Middle-aged Hirayama awakens at dawn, attentively trims his moustache, proceeds to water his plants, and chooses an upbeat tape to listen to on his way to work. Once there, the distinguished Japanese man begins to clean a public toilet. All of these ordinary actions share one common trait: the man cares. He puts equal effort into scrubbing a lavatory as much as he does reading Faulkner before bed.
Perfect Days follows the character’s routine a-la Ackerman, yet, through Hirayama’s lack of frustration, we are given a more optimistic and positive view of the world. When a drunkard storms into the latrine, urinating and defiling Hirayama’s work, it’s painful to witness the total inconsideration. And, still, Hirayama simply steps outside and smiles. This is the essence of this taciturn character. The protagonist echoes Ozu in his simplicity and benevolence, but he’s also intrinsically Chaplin-esque in his poignancy and sympathy. And when his routine is spiced up by his runaway teenage niece, who shows up at his doorstep, he even recalls Tati’s Mon Oncle for the playful relationship they quickly establish. Despite being satisfied with his tranquil and unambitious existence, Hirayama is a lonely man, on the verge of invisibility. Damn, I wish he and Jeanne Dielman were penpals… They’d be a great fit.
Through subtle direction that veers from exposition, Wim Wenders masterfully explores the plain and monotonous universe of Hirayama mostly spent inside weirdly shaped, colourful and futuristic toilets across Tokyo while listening to great hits such as Lou Reed’s Perfect Day. The legendary director finds tenderness where you would least expect to find it, in the smallest details surrounding all of us. For instance, he enriches his ordinary life by taking black&white photographs of small things that cross his path such as the trembling shadow of leaves; he plays an ongoing game of tic-tac-toe with an unknown player, through a paper hidden in a toilet. We are presented with an intimate portrait of Hirayama that never aims at cheap compassion but rather challenges us to look deeper, and understand his overall content. And in doing so, he taps into the human soul. It’s the kind of brilliant storytelling that even makes you want to be a better person.
Righteous winner of the Palm d’Or for Best Actor at the 2023 Cannes, Koji Yakusho’s Hirayama is destined to conquer your heart. His smile alone, encasing a tsunami of emotions in a single expression, is worth the ticket. I’ve only seen that enigmatic, sly, benevolent and comforting smile only once more: on Wim Wenders. This is two masters at work and it’s nourishing for the soul.