starring Kôji Yakusho, Tokio Emoto, Arisa Nakano, Tomokazu Miura
written by Wim Wenders, Takuma Takasaki
directed by Wim Wenders
by Walter Chaw Hirayama (Kôji Yakusho) notices little things. Like the sunlight dappling the trees. Or the doomed sproutling, too close to its mother to survive, pushing its way out of the ground. He gestures at the park's caretaker, asking if it would be all right for him to rescue the plant, and carefully transplants it to a piece of newspaper he's folded into a cup. Hirayama works for Tokyo, cleaning its network of public toilets. He listens to his collection of '60s and '70s music on cassette tapes in his municipal van--dark blue, same as his jumpsuit, the colour playing counterpoint to The Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes," which provides the soundtrack for our first ride home with him during magic hour. (I have to imagine the character of Niko (Arisa Nakano) was not accidentally named.) Once he returns to his spartan flat, he plants the sapling in a pot and puts it in a room full of its spiritual brothers and sisters at various stages of thriving. Hirayama goes to his favourite restaurant stall in the subway, then a bathhouse, where he soaks and listens to other men converse. Then it's off to bed reading Faulkner. The first lesson of Wim Wenders's Perfect Days is that it is possible to live a full and beautiful life, at least for a while, in a small space: watered, fed, warm, cared for...and wanted, though it isn't clear at first that anyone is thinking about Hirayama.
Wenders has been guided throughout his career by two north stars: the lonesomeness amid the dense modernity of Edward Hopper; and the winsome melancholy of inevitable separation in Ozu. I have found comfort and loveliness in all of his films, both the obvious ones like Wings of Desire and less obvious ones like The End of Violence or The Million Dollar Hotel. Before Perfect Days, my favourite of his was his extended cut of Until the End of the World, mainly for how it honoured both of Wenders's cinematic fathers: a visual and philosophical exploration of how you could be absolutely alone surrounded by people you love, in thrall to the vast design of an ecstatic universe to which you are at once essential and of no consequence at all. There is a scene in Perfect Days where Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" plays, perhaps inevitably. It drops in after Hirayama receives a peck on the cheek from club girl Aya (Aoi Yamada), who's so overcome from sitting in his van listening to Patti Smith's "Redondo Beach," a song about searching, that she kisses him and runs away. As Hirayama lies in his apartment listening to "Perfect Day," eyes closed, a faint smile plays on his lips. I don't think he's imagining being with Aya--I think he's imagining what it feels like to hear Patti Smith for the first time when you're really vulnerable to the roughhewn magic of her longing. When you need her.
Perfect Days is about need, albeit not in the sense you might think. Young co-worker Takashi (Tokio Emoto) calls Hirayama "weird" for being so fastidious in his habits, for being disinterested in things other people are interested in, like finding a girlfriend or making money selling his tapes. Hirayama watches shadows at play on concrete walls. He likes to say that next time is next time and "now is now." He says it to his niece, Niko, who's run away from home to spend time with her uncle. He tells her that she and her mother live in a different world from Hirayama. While he doesn't say it with regret, he does seem to regret that they've grown apart, just as I think he's touched and astounded that Niko has chosen him as a refuge from her troubles. It's dangerous for Hirayama to look too far into the future. I don't know why. His trees will outgrow their pots one day and need to be replanted in the wild if they're to flourish. But that's later. Now is now. Perfect Days is devastating because although it is about need, the hero for whom we wish the best doesn't know he is in need. He lives his perfect days, the avatar of a Kierkegaardian comfort in the sameness of his behaviours, wanting nothing and needing nothing but his routine to be uninterrupted and unchanged (see what happens when Takashi no-shows for his shifts and placid Hirayama loses his shit). When his estranged sister (Yuriko Kawasaki) comes to collect Niko, he hugs her. Shocked, she doesn't quite return it, then averts her gaze so she doesn't see his terrible, if fleeting, recognition of his own need.
Hirayama shares a moment near the end with a stranger by the water. The stranger's name is Tomoyama (Tomokazu Miura), and he's the ex-husband of restauranteur Mama (Sayri Ishikawa), who, with only a little goading, will sing a desperate and urgent Japanese version of "The House of the Rising Sun." Tomoyama tells Hirayama that he's dying and, apropos of nothing, wonders whether shadows get darker when they overlap. Hirayama doesn't know, but it's something they can test then and there under the streetlights on the bank of the Sumida River. My favourite lyric in the Simon & Garfunkel songbook is from "Bleecker Street," the third cut on their debut album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.. (As an exercise when I was small and couldn't speak English, my parents had me transcribe the words as I heard them from this record and others, over and over, until I knew every pop and hiss by heart.) The lyric is:
Voices leaking from a sad café
Smiling faces try to understand.
I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand
On Bleecker Street
Tomoyama and Hirayama are shadows, and they're overlapping here on the shore of a river that has always and will always flow to the sea, a tributary from the Arakawa and the Sakujii and the Kanda. But no number of shadows lends its fellows any substance. We are here and then we're gone to make room for the next. The next is next and now is now. At the end of Perfect Days, Hirayama drives to work listening to Nina Simone's "Feeling Good," and Wenders holds on his face as he cycles through every emotion, every realization, every rationalization for being alone, every small pleasure that, ultimately, is everything important in our lives. The tension in Perfect Days is in how we look at this man we come to love as he sleeps alone, eats alone, and exchanges small talk with others. We long for him to find someone to share his life with--but as long as he is suspended in this delicate middle space between want and fulfillment, he is grateful, joyful, and...perfect. Perfect Days is about how tiny a pedestal "now" is. How precious it is. And now it's gone.