Perfect Days Movie Review: Wim Wenders Examines Perfect Solitude

Acclaimed German director Wim Wenders might seem an odd choice to helm a narrative feature about an elderly toilet cleaner in Japan, but he clearly understood the assignment with this contemplative gem about the beauty of solitude. The film tracks the daily grind of one veteran worker as he embraces the sameness of his duties, even as he notes small variances. Featuring a stunningly understated performance by Koji Yakusho, Wenders proves that there’s wonder to be found in the most mundane and overlooked of jobs.

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Hirayama wakes at dawn each day to set off in his maintenance van on his route of restroom maintenance, traveling a route that seems to always be in the shadow of the imposing Tokyo Skytree tower. These are not like dingy, disgusting U.S. bathrooms; they’re stylishly designed and pristine edifices kept in peak order by Hirayama and his co-workers. He operates independently, only crossing paths with another worker at one restroom. Wenders tracks these movements without explanation, allowing viewers to ease into Hirayama’s routine even as we wonder if a plot will emerge. 

There’s a sadness to Hirayama, as evidenced by his facial expressions, as well as his near total solitude. He’s stuck in the past, listening to mostly ‘60s U.S. rock music on cassette, buying and reading cheap used paperbacks, and taking actual photos of trees with an old film camera. He lives alone, seems to have no friends or family, and is only really noticed by the employees of the dive restaurants he frequents for meals. And yet, he seems completely satisfied with his station in life. 

Hirayama has no dialogue until halfway through the film, communicating with gestures and grunts as needed until that point. It’s only when his niece arrives on his doorstep after running away from home that we come to learn that he has a richer past than we might have imagined. He clearly has had no contact with his niece or any other family in years, which is driven home when his obviously well-off sister arrives in a chauffeured luxury car to retrieve her daughter and seeks confirmation that he is, indeed, simply working as a toilet cleaner.

The character of Hirayama is a puzzle that viewers will long to solve. Wenders refuses to provide easy answers, leaving his character’s history and motivations open to interpretation. He seems to be guiding viewers to enjoy the trip, not obsess about the destination. Much of that enjoyment is driven by Yakusho’s indelible performance, communicating volumes with his expressions even as his character largely shuns human interaction. What some may view as a career in purgatory, Hirayama sees as a blessing, as he’s left to his own devices, satisfied with his execution of a job well done, and content with his simple and solitary pleasures.

Perfect Days is nominated for an Oscar this year for Best International Feature Film, and opens in U.S. theaters this week. Yakusho is already a winner for the film as Best Actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, following a career of international attention in films such as Shall We Dance, Babel and Memoirs of a Geisha. For information on theatrical engagements, including multiple in-person appearances by Wenders and Yakusho in the L.A. area this week, visit the NEON website here.

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Steve Geise

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