"Perfect Days" profiles fascinating Tokyo toilet cleaner Hirayama
By Diane Carson
A director strikes gold when he creates an engaging character of integrity and strength, one who doesn’t parade his ego to the world, one who wears his history well, with restraint, without sentimentality, and yet with profound, suppressed pain. This individual takes pride in the most unglamorous job and cherishes the smallest details of his life.
He enjoys the sun on his face, helping a stranger, or bonding with his niece. This describes German director Wim Wenders “Perfect Days,” which depicts the dignity of serene Tokyo toilet cleaner Hirayama who carefully observes, perceptively registers, and calmly counters the world around him. Yes, Hirayama, who keeps many toilets in contemporary Tokyo spotless, follows a daily ritual that keeps him grounded, a warm smile often gracing his face as he nurtures seedlings in his apartment and admires the trees they become. Yet, life is never that controllable. Therefore, what routine dependent, minimalist Hirayama encounters daily involves him in significant ways with his niece, coworkers (especially one very amusing man), passersby, and customers.
At Telluride where I saw “Perfect Days” followed by a Q&A with director Wim Wenders and star Koji Yakusho, Wenders expressed his abiding fascination with Japan. An invitation to see the marvelous, high-tech toilets installed in parks and city landscapes for the 2021 Olympics lured him back. Struck by their Pritzker Prize winners’ architectural designs, the toilets’ utilitarian aesthetic and cleanliness, Wenders and co-writer Takuma Takasaki decided on the working-class Oshiage neighborhood. They honored the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu in naming the central character who anchors every scene Hirayama, the family name in Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece “Tokyo Story.” A perfectionist himself, for the film Yakusho learned every detail of Hirayama’s technical job.
The concluding scene is astonishing in its simplicity. It seems Yakusho has shown every nuanced emotion, and then his Hirayama finds more complex depths to express just with the most minute facile expressions. It left me breathless. As Hirayama, Koji Yakusho won Best Actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Among other awards, “Perfect Days” was nominated for the top prize, the Palme d’Or, and it won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes. It is in the running for this year’s Best International Feature Film Oscar. A perfect film, “Perfect Days” is in Japanese with English subtitles.