Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Reel Thoughts: “Perfect Days” broke my heart as it searched for solace in the little things

Wim+Wenders%E2%80%99+new+film+anatomizes+the+life+of+a+Tokyo+janitor.
Illustration by Ariel Gurevich
Wim Wenders’ new film anatomizes the life of a Tokyo janitor.

I think it’s safe to say that, for most of us, our idea of a “perfect day” doesn’t involve waking up at 5 a.m. to clean toilets. In fact, it probably doesn’t involve reading William Faulkner either. And yet, this is the life that Hirayama (Koji Yakusho), the protagonist of Wim Wenders’ new film, “Perfect Days,” has chosen for himself. At times endearingly funny and utterly heartbreaking at others, “Perfect Days” illustrates the beauty of Hirayama’s difficult, solitary life.

The daily regimen that Hirayama follows with compulsive precision is roughly the following: He rises at dawn, brushes his teeth, waters his plants, smiles at the brightening sky when he steps outside (every morning, if he can help it), buys a soda and heads to work. In the car he plays one of the cassettes from his remarkably tasteful collection, perhaps Lou Reed or David Bowie. All day, he meticulously cleans high-tech public restrooms owned by a company called The Tokyo Toilet with the help of his younger, less diligent assistant Takashi (Tokio Emoto). When he isn’t working, he takes film photographs of tree-tops in the public park and scouts seedlings to add to his collection at home. In the evening, he reads classic literature until he starts to fall asleep. Rinse, repeat.

Various Takashi antics threaten to upset the delicate equilibrium of Hirayama’s life, as does the arrival of his runaway niece, but Hirayama manages to maintain his zen-like dignity and composure.

At first, the tedium of Hirayama’s ascetic lifestyle seems about as far from “perfect” as one could imagine. But little by little you start to see his philosophy for what it really is: finding joy in the small things. “Perfect Days” teaches us that it doesn’t matter what you do; it’s about how you do it. Hirayama may clean toilets, but he does it with all the passion and care of a painter layering brushstrokes. He doesn’t let any opportunity to brighten his day slip, like when he plays an impromptu game of tic-tac-toe with someone who tucked a sheet of paper behind the sink of the restroom he cleans.

Wenders’ minimalist approach is perfect for “Perfect Days,” making every frame both streamlined and aesthetically beautiful, much like the protagonist’s life. Hirayama’s dreams, black-and-white sequences of trees blending into one another, stand out as an example of Wenders’ understated mastery. 

Yakusho’s nuanced performance is similarly well-suited to the subject matter. He plays the introverted Hirayama with just the right degree of aloofness to make the character’s brief moments of emotional crisis all the more devastating.

“Perfect Days” is, in Wenders’ own words, a movie about trying to live a “simple, honest life.” Hirayama’s life may not be especially glamorous, but it is also incredible. Hirayama lives by his own rules, and he is content with what happiness he can make for himself. His life asks of him only as much as he is capable and willing to give. There are times when this balance falters, and the earnestness of Hirayama’s internal strife in these moments nearly brought me to tears.

In Hirayama, we have a man that wants, more than anything, to live a life apart from the messiness of close relationships and worldly concerns. I may not know what it’s like to clean toilets in Tokyo, but I think many of us can understand the desire to escape the expectations that the world places on our shoulders.

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