Although it is the Japanese entry in the Academy Awards, Perfect Days is directed by the German filmmaker Wim Wenders. I am not a fan of Wenders as a human being because of his promotion of antisemitism and his tendency to mock innocent people in his documentaries. More on that later, because I found Perfect Days to be a wonderful film and thank Wenders and everyone else involved in making it.
The film is a character study of Hirayama, who makes his living cleaning public toilets in the Tokyo neighborhood of Shibuya. Koji Yakusho, who plays Hirayama, won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Hirayama’s days are ritualistic. As soon as he awakes, he rolls up his mat and puts away the book he was reading before going to sleep. With a smile, he sprays water on his plants. As soon as he walks outside, he looks at the sky and smiles again. He goes to a vending machine and buys a coffee, the first sip of which gives him pleasure. In his minivan on the way to work, he listens to cassettes of music from the 1960s and 1970s. At lunchtime, he sits on a bench in a park and uses a camera to take black and white photos of the light shining through the trees. He even dreams in black and white. But Hirayama is not a simple person. It’s just that he appreciates the little details of life. The manner in which he cleans the toilets is so meticulous that Perfect Days could serve as a training film for toilet cleaners.
One evening Hirayama comes home to discover his teenage niece, Niko (Arisa Nakano), waiting for him. She has run away from home and, as she explains to his surprise, run away to him. She admires him and is delighted to join him on his daily routine, even helping him with his toilet cleaning. But when Hirayama’s wealthy sister comes to pick up Niko, we learn just a bit of the sadness Hirayama hides.
One of Hirayama’s favorite songs is “The House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals. He periodically goes to a small bar run by Mama (Sayuri Ishikawa). The regulars ask her to sing for them. She complies with an emotionally breathtaking Japanese version of “The House of the Rising Sun” that is one of the highlights of the film.
It is not giving anything away to say that Perfect Days closes with Hirayama listening to Nina Simone singing “Feeling Good.”
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life for me
And I’m feeling good
I saw Perfect Days at the Asian World Film Festival in Culver City, California. Before the screening, the Japanese consul read a speech about the creative design of the Shibuya toilets, which are, indeed, a sight to behold.
I have a habit of going to the men’s room before and after every film I see. The first time I thanked the toilet cleaner, he seemed startled to have been spoken to, as if he was used to being invisible. From then on my words of appreciation brought a smile. After viewing Perfect Days, I told him I had just seen a Japanese film that celebrated the life of a toilet cleaner. His eyes grew wide and his face lit up.
About why I don’t like Wim Wenders. His film The American Friend is antisemitic. The villains are Jews and there are no positive Jewish characters to offset this. Given a one-on-one with Wenders, I once had the opportunity to confront him with the anti-Jewish nature of the film. I told him that, as a Jew, I found the film offensive. To his credit, Wenders did apologize. However, his explanation did not sit well with me. He said he had stuck too closely to the Patricia Highsmith novel upon which the film was based. That was no excuse. Highsmith was a virulent antisemite who frequently told people the Germans should have murdered more Jews during the Holocaust than they actually did. As if to rub salt in the wound, In Perfect Days, made 45 years after The American Friend, Wenders slips in an homage to Highsmith.
In his documentaries, Wenders frequently picks out an innocent person, almost at random, and mocks the woman or man. There is no excuse for this. If he were criticizing a politician or someone else doing serious damage, I could understand. But to make fun of normal people living normal lives…unacceptable.
Wenders gets away with his cruelty and antisemitism because he is a great filmmaker. Perfect Days is the best example I have seen.