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Perfect Days ★★★1/2

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Sounds of Silence


Hirayama is quiet. He doesn’t speak for the first 45 minutes of auteur German director Wim Wenders’ latest film, nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature. The man we follow through his “perfect days” is as mesmerizing in his observational silence as the current crop of actors in “Oppenheimer,” “Barbie,” “Rustin,” or “Poor Things,” riveting as those performances may be. Hirayama exists in stark contrast to the whirlwind of our social media culture, with its extreme activity, its constant interaction, its attention-demanding TikTok circus of AI-enhanced games and manic performances.



Toilet cleaner Hirayama (Koji Yakusho) takes pleasure in the natural world, the movement of leaves.



Portrayed by the excruciatingly subtle Koji Yakusho, who won hearts almost 30 years ago in “Shall We Dance?” (1996), Hirayama opens his day with precise movements and patterns: folding up his floor futon, meticulously trimming his beard, putting on his work uniform emblazoned with “Tokyo Public Toilets” (in English). In his beat-up van, complete with a ‘70s cassette player, Hirayama glides  along the high-tech, inner-city highways of Tokyo, above and apart from the commuter fray, immersed in songs from another century, all with meaningful, often up-beat lyrics or rhythms (“Dock of the Bay,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “Brown Eyed Girl”). Bolstered by his morning can of vending-machine coffee, he prepares himself for his job as a cleaner of Tokyo’s distinctive, architect-designed public facilities, each with toilets (spotless, thanks to Hirayama) manufactured by Toto. Give Toto an Oscar for product placement.

 

Hirayama is the master of the small gesture, the connoisseur of the minimal experience.

 

The dedication to a job done well, the joy of observing shadows of foliage flicker on a cement wall, the pleasure from the wave of the hand of a lost boy after finding his mother—Hirayama is the master of the small gesture, the connoisseur of the minimal experience. His daily routine includes beer and dinner in an underground shop—the same beer, the same dinner, the same greeting, every evening; his weekly routine features a ritual of soap and water in a public bath house.

 

Within this paean to toilets, Wenders and Takasaki have fashioned a storyline that gently expands Hirayama’s world while offering insight into his experience.

 

Wenders co-wrote the script in 17 days, with screenwriter and ad executive Takuma Takasaki, who, along with other Japanese business leaders, wanted to champion Tokyo’s public toilets, built for the 2020 Olympic games, postponed because of Covid. Within this paean to toilets, Wenders and Takasaki have fashioned a storyline, an arc, one that gently expands Hirayama’s world while offering insight into his experience. A fellow worker’s girlfriend bonds with Hirayama over his music and his subdued satisfaction. A teenage niece, having run away from home, comes to live with him for a few days. His disdainful, moneyed sister arrives to retrieve her daughter, who has been touched. And what of Hirayama? What has he learned?


Hirayama's (Yakusho) nightly reading, which includes William Faulkner and Patricia Highsmith, indicates a past not reflected in his current occupation of cleaning public toilets.


Aki Kaurismäki’s “Fallen Leaves” offers a parallel in its two proletariat workers leading isolated lives of desperation. Is our toilet cleaner desperate? Is his patterned, private, inward-looking existence a healthy adaptation to a frenetic world, a more meaningful way of being than that of his sister, who is chauffeured around, or of those who live through their phones and can’t appreciate the pleasures of the natural world, the “milk in the pan,” “the ballad in the street,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it. Or is that withholding of speech, of demonstrative emotions, that fending off of more than minimal human contact, a strategy of survival, a protective withdrawal, a product of pain—something Hirayama can’t, and shouldn’t, shed?

 

Only in the end does the film betray its essence and violate its contract with the audience.

 

An actor of rare subtlety, Yakusho is able to communicate feelings through the slightest movement of his face or body, and one of the film’s great pleasures is reading Hirayama, through Yakusho. Only in the end, as Hirayama heads to work once again after an experience the night before that may—or may not—have changed his life, does the film betray its essence and violate its contract with the audience. In that final scene, Hirayama’s face suddenly erupts in a surfeit of expression, while a Nina Simone classic washes over him and the van and the scene, inexplicably telling us what happened and how we should think about it. At a moment when we ought to be deep in the mystery of this man, and contemplating his path forward, we don’t need a broad smile and the most obvious of lyrics to tell us that Hirayama is “Feeling Good.”

 

 

Date: 2023

Director: Wim Wenders

Starring: Koji Yakusho

Country: Japan, Germany

Language: Japanese, subtitled in English

Runtime: 124 minutes

Oscar Nominations: 2024 Best International Feature Film (Japan)

Other Awards: 4 wins and 35 nominations

 

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