A man who lives alone in spartan accommodation, sticking to the same daily routine, devoting himself to his job and barely speaking to anyone? Cinema has taught us that he is bound to be an assassin, a spy, a fugitive or a potential mass murderer. But in Wim Wenders’ “Perfect Days,” which premiered in the Main Competition at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday, he is a modest toilet cleaner – and this gentle, philosophical character study is all the more mesmeric for it.
The 77-year-old director’s fictional work has been overshadowed by his documentaries lately, but his new film, a fictional work which sometimes resembles a documentary, is a significant return to form for the director who won the Palme d’Or in 1984 for “Paris, Texas.” It begins by introducing us to the middle-aged Hirayama (Koji Yakusho) as he wakes up alone in his small flat. Once he’s cleaned his teeth, trimmed his moustache and spray-misted his plants – yes, no detail is spared – he puts on a boilersuit with “The Tokyo Toilet” printed on the back, buys a can of coffee from the machine by his building, and drives his blue van through the city’s forest of skyscrapers to the first of several public toilets he is due to clean.
He treats every one of these as if it’s a royal throne, even using a small mirror – the kind that’s usually seen in bomb-disposal thrillers – to check for dirt that might be hidden from view. A colleague tells him to relax because “it gets dirty again, anyway,” but Hirayama might as well be a monk or a samurai. He does everything with quiet diligence, including, we later learn, his house-cleaning, his laundry and his visits to a bathhouse. Mundane as it all is, Wenders, ever the documentarian, is fascinated by every tiny aspect of Hirayami’s existence, and the film’s cinematography, editing and acting have the same quiet diligence.
Nor is there anything patronizing or condescending about it. The hostess in a bar and the manager of a subway station cafe greet Hirayami cheerily whenever he sits down to dine, so it’s not as if he is a misanthropic recluse. He also has a rich cultural life. As he drives around the city, he listens to cassettes of 1960s and 1970s rock music (Lou Reed’s classic song provides the title); he makes regular visits to the same book shop to buy paperbacks; and he photographs trees with an analogue pocket camera: the film’s boxy Academy ratio makes every shot look like a picture Hirayama might have taken.
Most importantly, he is happy. He frequently stops to smile at the blue sky between the buildings. This laconic man appears to have boiled 21st-century city life down to its essence, thus raising the question of whether we could all benefit from doing something similar.
The film’s first half hour takes us through just one of his perfect days, a day so orderly that the viewer may well feel themselves filling with dread. Something, after all, has to go wrong. Will Hirayama find a corpse in one of those toilets, or a duffel bag stuffed with a drug dealer’s ill-gotten gains? Will his serenity be shattered by a debilitating accident or a femme fatale?
Without wishing to give too much away, “Perfect Days” doesn’t go down any of these obvious paths. There is some trouble on day two when a feckless young colleague (Tokio Emoto, whose clowning is unfortunately even more annoying to the viewer than it is to Hirayama) insists on borrowing his van and then tries to pressure him into selling his precious collection of cassettes. Later, a figure from Hirayama’s past turns up on his doorstep and their dialogue makes it clear that he once led a life very different to this one. Later still, there are hints that he could embark on a romance.
But there is never a moment when a conventional plot kicks in, or when a major revelation casts what we have seen in a harsh new light. “Perfect Days” has plenty of amusing scenes and plenty of touching ones, but it would be stretching the definitions to describe it as either a comedy or a drama. Co-written by Takuma Takasaki, it’s simply an endearing, admiring portrait of a decent man with faint reflections of Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” and David Gelb’s documentary, “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi.” Everyone who sees it will start viewing the world a little differently, public toilets and all.