"The core of mankind's essence is accessible through even the smallest side door." - Siegfried Kracauer.
Given his obvious admiration for the films of Yasujirō Ozu, it’s hardly surprising that Wim Wenders should have chosen Tokyo as the location for his latest film. A stripped-back, pared-down homage to the great Japanese director’s laconic and laid-back style, Wenders relentlessly pursues the daily life of his protagonist, a public toilet cleaner in the wealthy enclave of Shobuya. As in many of his films, not much happens on the surface, but a great deal is implied by the sparsity of dialogue.
On one level, nothing much happens in many of Wenders’ films, from ‘Kings of The Road’ to ‘Wings of Desire’ (re-made as the hideous ‘City of Angels’). He’s clearly much more interested in exploring ambient textures and moods, and his use of music as a form of tonal amplification is never less than masterly - in this case, the deeply ironic music and lyrics of Patti Smith, The Kinks, Nina Simone, and everyone’s favourite ex-junkie turned Buddhist Lou Reed.
Combining three short stories by Takuma Takasaki, the screenplay was written in three weeks and shot in only seventeen days - and sixty years after Ozu’s final film, ‘An Autumn Afternoon.’ Wenders has commented that it’s "not a coincidence that our hero's name is Hirayama,” which he shares with the main character in Ozu's last movie, also filmed in Tokyo.
Hirayama leads a highly structured everyday life of precise routine, awakening on a tatami mat each morning, cleaning his teeth, spraying his collection of seedling tree sprouts under a fluorescent glow lamp, and drinking a can of iced coffee each morning before heading off to work in his van. He eats his lunchtime sandwiches on the same park bench and dines on noodles at the same bar he's frequented for six years or at another noodle shop in an underground mall. His free time is dedicated to photographing repeatedly the same trees in the park, listening to cassettes tapes of classic 1970s rock music on his daily commute, and reading American novels each night before he falls asleep.
At each location, Hirayama changes into a jumpsuit and with his assortment of keys, brushes, surgical gloves, wipes and mops matter-of-factly gets on with the job in hand. He has a goofy and unreliable young assistant whose main purpose is to point up his tolerant maturity and calm. The high-end, high-tech public toilets are themselves beautifully constructed works of art and there are plenty of gorgeous, magic-hour scenes served up like salmon rolls at a sushi bar by cinematographer Franz Lustig, who shot the film in the classic Academy frame.
Hirayama also has a deep connection with the natural world of plants and trees, photographing them and filing away his pictures. His spartan, obsessive-compulsive existence is punctuated by strangely silent encounters with a number of oddball characters he runs into on his diurnal rounds, including a couple of old men with whom he frequents the public baths (entirely innocently). More of his past is gradually revealed through a series of unexpected encounters with his work partner’s girlfriend, a bar owner, and his niece.
Yogi Kashugo provides a wonderfully understated performance which won him the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year. He depicts Hirayama’s life as rigorously Zen-like in its principles and his nature worship as deeply rooted in Shintoism, which allows us plenty of room to speculate over the reasons behind his extreme need for such a highly structured existence.
Hirayama has a particular fondness for Tokyo’s “Skytree” tower, especially when it’s lit up at night. He’s clearly highly intelligent, cultivated, and cultured man, who may have once enjoyed great social status, but has chosen this monkish quotidian existence for reasons he keeps to himself, possibly in retreat from some personal trauma.
At one point he shares some cans of beer and cigarettes with the bar owner’s brutal and dying ex-husband, knocking them back in a way that suggests they may have been addictive vices earlier in his life. When he’s confronted by his obviously wealthy sister, who tells him their father’s dementia is a growing problem, she is clearly stunned by where he lives and what he has chosen to do for a living. Given the nature of his work, the role of water and the importance of ‘staying clean’ obviously play an oversized part in his life.
Alongside Werner Herzog, Wenders is the most prolific and gifted of German auteurs who emerged in the 1970s. His previous documentaries on The Buena Vista Social Club, the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, and the visual artist Anselm Kiefer were all stunning meditations on genius and creativity (the last two greatly enhanced by being shot in 3D), while ‘Paris, Texas’ remains the ultimate American road movie.
Wenders has spoken in the past of his “disappointment” at the dominance of mainstream remakes and “repetitive” film franchises - “I feel all the imagination has now gone only into ‘How do I vary it?’ and not ‘How do I come up with something new?’ For me, this is not storytelling. Doing a remake is not storytelling. It is like repeating a story that has been told and my only desire is to find out how to tell a story. And then forget about it.”
Wenders notes that Cannes is much changed since 1984, when he took its top prize. “Everyone here is not so cinema-oriented any more.Now there’s a lot of people who love the business of movies. And the business must not be the primary focus, although they do go along with each other. Business is driving it all today. Series, franchises, remakes - or ‘recipes’ for films. It disappoints me, the success of recipe-made movies.”
‘Perfect Days’ is a vital visual antidote to all that sort of cinematic overkill - “In a world of fleeting moments, find the beauty that lasts.”