When Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days was announced to play in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, his first since 2008’s totally forgotten Palermo Shooting, it established multiple, willfully contradictory narratives in a manner almost unheard of. Few filmmakers still active today have endured a fall from prominence as marked as Wenders has; while his documentary work has continued to enjoy a certain recognition in the past few decades, it can be conceivably argued that, reclamation drives for previously underrated works aside, the German director has not received widespread praise for any of his fiction works since his epochal Wings of Desire, all the way back in 1987. Thus, advance expectations ran along two likely outcomes: that this was the unexpected resurrection of a great poetic filmmaker making a late period triumph, or that this was a token inclusion of a mediocre film from a festival notorious for its loyalty to its favorite aging auteurs.
The answer, as is typically the case, lies somewhere in the middle. Perfect Days — Wenders’ first fiction feature set entirely in his beloved Japan, where he filmed the Yasujirô Ozu documentary Tokyo-Ga (1985) and shot a significant section of Until the End of the World with Chishû Ryû himself — confines its focus solely to Hirayama (the always dependable and poised Kôji Yakusho), a middle-aged man living in Tokyo who works as a public toilet cleaner, charting his existence over the course of what appears to be a few weeks. He is, above all, a taciturn man of solitary and routine pleasures: listening to classic rock cassette tapes while driving to work, drinking several tall glasses of shôchû at a bar on his day off, taking photos with his Olympus film camera, reading a book before falling asleep each night, and so on. During the course of the film, these tendencies are both tested and bolstered alike by the people he encounters, including his mildly irritating younger coworker and his niece, the latter of whom stays with him for a spell after running away from home.
All of this is delivered in decidedly unemphatic ways, which gets to both Perfect Days‘ greatest strength and limitation: it is no more and no less than a simple observation piece that portrays its central character’s day-to-day life without diving much deeper than the surface. On the one hand, this avoids some of the narrative devices that even the most forthrightly quotidian films fall into: there is no grand crisis, no existential threat to Hirayama’s way of life that might feel contrived; each supporting character’s segment is neatly siloed into its own self-contained storyline; and while there are hints here and there about our man’s past, there is blessedly no big reveal, only a touchingly oddball encounter that serves as a sort of subdued emotional climax.
On the other, the viewer is left to contemplate Perfect Days‘ surfaces, for which mileage will certainly vary. Put bluntly, the viewer must be able to appreciate at least a little unironically the comically obvious and frequent songs that Wenders chooses to incorporate: this is a film where “House of the Rising Sun” is heard not just as the first cue, but during a bar scene where the owner sings it in Japanese while accompanied by acoustic guitar. Yes, Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” is played after an especially surprising and euphoric moment for Hirayama. As for the charges of Orientalism/exoticism that have been levied against this film, Wenders — in this critic’s view — takes his surroundings at face value, but the unadorned nature of much of the film renders it something of an odd Rorschach test, where something as simple as Hirayama’s constant gazes upwards at nature might register as satisfaction, resignation, or even a simple-mindedness that could be read as condescending.
Perfect Days, for its own part, is simple in ways that largely render it likable. While Wenders’ editing style may be a bit too choppy to allow the more pleasingly procedural scenes of scrubbing and cleaning to settle, there is still a clipped efficiency that gradually accumulates in moments of tension and release, giving way to the gorgeous black-and-white superimposition interludes that stand in for the hero’s impressionistic dreams; the film is shot in the in vogue Academy ratio without feeling like too much of an affectation. Often, behavioral detail — Hirayama’s penchant for taking his photos of a tree at lunch without looking through the viewfinder — and societal detail — the wildly varied designs of Tokyo’s public toilets, including an all-glass unit that automatically tints when the door is locked — alike carry the day. The fact that the well-acted and wisely held long close-up in the final scene of Perfect Days is scored to a song that literally spells out everything that is happening on screen is, in keeping with this film’s rhythms, entirely expected, and to be honest, at least a little cherished.
DIRECTOR: Wim Wenders; CAST: Kôji Yakusho, Tokio Emoto, Arisa Nakano, Aoi Yamada; DISTRIBUTOR: MUBI; IN THEATERS: November 10; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 59 min.
Published as part of San Sebastián Film Festival 2023: Dispatch 2.