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Perfect Days

Released 2023. Director: Wim Wenders

IN ANY SURVEY ON JOB SATISFACTION, I CAN GUARANTEE you will not find toilet cleaner anywhere near the top. Janitorial roles are universally looked down upon, menial jobs someone only takes on out of sheer desperation with no other options. Not an update you rush to share at your high-school reunion. But there is nothing wrong or shameful about cleaning other people’s toilets as a job, let’s be clear about that from the start.

The man at the centre of Perfect Days, the latest from German auteur Wim Wenders, is Hirayama (played by a serene and sublime Koji Yakusho), whose work is cleaning public toilets. He wakes up at the crack of dawn and within minutes he’s on his way to maintaining public sanitation, going from one toilet block to another until he clocks off in the evening.

Through Wenders’ almost documentary-like filming, we follow Hirayama on his routine. He carries out his duties methodically and scrupulously, scrubbing urinals and bowls, wiping down every surface and mirror, picking up every piece of trash and mopping the floor with more care than one normally expects at a public lavatory.

Hirayama takes pride in what he does, even though people tend to avoid workers like him. Once, he finds a young boy sobbing alone in a toilet. Hirayama brings the boy out to the open to look for his parents, gently holding his hand. When the anxious mother returns, without as much as a word of thanks she snatches the boy’s hand away and starts to wipe it as if contaminated. Hirayama doesn’t take offense and smiles at the boy as they walk away. He understands how his kind is being perceived and treated, often without the basic courtesy but it doesn’t upset him. 

Wenders also takes time to show us Hirayama’s life outside of his work. He’s a regular at a non-descript eatery and takes his daily ablution at a traditional bathhouse. The modest single-room unit where he lives alone is sparse and minimalist except for his neat rows of books and cassette tapes. He has a little nursery of seedlings in cups and pots which he habitually mists in the morning. His recent bedtime reading includes William Faulkner, Aya Koda and Patricia Highsmith. He listens to pop music from the 70s and 80s on his commute. Lou Reed, Van Morrison, Otis Redding and The Animals are some of his favourites. He has no TV.

These moments might appear prosaic but Wenders and cinematographer Franz Lustig imparts a sense of poetry into the observation. They are beautiful and thoughtful; they show purpose and lend meaning to an uncomplicated life. During his break Hirayama likes to take photos of leaves and canopies, often tilting his camera (35mm film, not digital) upwards at treetops. In his dreams he sees flurries of rustling leaves, shadows and dappled sunlight in black-and-white, just like his photos.

Because Hirayama is a man of very few words, we don’t always know what he’s thinking. What is apparent is the man’s contentment in his simple life. We piece his story and learn what kind of person he is through his encounters with peripheral characters who flow through his days, most notably his colleague Takashi, who is super-chatty, distracted and always late; and his teenage niece Niko, who arrives one night having run away from home to find refuge with her long-lost uncle. He treats every person, young or old, rich or poor, with respect and consideration and he sees only the best in people.

The subsequent arrival of Niko’s mother, Hirayama’s sister, sheds some light on Hirayama’s past through a brief, heartfelt exchange. The scene barely alludes to an affluent background and family strife, but is sufficient to show how Wenders and co-writer Takuma Takasaki have built an intricate character using only implications and strikingly economical storytelling. The imperceptible accumulation of the smallest details builds a compelling portrait of a man defined by his humility and invisibility.

The subtlety of that moment and the scenes that follow drive home the essence of the movie. Hirayama is not compromising, or settling for something less than what he deserves or is capable of. Contentment, fulfilment and inner peace may be elusive especially in a fast-paced bustling metropolis like Tokyo, and success in life is often couched in very rigid socio-economic terms. Someone like Hirayama is never regarded as successful by any conventional standards. Not even by his own family.

How we perceive success is so hardwired a child can tell you what it means. If your brother leaves a high-pay career to become a toilet cleaner and lives with meagre means, I venture to say few would regard him as doing well while most will consider him crazy.

I don’t believe the movie is suggesting that people who work cleaning toilets live the most contented life. It’s not a generalisation. There are many in low-paying menial jobs who struggle against their circumstances. To say that this movie romanticises the poor would be to miss the point.

Perfect Days is about personal choices. Career, status, wealth, marriage, family, retirement – people make different decisions although the great majority tread a similar path. We’re not told of the specifics in Hirayama’s past and the deliberate blank allows for a universal identification. I know of men previously occupying high corporate positions who chose to change directions and drive a taxi or school bus. Maybe you know some people who made radical changes in their life paths, probably not as drastic as Hirayama but enough to raise eyebrows. We don’t always need to understand why.

Hirayama lives a simple life. Is it a perfect life? Only he can be the judge of that. Has his quality of life been downgraded? Only if you consider ownership of material possessions as a measure of quality. The freedom Hirayama experiences is palpable when he weaves through his neighbourhood riding an old bicycle. He’s at peace with his values and beliefs, living on his own terms. He’s also kind, generous, a good person who makes time even for a stranger.

As the movie comes to an end, another day dawns. Hirayama slips on his uniform, pops Feeling Good by Nina Simone into his cassette deck as he joins the morning traffic with a list of toilets to visit. What can we draw from the final shot as we see emotions flash across his face, his eyes moisten and a slight smile seems to form and disappear? Is it happiness, sadness, relief, regrets? Is he thinking of what he’s given up, or what he’s gained? Or is he remembering the man he met the night before who has cancer and feeling gratitude for the gift of life? I feel my chest rise as I pull in a deep breath at this thoughtful, stirring and joyous ending as he drives towards a rising sun. A brand new day to be alive.

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May 02

Great review. Thoroughly enjoyed the film although a bit of a slow burner in parts. It's not the job. It's the attitude.


Ruth Maramis
Ruth Maramis
May 01

Beautiful review!! I love your opening statement. It's so true and sadly the world views this type of menial job as something valuable even though it is. During the pandemic, the people I think about the most are the janitors in the building where I used to work before we moved to work-from-home mode, and there's a particular man who's always smiling and we'd always nod or say hello when we pass each other. It makes me think of him when I watch Hirayama who's clearly proud of his work.

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