Movie Review: Wim Wenders’ ‘Perfect Days’ Is Sublime

Neon via AP
This image released by Neon shows Kôji Yakusho, left, and Arisa Nakano in a scene from “Perfect Days.”

Wim Wenders’ “Perfect Days” is set among the crowded skyscrapers of Tokyo and the quiet urban parks that Hirayama (Kôji Yakusho) traverses daily in his job cleaning public toilets. But where the movie resides, really, is Yakusho’s face.

In this gently sublime film, Hirayama steps outside his humble apartment each morning and gazes up at the sky with a smile radiating gratitude. Hirayama says little throughout the course of Wenders’ quiet, quotidian film. Little happens. Yet Yakusho’s warm presence speaks volumes in a film where less can mean profoundly more.

Wenders, the 78-year-old German filmmaker, has long had a preference for troubled loners. Think of Harry Dean Stanton’s dusty drifter in “Paris, Texas,” or Bruno Ganz’s terminally ill man in “The American Friend.” But the Wenders’ movie that “Perfect Days” most recalls is “Wings of Desire,” where melancholy angels watched over Cold War-era Berlin and spoke of testifying “day by day for eternity.” “Perfect Days” has no such supernatural element, but its gaze is likewise attuned to what’s beautiful and meaningful in everyday living.

Each morning, Hirayama wakes, puts on his blue sanitation jump suit and neatly drapes a white towel around his neck. He drives his van from public toilet to public toilet, where he takes remarkable care in his work. He uses a small mirror to see the underside of a toilet bowl.

How can you put so much into a job like this? says Takashi (Tokio Emoto), Hirayama’s younger, less scrupulous coworker.

Hirayama’s days are rigorously routine but lively with variation. While driving through the elevated highways of Tokyo, he selects a cassette tape from a rack above the sun visor. Patti Smith, Lou Reed, the Kinks, the Animals or Nina Simone play as he rides. Usually, Hirayama, analog through and through, is driving against the traffic.

He’s a lover of trees, and each day on his lunch break takes a photograph of the branches above him, with light pouring through. With the care of a surgeon, he plucks a tiny seedling, places it in a small paper sack, and adds it to his nursery at home. At night, he reads Faulkner.

Eventually, a niece (Arisa Nakano) turns up, followed by Hirayama’s estranged sister (Yumi Aso). But Wenders’ film, which is nominated for best international film at the Oscars and opens in theaters Wednesday, is largely uncluttered by plot or exposition. Instead, we’re invited to ponder Hirayama’s serene, monastic existence — to admire the joy he finds in the mundane and the attentiveness he gives to the things he values.

Is he running from the world or in its thrall? Wenders, who co-wrote the film with Takuma Takasaki, is a longtime admirer of Japan; in his 1985 documentary “Tokyo-Ga,” Wenders traveled to Japan to pay homage to the great filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. Much in “Perfect Days,” filmed in boxy academy ratio, radiates with a similar spirit of minimalistic wisdom.

That’s a great credit to Yakusho, the great Japanese actor, whose soulfulness fills the empty spaces of “Perfect Days.” It may sound like an art house enterprise but anyone could connect with Wenders’ film. My 8-year-old daughter accompanied me on my second watch; that she hung with the movie from start to finish, I think, is because Yakusho’s Hirayama is a character to love.

Wenders was initially drawn to the project by Tokyo’s exquisite public toilets, which are light years more artfully designed than the few you can even find in most American cities. In that way, they’re a symbol of civic good. And so is Hirayama, who in his life and work, in plant life and cassette tapes, fully encapsulates the definition of custodian.

Perfect Days, a Neon release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association for some language, partial nudity and smoking. Running time: 123 minutes. Four stars out of four.