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Perfect Days Review: Wim Wenders’ Poetic Portrayal of Tokyo’s Underbelly

At 78, the German director debuts Perfect Days, a film set in Tokyo's public restrooms. Nominated for the 81st Golden Globes and an Oscar contender
Perfect Days (2023) by Wim Wenders

Wenders, a “crappy” film that’s (actually) gorgeous

At 78, the German director debuts Perfect Days, a film set in Tokyo’s public restrooms. Nominated for the 81st Golden Globes and an Oscar contender.

by Federico Pontiggia

A crappy film. But a beautiful one. That’s Perfect Days by the 78-year-old Wim Wenders, a visionary and daring director who dedicates 123 (one hundred and twenty-three) minutes to a man cleaning public toilets in Tokyo. The man, named Hirayama, is portrayed by the stunning Cannes-awarded actor Koji Yakusho. At first glance, he doesn’t seem like someone who’d garner followers: his life is overly simple, his daily routine is structured, his passions include music (we hear Otis Redding, Patti Smith, Van Morrison on cassette), photography of books and trees, and meticulously – worryingly gloveless at the start – cleaning toilets. His affectionate granddaughter, estranged sister, and a few encounters reveal bits of his past, but Wenders is content with the present, dedicating himself, like Hirayama, to beauty and the common good: if you will, a toilet of the soul. Competing at the 81st Golden Globes – the awards ceremony is Sunday night into Monday – and Japan’s Oscar nominee for Best International Film, Perfect Days reiterates the German filmmaker’s interest in the Land of the Rising Sun, demonstrated in the 1985 cult film Tokyo-Ga, his subsequent filmed ode to fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, and his preference for Yasujiro Ozu: “We shot it sixty years after Ozu made his last work, The Taste of Sake, in Tokyo. And it’s no coincidence that our hero is also named Hirayama.”

Minimalist and transcendent, with few dialogues and much empathy, Wenders enters a state of grace he hasn’t known for some decades, and between a toilet and a rag, he finds poetry: “It’s not something you can plan in a film, but a beautiful discovery, a gift you receive from the actors, the places, the light, everything that must come together in a composition, precisely, poetic.” Feet on the ground and, ahem, pants down, the author of Wings of Desire embraces “the strong feeling of ‘service’ and ‘common good’ in Japan” and photographs “the pure architectural beauty of these public sanitary spaces,” remaining “amazed by how much ‘restrooms’ can be part of everyday culture, and not just satisfy an embarrassingly basic need.” Wim and the poetry of the WC, Hirayama, and the personal satisfaction that translates into public benefit, both channel small things and big hopes, bringing to the screen a long-neglected partnership of poetic epiphany and political act.

Yes, Wenders is doing well. Last Cannes reaffirmed him as a master, and from March 4th to 6th, he’ll bring to Italian theaters his second title christened on the Croisette: the stereoscopic documentary Anselm, dedicated to his friend, the artist Kiefer, also excellent. He has already inscribed in the reality cinema the famous German choreographer Pina Bausch (Pina, 2011), the great Brazilian photographer Sebastiào Salgado (The Salt of the Earth, 2014), and Pope Francis (A Man of His Word, 2018), with a certain uncertain common denominator, except for “my curiosity about them. How does Bergoglio live that mission, that responsibility? Why did Pina make me cry like never before over a movie? And now Anselm, who can paint anything I know. He’s really a mad scientist: if someone comes up tomorrow with a new theory on the Big Bang, Kiefer would paint it the day after tomorrow.” The documentary, Wenders recalls, took thirty years to come to fruition: “In 1991 Anselm told me, ‘Wim, you’ve always wanted to be a painter and you became a filmmaker. While I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker and I became a painter, let’s make a film together.’ I said yes. Then life changes, he moved to France, I to America and…”. The creative process, the allure of myth and fascination for history, the painterly blending into the cinematic, Anselm is another surprising poetic epiphany, echoing the taste and substance of the Dusseldorf-born filmmaker of 1945.

This year he’ll celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Palme d’Or at Paris, Texas, which he received in 1984 at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes on a memorable evening: “In the end, only two people were left, John Huston and me, and one prize, the Palme d’Or. Huston looks at me and says, ‘What’s happening, Wim?’. I: ‘I don’t know.’ Then Dirk Bogarde announced the winner, and it was me. I looked at John: ‘What the fuck?’. He stood up and clapped for me. Nobody knew, after me Huston received the Palme for lifetime achievement.”

Il Fatto Quotidiano, January 6, 2023

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