PERFECT DAYS. Fleeting Moments of Beauty [Review]

Following the protagonist’s attitude towards the presented world, Perfect Days should be treated as a cinematic affirmation of everyday life.

Jan Brzozowski

1 April 2024

The second most popular sight in Perfect Days, right after Mr. Hirayama’s friendly face, is the Skytree Tower. Its shots recur in Wenders’ film like a mantra – the protagonist, along with the camera, gazes at the building before work, during work, and in leisure time. Those who have watched Tokyo-Ga, Wenders’ documentary about his journey to Japan, will immediately think of another tower – the Tokyo Tower. At its top, the director of Wings of Desire accidentally met Werner Herzog, who – as is his habit – went on a spontaneous rant in front of the camera about how pristine, transparent images are no longer possible to capture on Earth, and filmmakers should seek them on other planets. Wenders commented on this statement through off-screen narration, stating that the images that interest him are found at the very bottom, in the heart of Tokyo’s turbulent capital. Perfect Days can be considered a consequence of this observation: a film whose theme is as down-to-earth as possible.

Mr. Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho) is awakened every day by the sound of a broom coming from the street. Instead of opening the window and yelling at the noisy caretaker – something Adas Miauczynski would surely do – the man slowly rolls up his mat and begins his morning routine. He brushes his teeth, waters the flowers, buys coffee from a dilapidated vending machine, and sets off on his route accompanied by the music of Patti Smith, Van Morrison, or Lou Reed. Where is he going, you ask? To clean public toilets – although the term fits as well as a fist to the nose for the fancy Tokyo restrooms. Hirayama fulfills his duties with envy-inducing conscientiousness – he even uses homemade devices to reach the deepest corners of the toilet bowl. After work, a quick bath in public baths, a visit to the local bar, and obligatory reading before bed. Faulkner, Highsmith, whatever the protagonist picks from the shelves of the nearby antique shop. And then a new day dawns: eerily similar to the previous one. And so on, and so forth.

Wenders shot his film in a 4:4 format. Mama Dolana quickly comes to mind, maintained in exactly the same proportions. However, the Canadian talked about an attempt to escape the drudgery of everyday life – in fleeting moments of happiness, the screen expanded to a standard format, physically reacting to the protagonist’s overwhelming emotions. We won’t see similar techniques in Perfect Days: primarily because Hirayama finds himself excellently within the square frames of life and feels no need to contest them. Following the footsteps of his Japanese master – Yasujirō Ozu, Wenders opts for minimalism, radically limiting the means of expression. He consistently follows Hirayama, observing his actions with the same attention the man devotes to his work duties. The modest yet elegant style turns out to be a direct derivative of the main character’s characteristics: a man endowed with extraordinary peace of mind, accepting what fate brings with open arms.

Following the protagonist’s attitude towards the presented world, Perfect Days should be treated as a cinematic affirmation of everyday life – a paean to the simple, quiet life. Someone cynical might accuse Wenders of unwittingly romanticizing social problems and aestheticizing poverty, but these would be rather misguided accusations: throughout the plot, we learn that the protagonist made a choice. He consciously rejected abundance in favor of inner harmony. He didn’t move into the woods like Henry David Thoreau, the author of the memorable Walden. However, he subjected every element of life to extreme reduction, extracting the essence from what we pompously call existence. Comparisons with Paterson spontaneously arise during the screening. Hirayama, like the serene bus driver from Jarmusch’s film, finds meaning in celebrating the surrounding reality. Paterson paid homage through poetry, jotting down verses in his private notebook. The protagonist of Perfect Days takes photographs: his favorite tree, sunbeams filtering through leaves, his niece visiting unexpectedly. Deep down, he is, like almost every character in Wenders’ filmography, an artist. Moreover, extremely critical of his own art. After developing the photos, he ruthlessly tears apart those he deems not good enough. The rest he stashes in a closet, full of specially labeled metal containers.

Hirayama shares yet another trait with the protagonists of Wenders’ previous films: opposition to the rush of life, represented by modern technology. Philip Winter from Alice in the Cities even clothed his dislike in words, writing an aggressive manifesto-article aimed at television – a medium that commercializes every image it presents; turning everything, even fragments of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, into advertising. There is no place for a television in Hirayama’s home. The man limits the number of possessions to the bare minimum, uses a flip phone, and listens to music through cassette tapes. In Perfect Days, analog triumphs over digital – it even becomes the subject of one of the side plots. It backlashes against contemporary youth, represented by the slacker Takashi: the main character’s coworker, who rates everything and everyone on a scale from 1 to 10. It’s rather a heavily hammered satire, not presenting itself well against the subtle whole. However, Wenders should be forgiven, just like you forgive your beloved grandfather who struggles with his newly purchased smartphone: even when he’s being a boomer, he’s always endearing.

Hirayama’s philosophy of life not only resonates with that professed by Paterson but also with Jonas Mekas – the protagonist of last year’s New Horizons retrospective. The long march through life should be accompanied by the pursuit of brief moments of beauty. The Lithuanian captured them on 16mm film, through a well-worn Bolex. Hirayama uses a camera occasionally, but sometimes he indulges only in visual contemplation. He gazes at the flickering lights on polished metal, looks at the calm surface of the river, observes the dance of shadows on the apartment wall. A blissful smile appears on his face – in such moments, the protagonist feels alive. And we do too, with him.

Janek Brzozowski

Jan Brzozowski

Permanently sleep-deprived, as he absorbs either westerns or new adventure cinema at night. A big fan of the acting skills of James Dean and Jimmy Stewart, and the beauty of Ryan Gosling and Elle Fanning. He is also interested in American and French literature, as well as soccer.

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