If Perfect Days, the new film from director Wim Wenders debuting at the 2023 London Film Festival, proves anything, it’s that all you need to make a transfixing piece of cinema, is a truly great song and a truly great actor reacting to it. There may be sequences like that coming to your minds, but this is a trick Perfect Days pulls out a couple of times and each time its absolutely transcendent. I find myself asking, do I really love this movie or does it just have all my favorite songs in it? Certainly the charms of “Pale Blue Eyes”, “Redondo Beach”, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”, “Perfect Day”, “Feelin’ Good” and “The House of the Rising Sun” are a cinematic cheat code, and all you have to do is point a camera at Koji Yakusho and he’ll hold the audience in the palm of his hand, but then, is it really cheating to do that when that’s really all Perfect Days does?
Yakusho plays Hirayama, a conscientious and taciturn middle-aged Tokyo toilet attendant who loves reading, listening to classic rock and soul music, misting his plants, people-watching, photographing trees, watching baseball and generally tending to his own needs and keeping to himself. If a film that consists of nothing more than showing us a contemplative, quietly life-changing (or rather, not) week in the life of this sort of man sounds incredibly dull, then maybe Perfect Days isn’t the film for you. If it sounds kind of familiar, then you’ve probably seen Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, which follows a week in the life of the titular bus driver and amateur poet, or maybe Lucky, which followed Harry Dean Stanton’s nonagenarian crank through a week in his life. Yes, it’s pretty undeniable that these movies are operating on a similar level. They also happen to be some of my favorite movies in recent memory, but even compared to the likes of Lucky and Paterson, Perfect Days is slow, low-stakes and contemplative. Even most Ozu movies were more plot heavy than this.
It could’ve all felt very twee and whimsical or just outright dull, but as previously stated, we’re in the hands of Wim Wenders and Koji Yakusho here. Yakusho is already established as one of my favorite actors from his work in The Third Murder, 13 Assassins and most memorably of all, Cure. His performance here is a far cry form those roles though, it’s almost like going from Rooney Mara in The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo to Rooney Mara in Carol. Those were dark, mysterious, dangerous parts, and you might waste a fair portion of Perfect Days‘s runtime wondering if there’s some violent past our hero is running from, he’s certainly keeping a low profile. Dispel such generic notions at the gate, Hirayama really is as wholesome as he appears. He’s a little crochety, you would be too if your sole co-worker were anything like Takashi (Tokio Emoto) and considering he cleans toilets for a living, he’s remarkably content in his life. In a different film too, an unexpected visit from his runaway niece (Arisa Nakano) would be the catalyst for some kind of change or confrontation, but no, this dramatic episode populates only a small section in the second half.
So…what does happen in Perfect Days, or more pointedly, what is Perfect Days about?
Well, the best answer I can give, and some might roll their eyes at this, is that Perfect Days is a film about life. What is it like to live Hirayama’s life and is it a life well lived? What would we think if we had his life? What does he think of it? If he is content, what does contentment mean and what would it take for us to find it in our own lives? A film posing these questions is certainly at risk of becoming incredibly self important and dry, but the approach to the material taken by Wenders and co is as warm, humane and wholesome as it is thoughtful, judicious and reserved. The slow, repetitive pace of days ticking by, presented with a lightly romanticized sense of wonder and dry humor creates a legitimately transcendental effect. The music does help, a soundtrack of some of the greatest songs ever made is a welcome reminder of the depth cinema has, and the power of music to elevate the everyday into the poetic realm. Music is cinema and when we play music to ourselves as we go about our day, we’re no longer toilet cleaners, we’re stars is the movie of our own lives. That’s what art is, something we choose to have reverberate through our lives.
The success of Perfect Days rests just as heavily on the shoulders of Yakusho, whose sensitive, emotive performance is one of the year’s best. He won the Best Actor prize at Cannes and it’s clear why. The warmth and feeling he projects and how much he’s able to articulate, often without words is astonishing. I’m sure it was the final scene that sealed it for him. There’s also some lovely supporting performances as well with many of the faces that drift in and out of the story as intriuging and memorable as Yakusho’s own.
Some may find it trite and many more will just think it dull, but Perfect Days is a film that wears its slowness exceptionally well. With such ease and humility, Wenders puts his hand on the kind of consistently transcendent tone that eludes so many other purveyors of slow cinema, saying little outright but absorbing the viewer in the rhythms and routines of a life that is not their own and allowing what perspective emerges from that process to do so naturally. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Perfect Days is that I watched it the same day as Killers of the Flower Moon and this is the film I have kept on thinking about since.