Written by Tom Augustine.
If it were a younger, less-acclaimed filmmaker, some of the soundtrack choices in Perfect Days would be egregious to the point of parody. Not just the Lou Reed song referenced in the title of the film, but dusty standards like ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and ‘Sunny Afternoon’ dot the runtime of the film (as well as Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’, a song that transcends any notion of cliche), songs that have been recycled across cinema history ad nauseum. I often think of an interview I once heard with Quentin Tarantino, where he decried the use of songs in films that have already been made iconic in other films (I believe he used the example of ‘Time of My Life’ from Dirty Dancing). Since then, whenever I hear a song in a film that’s been used in a singularly momentous way in an earlier film, I’m always a little disappointed. That said, we’re talking about Wim Wenders here, the director of at least three of the greatest films ever made. He’s a filmmaker firmly ensconced in the halls of fame of seventies and eighties cinema: Paris Texas, Wings of Desire, Alice in the Cities, The American Friend, Until the End of the World, Buena Vista Social Club, and so on. There’s a certain elder statesman authority that Wenders wields in his utilisation of these standards that makes them work, against the odds.
Common sentiment is that Wenders’ late-period has been one of almost comical downturn – give or take Pina. That assessment has been overturned over the last year or so, with Wenders’ double-header release at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival – the 3D documentary Anselm and Perfect Days, which is surely Wenders most assured narrative work in at least a decade, so much so that it’s been nominated for Best International Feature at this year’s Oscars (the cause of some consternation, considering it was Japan’s selection for the year over Japanese-directed films like Godzilla Minus One, The Boy and the Heron, Monster and Evil Does Not Exist). This is surely down to the film’s gentle, reassuring vibe of an old master finding their groove again. Wenders here deploys the wonderful Japanese actor Koji Yakusho (star of Cure, one of the great films), who stars as Hirayama, a middle-aged toilet cleaner who seems to live a life of humble contentment in the lowkey repetition of his day-to-day activities. With lengthy but exacting patience, Wenders slowly clues us in to the reasons for Hirayama’s solitary existence, giving equal weight to the scars of his past and the means he undertakes in the present to ensure his ongoing peace of mind and soul.
Wim Wenders is responsible for some of the most important works of the late 20th Century in Paris Texas, Wings of Desire and Alice in the Cities. The visionary German filmmaker has earned the right to coast, which makes his patient and kind-hearted Perfect Days all the more special for its late-period artistic rigour.
In its quiet revolutions of the day to day, Wenders is working in the same frame as Jim Jarmusch’s recent masterpiece Paterson. Both filmmakers find a sort of enlightenment in methodical, modest living and both front load their films with sequences of repetition. In Perfect Days, whose title becomes ever more telling as the film proceeds, we see Hirayama rise from his humble bed in his humble apartment, buy the same canned Boss coffee from the same vending machine, attend to the same public toilets, all of which are surprisingly beautiful, before attending the same bar for a drink at the end of the day. The repetitiveness is never somnambulant, however – we are drawn in meditatively, rapt in our observation of Yakusho’s warm, craggy face. He seems at once out of place and chameleonic – he blends into his surroundings while proceeding through them as a ghost. We sense a barely registerable throb of grief beneath his carefully managed life, which becomes clear only later in the game with the arrival of unexpected figures from his past. It’s here that some of Wenders’ formal construction begins to loosen, much in the same way as Paterson – it’s also where the film is on shakiest ground. Fortunately, Wenders navigates this with customary grace, for the most part.
The primary criticism against the film has been that it is ultimately a false exercise, a phony ode to the ‘noble poor’ that suggests transcendence can be found in the drudgery of a capitalist existence. Whether or not Wenders is condescending to the poor (and those of a culture different to his own) can really only be measured by how much leeway you’re willing to award the filmmaker. Is it the work or the repetition that gives Hirayama some semblance of peace? Is Hirayama chasing the Thoreau-esque ideal in an urban landscape or is he a half-hearted dedication to the joys of labour? I can’t claim to be an authority on the politics of the filmmaker, but there may also be something to taking this film at face value. Perhaps the answer lies in the soundtrack that peppers the film, through Hirayama’s obsessive collecting of classic rock cassette tapes that he plays in his rickety old truck throughout his perfect days. Sometimes a great song is just a great song, no matter how many times you’ve heard it. Sometimes the pure power of old sentiment clears acidic, niggling questions of motivation. Wenders doesn’t seem to suggest that this is the perfect life, or that Hirayama is the perfect man, but in the man’s simple dedication to facing the sun every day, to ‘feeling good’, as Simone once was, Hirayama (and Wenders) brush up against something that fulfils the promise of the film’s lofty title.
Perfect Days is in cinemas now.
Movie title: Perfect Days (Wenders, 2024)
Movie description: Wim Wenders is responsible for some of the most important works of the late 20th Century in Paris Texas, Wings of Desire and Alice in the Cities. The visionary German filmmaker has earned the right to coast, which makes his patient and kind-hearted Perfect Days all the more special for its late-period artistic rigour.
Date published: January 25, 2024
Country: Japan, Germany
Author: Takuma Takasaki, Wim Wenders
Director(s): Wim Wenders
Actor(s): Koji Yakusho, Tokio Emoto