This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
Koji Yakusho's Hirayama perfectly encapsulates what Perfect Days is all about; living in the moment, appreciating the small things, and being content with the simple life. Except, maybe that feeling of content isn't exactly true. Director Wim Wender returns to fictional features with this quiet, meditative film, following a humble toilet cleaner's day-to-day life. Don't let the simple synopsis fool you; Perfect Days is consistently engaging, and packs in so much life and emotion that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
The film opens with Hirayama, a middle-aged man, going through his meticulous morning routine. Brushing his teeth, finely trimming his moustache, watering his plants. He resides in a minimalistic home, but neat rows of cassettes and books tucked away hint that Hirayama is a quietly intellectual and cultured man. After putting on his Tokyo Toilet uniform, he grabs a canned coffee from the vending machine sitting behind his van, before driving off throughout Tokyo carrying out his work.
Hirayama is a quiet man who rarely speaks over the entire two hour runtime, but his face – particularly his eyes – do all of the talking. Yakusho delivers one of the best performances of the year; there's a reason he was crowned the Best Actor at Cannes earlier this year. You feel every moment of genuine joy, each fleeting flash of sadness and regret, entirely through facial movements. Paired with gorgeous cinematography and simple but effective direction, you instantly see the world through Hirayama's eyes and are washed over with a profound new outlook on life. You'll never see the sky, the trees, hell even toilets, in the same way again.
The joy Hirayama finds in life derives from the people he interacts with and the environments he visits. It's no secret that Winder is very fond of Japan and Japanese culture, and Tokyo itself is a major character in Perfect Days. From the green parks and sacred sites to the bustling markets and tucked away record shops, this on screen Tokyo feels real, authentic and lived in. Which leads to the characters inhabiting this wonderful city. The people flowing in and out of Hirayama's day-to-day adventures each stand out with their quirky personalities memorably brought to life by a fantastic cast of performers. They'll effortlessly make you laugh and cry in equal measures, such as Hirayama's young and useless co-worker who sincerely overuses a particular catchphrase, or a downbeat ex-husband going through a tough time.
Another standout element of Perfect Days is the stellar soundtrack, made up of classics from the 60's and 70's. Tracks such as Otis Reading's (Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay and The Kinks' Sunny Afternoon perfectly fit into the mellow vibe Winder and Yakusho create, but those familiar with the lyrics of each track will uncover a deeper, melancholic meaning that calls into question Hirayama's feelings. Lou Reed sings “Oh, it's such a perfect day, I'm glad I spent it with you” on his aptly titled track Perfect Day that makes a key appearance in Perfect Days. Can that “you” be a stranger who we had a fleeting moment with, or does it need to be someone who we have a deeper emotional connection with?
Through the soundtrack, subtle plot developments, and Yakusho's open-book face, we're forced to contend with the possibility that living the simple life is in fact an idealistic fantasy. Most of us daydream about throwing away our phones, relocating somewhere far away, working an unglamorous job and living in the moment, but what are the real-world costs of that? This question quietly creeps into the narrative and builds towards a beautifully haunting, bittersweet ending that etches into your mind.
Even with the cautious undertones, you'll want to stay and hang out with Hirayama across Tokyo for hours and hours after the film ends. Perfect Days could have been a great, endearing ‘hang-out film', but that subtle emotional punch bubbling to the surface elevates the film into something truly special.
Perfect Days was shown as part of this year's BFI London Film Festival, and will be distributed by MUBI in the UK soon.