Thursday, February 22, 2024

A collection of "Perfect Days'

 I’m late to the party reviewing director Wim Wenders' Perfect Days, which had its premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, traveled the fall festival circuit, and finally found its way to theaters. 
   Simply put, as it should be in this case, Wenders tells the story of Hirayama (Koji Yakusho),  a middle-aged man who cleans amazingly well-kept and beautifully designed public toilets in downtown Tokyo.
    The idea of clean public restrooms proves a revelation. Who among us hasn’t submitted to pressing bathroom needs despite serious reservations we may have had about the available facilities?
   Wenders wrote a minimalist screenplay with author Takuma Takasaki and adopts a style that many critics have compared to Yasujiro Ozu, the great chronicler of family life in Japan who died in 1963. 
  Perhaps so, but Wenders seems to gravitate toward an outsider's view. He's an outsider here, as he was to American culture in Paris Texas (1984) or even in 1987's  Wings of Desire, set in Wenders' home country, but still reflecting Olympian distance from its characters.

   Perfect Days is about noticing the unnoticed. If you were to see a person meticulously cleaning toilets would you ask yourself, "What is the totality of this person’s life?" 

     Subsequent questions might follow: Is this person humiliated by what might be regarded as  “lowly” work? Is he ever disgusted by it? Does he aspire to more? Does his work breed contempt for those who create the dirt he strives to eliminate?

   Wenders applied his imagination to the task, and, in so doing, has created a movie that only hints at answers. Hirayama is a bit of a blank, a character defined by a series of small actions and routine.

 Hirayama awakens at the same time everyday. He trims his mustache before leaving his small apartment, furnished with bookshelves, a sleeping mat and not much else. The plants he waters are his only companions.

  Each morning, Hirayama buys a drink from a vending machine, boards his truck, and drives to work. En route, he listens to tapes of rock from the ‘60s and ‘70s. He lives in a world of oldies.

   On the job, Hirayama has minimal interactions with a more voluble co-worker (Tokio Emoto). When he breaks for lunch in a surrounding park, he takes photos of the swaying tree tops. 

  Contrary to expectation, Hirayama isn’t a hermit or misanthrope. He’s a loner, taking his evening meals  in an underground mall restaurant. He bathes at a public bathhouse. He doesn't seem lonely.

  When the film brings Hirayama into contact with a niece (Arisa Nakano), he's unexpectedly open. He later meets with the sister from whom he’s estranged. It's clear that she represents something he wants no part of.

   Whatever the reasons for Hirayama's rejection of his earlier life,  he has reduced his days to repetition and pattern. Rather than presenting him with suffocating constriction, his choices seem to have made life manageable, maybe even deeper.

   Consider: There's much to be gained by simply observing the same trees every day, watching light bounce around their leaves or observing how wind changes their posture. If Hirayama were an artist, no one would find his behavior odd.

   Maybe all we need to know is this: Hirayama had one kind of life. Now, he has another. He lives with concentrated attention in a city that affords him the anonymity he seems to need.

  We can't fully understand what all this means to Hirayama, and Wenders mostly keeps it that way. If he's an outsider, so, too, are we. 

   Or maybe I'm overthinking this. Maybe all Wenders is doing is answering a simple question: How does one man live? It's enough for a movie that resists the usual dramatic touchstones, opting instead for singularity, an undiluted look at a man thoroughly committed to the choices he’s made.

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