Perfect Days: a beautiful portrait of everyday life in Tokyo

Perfect Days
Perfect Days - MASTER MIND Ltd

Since the 1999 release of Buena Vista Social Club, Germany’s prolific Wim Wenders has found more success in documentaries than narrative features. So you could describe Perfect Days as a spectacular comeback – if spectacular weren’t entirely the wrong word for this softly spoken and lovingly detailed character study, about the steady yet quietly altering patterns of a Tokyo service worker’s daily life.

Intriguingly, it too started life as a documentary. A few years ago, Wenders was invited to the Japanese capital to tour the Tokyo Toilet Project, an initiative in which 17 public conveniences in the city’s Shibuya ward were given stylish makeovers. The initial plan was that Wenders would make a series of short films about their designers, but instead he and his co-writer Takuma Takasaki were inspired to write a fictional piece about a man who cleans them. Played with a mesmerising light touch by Kōji Yakusho, his name is Hirayama, and over the course of two hours we become intimately acquainted first with his routine, and then gradually through that, the man himself.

Each day begins with the shush-shushing of a neighbour’s broom that wakes him before dawn, and ends in the soft glow of the lamp by which he reads every night in his snug apartment nestled in the bygone jumble of the city’s Asakusa district. Between these bookends come the toilets themselves – all enviably clean even before Hirayama gets to scrubbing them, and brilliantly designed. (One, which became something of a viral sensation in 2020, has transparent glass walls which turn opaque when the lock is clicked.)

Breakfast is canned coffee from a vending machine; a soak at a bathhouse a regular post-work treat; dinner a hot meal at a friendly izakaya in the local station.

“Otsukaresama!”, the proprietor jovially cries as he sets down Hirayama’s plate: thank you for your hard work. And just as Hirayama’s work invisibly improves the lots of countless Tokyoites, the invisible vending-machine stockist, the bathhouse attendants, cooks behind the hotplate, bookshop and camera shop owners and so on all improve his. Life is shown to be a daily game of join-the-dots, but it’s only when everyone’s lines criss-cross that the bigger picture – or, bolder still, the meaning – can emerge.

In place of plot we get incidents. The arrival of a runaway niece (Arisa Nakano) drops us some crumbs regarding Hirayama’s own family background, while the romantic travails of his younger colleague (Tokio Emoto) provide comic relief. Meanwhile, the excellent soundtrack comes to us via Hirayama’s cassette tape collection, which he plays in his van between stops: Otis Redding, Van Morrison, Patti Smith and – naturally, per the title – Lou Reed.

Wenders’ obvious affection for Tokyo itself, his keen feel for texture and neat avoidance of cliché all suggest Perfect Days is likely to age well as a portrait of a great city’s everyday side. (In that respect, it makes a fine companion piece to his 1985 documentary Tokyo-Ga.) But it feels like the opposite of a historical document – rather, like the dappled sunlight that keeps catching Hirayama’s eye as it filters through the trees, it’s a tapestry of moments, each one flitting out of existence as soon as it arrives.


In cinemas from Friday