Today will probably be a good day too
Every morning, Hirayama carefully rolls up the duvet and mattress and places the pillow on top so that everything can be gathered in a corner of the home. He finds the coat hook on which he hung his blue work smock the night before. He puts it on and heads downstairs. Here he finds his keys and camera, which are always right here on the shelf by the door to the courtyard. Outside, he smiles and looks up at the sky. He does this every day. Today will probably be a good day too. Before he gets into his car, he pulls a coffee from the vending machine. He drinks it while driving to work.
Wim Wenders’ quiet epic Perfect Days, which was screened in the section with international feature films at Palm Spring IFF, is pure routine for the first hour or so. Not in the sense of routine movie work, i.e. left-handed work, no, quite the opposite. Wenders masterfully manages to stage a toilet cleaner’s routine. It’s circular filmmaking at its very best.
This first hour is used to showcase Hirayama through his routines. The same thing happens over and over again. The mattress, the smock, the keys, the coffee, the drive. At work, he performs his cleaning more than meticulously. Every surface gets his attention. With a small mirror, he can look under the edges to make sure he’s got this part of the toilet covered. If someone needs to use the toilet while cleaning, Hirayama immediately goes outside and waits. The most important thing is the other person. This is not about him.
And yet it is. Because the movie is most of all about him. It’s a portrait of him and his approach to life. He dwells on life and finds joy in the smallest things. Every day during his lunch break, he goes to the same tree, observes its crown, takes a photograph of the branches and the silhouettes the tree creates when you look up at the crown from below and the sun’s rays embrace the crown. He has dozens of the same photograph at home in carefully sorted boxes, but he takes a new photograph every day anyway. Maybe the silhouette isn’t quite the same, maybe it doesn’t matter at all. He’s not interested in the new.
For the first hour, Hirayama doesn’t utter a word. All his communication is done with a friendly face, but small gestures, a nod here, a smile there. A lot is said in these non-verbal actions and it’s said in a way that words can’t anyway. It’s a mesmerizing performance that earned Kōji Yakusho the Golden Palms at Cannes for Best Acting.
After an hour or so, other things start to happen, but don’t worry, Wenders doesn’t deviate from his ambition to make a calm, almost contemplative movie. At first, there are only small shifts in the plot. Hirayama’s young colleague in the art of toilet cleaning wants a ride. He also wants to borrow some money so he can impress a girl he wants to date. These things can be handled without words. More talk comes when Hirayama’s niece suddenly appears at his house. She has run away from home, from Hirayama’s sister, with whom we later learn he has a somewhat strained relationship. Something has gone wrong in the family. Hirayama takes care of his niece. She comes to work with him. She learns how to use a floor mop. They bike around Tokyo together. They begin to share an enthusiasm for literature.
On one of their bike rides, Hirayama proclaims some words that could be his life credo. He says “Next time is next time. Now is now”. In a few words, he says that there is no point in dwelling too much on the past or worrying too much about the future. Both are out of reach. The present is the only thing we can act in. Where we are.
It’s not the first time Wenders has structured a movie around a taciturn protagonist, where we as observers are primarily meant to do just that, observe. Consider how long it was before Travis uttered a word in the phenomenal Paris, Texas (1984). In that movie, the drama escalated and so did the emotional involvement of the viewer, as we – or at least I did – were completely and utterly blown away by the tragic, compelling story of Travis, the woman and the child.
Perfect Days doesn’t reach the same emotional level. There isn’t the same opportunity to connect with the movie, either plot-wise or character-wise. On the other hand, it can deliver a calmer and perhaps more intimate cinematic experience. We can get lost in the smallest details with Hirayama and be reminded that the world is right here, right now. Life is right here. And that we should be happy just being in the world.
© FIPRESCI 2024