Now Is Now: On Wim Wenders's "Perfect Days"

The German director’s latest Japanese picture traces the alchemy that occurs as art finds a home in our hearts.
Sam Sodomsky

Wim Wenders's Perfect Days is now showing on MUBI in many countries.

Perfect Days (Wim Wenders, 2023).

“She uses the same words we do, yet there’s something so special.” 

This commentary is delivered by a bookseller (Inuko Inuyama) in Wim Wenders’s Perfect Days (2023). The woman behind the counter is recommending the works of Japanese author Aya Kōda to the film’s protagonist, Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho). But she could just as easily be describing the spell cast by the movie itself, which uses familiar settings and understated dialogue to summon a quiet, pervasive magic. In the New German Cinema director’s latest feature, which takes place in present-day Tokyo, sudden waves of hope, gratitude, and meaning can arrive through brief interactions with strangers, a tall glass of ice water, a beloved song heard through car speakers, or just an upward glance at the sky upon leaving the house in the morning.

Through these simple encounters, Hirayama becomes a portal to a specific way of looking at the world, one that’s informed by what Wenders has referred to as the “common good.” Elaborating on this theme, he has discussed the distinction between life in Germany and Japan in the wake of the pandemic—how public spaces were maintained, how strangers interact with each other—but the film adopts a more timeless vantage. Wenders, like Hirayma, operates with a strict sense of routine, never lingering too long on any setting and moving fluidly through the man’s days; his vivid waking life to his imagistic, black-and-white dreams; his regimented weeks to his weekends of decompression, spent perusing the bookstore, getting photos developed, and visiting the local spots where he has become a regular: the ideal position, in which he doesn’t have to say a word to take part in a reliable ecosystem.

Because Hirayama rarely speaks, Wenders and cowriter Takuma Takasaki embellish his world by alerting us to the subtle voices and textures that mark his time. We hear the sound of the street being swept as Hirayama’s eyes open in the morning, the clink of his coins in a vending machine to kickstart the workday, the wind through the trees as he takes his lunch in the park. Just from observing Hirayama in these environments, we feel a vicarious sense of peace. Much is left to the imagination, and the tension comes largely from our own response to the film—the way our attention is prolonged or disrupted, our expectations fulfilled or upended.

Perfect Days (Wim Wenders, 2023).

In Wenders’s dynamic body of work, which spans intimate portraits like Alice in the Cities (1974) to travelog epics like Until the End of the World (1991), he often depicts characters wandering toward some distant goal: a sense of home or escape or something just beyond their reach. The most memorable scenes in Paris, Texas (1984) arrive early in the film as we watch its protagonist (Harry Dean Stanton) wandering through the desert. Without revealing his motives or destination, Wenders tells the story through the landscape, the soundtrack, the pacing. These atmospheric details can make the act of watching Wenders’s films feel like a voyage in itself, leading us to unexpected places and drawing our attention to the sites along the way.

In Perfect Days, the journeys are shorter—often just the car ride from Hirayama’s house to the public toilets he cleans for a living—and the rewards are humbler. In this story is an implicit message about aging; through Hirayama’s incidental conversations with strangers and his loaded confrontations with the few people who know him well, Wenders suggests that Hirayama’s arrival at this contented, pared-down lifestyle is hard-won and colored by loss. (“Remember what used to be here?” an older man in the neighborhood asks Hirayama, happening upon an empty lot. “That’s what growing old means.” Without saying a word in response, Hirayama seems to agree.)

Like Wenders himself—whose films are often remembered for their iconic soundtracks as much as their striking visuals—Hirayama puts deep thought into the music of his life. (In one scene, he visits a record store at a coworker’s urging, to have some of the rare items in his collection appraised. Fittingly, Wenders makes a brief cameo as a fellow patron.) Hirayama begins his commute each morning by meticulously selecting a song to accompany the ride, one of which gives the film its title; his otherwise ascetic bedroom contains a vast selection of cassette tapes. Despite his effort to keep his days as predictable as possible, the sprawling range of music at his disposal suggests a deep well of emotions, any of which could arise at any moment. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, Hirayama observes a young woman hearing Patti Smith for the first time, his eyes drifting between her expression and the tape deck, tracing the alchemy that occurs as art finds a home in our hearts.

Perfect Days (Wim Wenders, 2023).

Perfect Days had an unlikely genesis. Wenders was approached to document the Tokyo Toilet project, an initiative launched in 2020 that paired architects around the world with public restrooms in the Shibuya district. Instead of crafting a documentary about the initiative, Wenders decided to expand his vision into a full-length, scripted project, marking the latest in a long line of works inspired by the setting of Japan. These projects pay homage, more specifically, to the films of director Yasujiro Ozu, a major influence on Perfect Days, whom Wenders also explored in his 1985 documentary, Tokyo-Ga, and his 2009 photography book, Journey to Onomichi.

You can see why this assignment spoke to Wenders: the facilities are indeed beautiful. In one particularly stunning bathroom, the translucent walls turn opaque once the light is turned on. Through Hirayama’s devotion to maintaining the restrooms’ appearance, Wenders illustrates how much pride we can take in our shared spaces, honoring the sense of community that seemed in danger during those early pandemic days. But it’s not all sparkle. Because of the gentle nature of the film, it feels like a major infraction when expectations are not upheld: when an uncaring teen kicks over a caution sign, when friendly eye contact is not reciprocated. The first time we see Hirayama embody anything resembling anger—his expression shifting into a kind of hopelessness, his words emerging clipped and stern over the phone—comes not from a personal affront but from a hard shift in his routine, when his coworker quits unexpectedly. By this point, late in the film, we have become so accustomed to Hirayama’s lifestyle, his reactions to both human error and natural beauty, that we too feel the shock of the sudden absence. In Perfect Days, little is taken for granted, and even these workplace dynamics can be full of love and trust. This may lead to small moments of connection with the universe. But it also leaves him vulnerable to profound heartbreak.

Perfect Days (Wim Wenders, 2023).

Wenders has spoken about the “spiritual” quality of Perfect Days, comparing it to his 1987 masterpiece, Wings of Desire. Between the monastic lifestyle of its central character and its poetic depiction of a world at peace, Wenders manages to eschew any sense of moralism in his reflections on the divine. As the film works toward its mortality-focused climax, Hirayama’s young niece, Niko (Arisa Nakano), appears on his doorstep, having run away from home. As she learns from her uncle’s lifestyle and even works alongside him, her tender questions about their family offer brief glimpses into a past that Hirayama keeps hidden. Instead of speaking directly about these subjects, the pair seems to adopt their own language, culminating in a mantra they repeat while riding their bikes: “Next time is next time. Now is now.” Just when we come to accept this outlook, Wenders shows how easy it is to disrupt any feelings of certainty in the present with momentous appearances from Hirayama’s estranged sister (Yumi Asō) and a terminally ill stranger (Tomokazu Miura).

In these instances when emotions overtake Hirayama, Wenders reveals the natural effects of such close listening. Through Yakusho’s virtuosic performance, he finds a perfect vessel: a character equally sensitive to the tapping of rain outside his window as to the booming, ageless voice narrating his interior monologue through the stereo. At the film’s conclusion, as Hirayama accompanies his morning commute with Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” his expression drifts between despair and elation; both childlike with joy and hardened by wisdom; alone on his journey but, when the camera zooms out, a humble part of a vibrant city humming around him. As the journey comes to an end, we see the day is just beginning.

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