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TIFF23: The Beauty of the Mundane in Perfect Days

Courtesy of TIFF

The mark of Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days, a selection of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, is its relentless routine. Over the course of the just-over-two-hour film, audiences are shown the day-to-day life of Hirayama (Kôji Yakusho), a toilet cleaner in the Shibuya area of Tokyo. As Wenders explained in a post-screening Q&A, he was approached by the Japanese government to make a project around these toilets, so he did as one does when presented with such an odd request. He flew to Tokyo to see the toilets. At first he thought he’d make a documentary about the baffling, architecturally beautiful public toilets constructed for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Instead, a narrative story began to develop about the man who cares for these toilets.

Hirayama has created a routine for himself that doesn’t change, come rain or shine. He wakes up to the sound of his neighbor sweeping her street before the sun rises. He puts a bookmark in his latest novel, shaves, brushes his teeth, sprays his little seedling collection, steps out the front door, and looks up. Every single morning, he looks up at the sky and a small smile crosses his features. After this brief moment of reflection, he buys a coffee from the vending machine, gets in his car, picks a ’70s or ’80s classic rock cassette, and drives to his first toilet stop. Even though more than twelve hours have passed since I watched the film, the routine comes back to me almost immediately. Wenders doesn’t cut corners when showcasing the sheer monotony of it all. In total, the audience sees him complete this rhythmic routine seven to ten times, and it’s the bulk of the film. His practiced routine is thrown off by less steady people in his life, like his always-late coworker (Tokio Emoto) and runaway niece (Arisa Nakano).

Hirayama and his niece sit on a bench
Courtesy of TIFF

The description of Hirayama’s routine is enough to turn some people off the film. They want to be dazzled by a spectacle when they go to the movies. They want to see car chases, explosions, and fast-talking characters who always keep them guessing. Perfect Days is a quiet, endearing reflection on life. Much has been made about Hirayama’s routine, but he isn’t bothered by the sameness, and that’s what the film wants the audience to ruminate on. This man cleans the same toilets day in and day out, drinks the same coffee, has the same lunch in the same park, and takes the same photo of the trees in the park rustling in the breeze. Arguably, the film’s biggest source of tension is the tic-tac-toe game that plays out on a folded piece of paper Hirayama finds in the corner of one of the bathrooms he cleans.

Perfect Days is a testament to the way we live our lives. The appreciation we can have for the simplest of moments or experiences. Hirayama takes pure and true delight in his morning vending machine coffee and the hole-in-the-wall restaurants whose owners greet him by name. The viewer may grow weary of seeing the same actions repeated time and again, but Hirayama does not. He exudes a thankfulness for his own life that’s staggering. A sincere and true-blue love of life that isn’t shared by most people. There’s comfort in his worn-in life, just like the comfort that comes from pulling on a beloved article of clothing.

A perhaps more apt title for the film can be found in the name of another Japanese film playing at TIFF this year: How Do You Live, the latest (and likely last) film by Miyazaki that has the unfortunate English title of The Boy and the Heron. Wenders is essentially asking his audience the question, how do you do this? This is an example of one man’s life. You may find things you agree with, things that are at odds with your way of life, or inspiration in Perfect Days. It’s a reminder of the too-easy-to-forget, age-old adage: stop and smell the roses every once and a while.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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