‘Perfect Days’ – finding serenity in the urban world on Hulu

Perfect Days (Japan, 2023) is as serene and gentle a film as you may ever see, yet it casts a spell in its quiet portrait of a man who has chosen to live a simple existence in the midst of Tokyo.

Living in a small, sparsely-furnished apartment, Hirayama (Koji Yakusho) has settled into an easy rhythm of life that begins with a morning can of coffee from the machine outside his home. He listens to classic American rock and roll on cassette tapes as he drives across the city and reads paperbacks of classic novels, picking up a new one only after he finishes his current read. And he finds peace and contentment in a job few of us would seek out: cleaning the public restrooms of the Tokyo’s parks. Mind you, these are not the cinderblock bunkers we’re used to stateside but some of the most lovingly and creatively designed facilities you’ll ever see in a modern city green, and Hirayama takes pride in his work

Perfect Days is directed by German filmmaker Wim Wenders, an artist whose greatest films (Paris, Texas or Wings of Desire, to name just two) explore the quiet, unspoken moments of life and regret and second chances. The story is almost ephemeral. The beauty is in the rhythms of day to day life, the simple pleasures of Hirayama’s daily Zen photography project (on actual film, of course), the expressions that play across his face as he (for the most part) engages without speaking. “Next time is next time. Now is now,” he explains to his impatient young assistant (Tokio Emoto). Hirayama lives in the now. And then his past comes looking for him: his niece (Arisa Nakano) has run away from home and straight to her enigmatic uncle, where she joyfully joins him on his janitorial rounds. Her mother (Yumi Asô)—Hirayama’s sister—is soon on her way.

You’d be forgiven for thinking it all sounds rather dull, and there are surely some viewers who would find it so. I was entranced and absorbed by it all. Wenders and his writing partner Takuma Takasaki offer up a portrait of an analog man in a digital world (are there really stores that still sell cassette tapes in Tokyo?) and Wenders beautifully captures the simple beauty that Hirayama finds in his life, the modest moments of wonder and joy he embraces, with his gentle, understated images and patient scenes.

Perfect Days was born out of a documentary proposal. In the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics, the City of Tokyo reached out to top architects from around the world to design public restrooms for the city’s parks, each one a unique creation by a different designer, many of them beautiful little jewels of practical art. Then came Covid and the lockdown, which left the Olympics playing out in empty stadiums. The Japanese government commissioned German filmmaker Wim Wenders to make a series of short documentaries to showcase these little architectural gems and Wenders came back with a counter-proposal: craft a human drama that plays out around these settings.

What he delivers is a film of serenity and peace, the portrait of a man who embraces the joys of everyday existence, a paean to the beauty all around us, and in one brief but quietly profound moment, the cost of such disconnection from the past. What exactly did Hirayama leave behind? Perfect Days offers no answers, only hints. Like Hirayama himself, this is a film that lives in the moment. It’s a moment that continues to linger in my mind and my heart.

Aoi Yamada plays the rebellious but savvy girlfriend of Hirayama’s assistant and Sayuri Ishikawa, Tomokazu Miura, and Min Tanaka costar.

It was nominated for best international feature at the Academy Awards. Wenders won best director and Koji Yakusho took home best actor from the Awards of the Japanese Academy and both took home awards at the Cannes Film Festival, among the many accolades from around the world.

Rated PG, In Japanese with English subtitles.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Perfect Days (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Perfect Days (The Criterion Collection) [4K UHD + Blu-ray]
Perfect Days (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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