CANNES 2023: Wim Wenders’ fiction film at the festival is a delicate and slyly melancholic ode to the search for happiness.
On one hand, the strong feeling of “service” and “the common good” in Japan, on the other hand, the sheer architectural beauty of these public sanitary places. I was amazed at how much “toilets” can be part of everyday culture, not just an almost embarrassing necessity. --Wim Wenders
One of the best things cinema can do is make us slow down and appreciate the simple fact of being alive. The limited scope of the frame and film’s ability to stretch out time can draw our attention back to the little things that are right there for us to enjoy and marvel at, but are so easy to ignore in favour of work, future plans, or more often all the ways in which reality falls short of our hopes and desires.
Wim Wenders is a filmmaker well versed in the cinema of longing — Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987) remain two of its most evocative examples — and Perfect Days, playing in Competition at the 76th Cannes Film Festival, is another addition to this canon, even if a relatively minor one.
One of the film’s most original aspects is its embedded position within a recognisable and extremely contemporary reality, where this kind of existential reflection is usually hard to come by. Koji Yakusho (the dashing star of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata among many other films) plays Hirayama, a middle-aged man working as a toilet cleaner in Tokyo.
Attentive to the world around him both in his free time and at work, Hirayama always notices its beauties, both unexpected and recurring. In perfect harmony with his surroundings, he wakes up everyday to the faint sound of a neighbour sweeping her front porch, and follows the same morning routine with seemingly unchanging delight. When he steps out of his building on his way to work, he looks up at the sky and smiles, rain or shine. It certainly helps that the public restrooms he is responsible for are all situated in picturesque areas and relatively modern in build — the most beautiful one has transparent walls that become opaque when the door is locked.
Cinematographer Franz Lustig — who also shot Wenders’ Anselm — crafts harmonious and soft images of Tokyo in the inherently pleasing 4:3 format, with a short focal length giving them palpable depth and particular attention paid to the many textures Hirayama encounters. Together with the film’s careful sound design, and Yakusho’s embodied performance, this visual strategy creates a fully enveloping and engrossing sensual experience involving all the senses.
A spell that is sadly broken every time Hirayama gets into his immaculately maintained, fully equipped work van and starts playing one of his cassette tapes, which happens very often. The songs are all unarguably great, but no one’s taste could realistically be that bland and uniform. From The Animals to Otis Redding and Patti Smith, the film is a jukebox of classic American songs from the 1960s and 70s that still make millions of people happy to be alive, but hardly feel like the idiosyncratic picks of an individual. Wenders underlines their comforting aspect by sometimes matching them with the events on screen: the sunrise is accompanied by House of the Rising Sun, for example, and when Lou Reed’s Perfect Day plays near the end, the needle drop feels both inevitable and mawkish.
The film however isn’t entirely without edges. One of its most suspenseful moments comes once we have seen one entire day of Hirayama’s life, and the sun rises again the next day. Surely he will get bored — he does not. But having discovered the bliss of his first day, what becomes more noticeable during the next is how alone Hirayama is. Open to the world yet always by himself, this balance isn’t easy to maintain. When people do attempt to make contact with him (beyond a “hello” or “goodbye” to the restaurant chef or a nod at a homeless man in the park), we too are apprehensive. Hirayama’s young colleague Takashi (Tokio Emoto) is proof of how easy it is to get hurt and disappointed by others; but his encounter with Takashi’s girlfriend becomes a beautiful connection. It is however brief, further justifying Hirayama’s lifestyle choices as a loner, surrounded by his plants, his music and his books.
The real challenge occurs when Hirayama’s niece shows up on his front door — Hirayama does, after all, come from somewhere, and family relationships can survive better than most this relentless cycle of coming together and abandonment. Niko (Arisa Nakano) is far from a turbulent teenager and truly connects with her uncle, bonding with him over his music and even curious about his work. Why was she not a bigger part of his life before?If Hirayama’s days can only be truly perfect when he is alone, where does this leave her?
Wenders lets us ponder this question on our own, in a film ultimately much more anguished and raw than it initially appears. Lou Reed’s song is about a day spent with a lover; Hirayama’s best chance at a love life is a restaurant owner (Sayuri Ishikawa) he has known for years but whose life he knows practically nothing about; he wants to keep it that way.
Perfect Days is produced by Japan's Master Mind LTD. and Spoon Inc. and Germany's Wenders Images. The Match Factory handles international sales.