters with a co-worker. A brief discussion with his sister. A visit from his niece. Will they upset or change Hirayama?

The picture Wenders paints is simple, but not stark. It is rich in detail that we see, sense and feel from objects pictured in the film and around us. It suggests more and less to the lives which viewers have and can always choose. One cannot watch a film such as this without questioning your own choices!

Clearly, there is a large bit of Hirayama in director Wenders, still one of the world’s greatest creators of film. While Perfect Days celebrates the less complicated, in apposition, he provides a critique of our more complex, fast-paced urban life. Similarly, his major works such as The American Friend, Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire, and Buena Vista Social Club have carved out visions of social, emotional, cultural, and economic critiques of modern life. His eyes are always windows to another world.

So make no mistake, Wenders has not created a still life. At the same time that the film celebrates basic beauties, relationships, and intellect, the director grounds his study in a framework of cultural, social, and political critique. He has quietly set up a dialectic between an ideal and the reality. We can and should always fight back against how our lives are organized for us. But how much can we control? How do we interface with the larger world? How can we try to change it?

The soundtrack gives us a clue. It is awash in rebels like Lou Reed, Nina Simone, the Velvet Underground, the Kinks, the Animals, and the Rolling Stones. Wenders is telling us: If you have not been censured, you will not be heard here!

Wenders is not asking for acceptance. He is questioning and suggesting action! As Lou Reed suggests in the lyrics of the movie’s titular song “Perfect Day,” “You’re going to reap just what you sow.”

Perfect Days was Japan’s entry for the Academy Award for Best International Feature. It is currently showing live at theaters. The trailer can be viewed here.

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Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.