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‘Perfect Days’ Review: Wim Wenders Finds Beauty in the Quotidian in Exquisite Japanese Drama About Gratitude

Holding an extended closing shot on a character’s face has often been an effective way to illuminate whatever thoughts and feelings are running through their head, to keep them resonating through the end credits and even beyond. The device worked exceptionally well in Call Me by Your Name, Benediction and Michael Clayton.

Wim Wenders ends his eloquent and emotionally rich Japanese drama, Perfect Days, with such a shot, held tight on the extraordinarily expressive face of Koji Yakusho as his character drives through Tokyo reflecting on the rewards and perhaps also the regrets of his life with the same spirit of openness and acceptance, embracing the sadness as much as the joy.

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The song that this resolutely analog man is listening to on his car cassette player is a Nina Simone standard that has become one of the most overused tracks in contemporary movies. But it fits the scene so precisely and captures the way in which the character moves through his small pocket of the world with such exactitude, it feels almost like hearing the song for the first time.

Almost four decades after retracing the footsteps of Ozu in the documentary Tokyo-Ga, Wenders returns to the Japanese capital to make his best narrative feature in years. Enriched with a vivid sense of place, the film takes its cue from the Japanese word komorebi, which describes the shimmering play of light and shadows through the leaves of a tree, every flickering movement unique.

Around that modest flourish of nature, the director has crafted a film of deceptive simplicity, observing the tiny details of a routine existence with such clarity, soulfulness and empathy that they build a cumulative emotional power almost without you noticing. It’s also disarming in its absence of cynicism, unmistakably the work of a mature filmmaker thinking long and hard about the things that make life meaningful. Perhaps a solitary life more than any.

The life at the center of every frame — heightened in intimacy by the snug 1.33:1 aspect ratio — is that of Hirayama, played by Yakusho with relatively few words but a bottomless well of feeling. He has what’s seemingly the least likely job for the protagonist of a contemplative two-hour movie — working for a private contractor cleaning restrooms in public parks in the Shibuya district. The company’s unambiguous name, The Tokyo Toilet, is emblazoned in white across the back of Hirayama’s blue overalls.

The first thing worth noting about this job is the actual toilets. These are not your average public facilities in most Western countries but architecturally distinctive structures that from the outside could almost pass for small temples or shrines. Which makes it fitting that Hirayama approaches his work with monastic discipline and scrupulous dedication.

Unlike his lazy junior co-worker Takashi (Tokio Emoto), who arrives late and is usually too distracted on his phone to do a thorough job, Hirayama has a methodical system and a series of products and essential cleaning tools for all tasks packed in his van. There’s something quite touching about the way he promptly steps outside and stands patiently whenever anyone needs to use the facilities while he’s working.

To most people, Hirayama is invisible. But one of the points of the film, written with great clarity and economy by Wenders and Takuma Takasaki, is that even the most humble, invisible life can contain spiritual riches.

That aspect is evident instantly in the transfixing opening sequence, in which Hirayama wakes at dawn to the sound of an old woman sweeping the streets with a birch broom outside his window. He swiftly folds his futon and stacks his bedding neatly in a corner, brushes his teeth, shaves and trims his mustache, then mists his plants, taking a moment to sit back and smile at their progress. He smiles again as he steps outside each morning and looks up at the sky.

This fascination with the most ordinary daily rituals inevitably recalls Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. The sense of a life stripped of clutter, boiled down to essentials in acts of both duty and pleasure, continues throughout Hirayama’s day.

He chooses a cassette from his extensive collection of ‘60s and ‘70s rock to listen to in his van (allowing Wenders to pepper the movie with Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, The Animals, The Kinks and more). He eats his lunch on the same bench in a temple garden every day, taking a photograph of the same patch of light through treetops on his analog camera. After work, he hits the local sento bathhouse for a scrub and soak and eats dinner at the same market food counter.

At home again in the evening, the routine continues, ending with him reading a paperback he picks up from the dollar rack at a bookstore (in one of many nice touches of gentle humor, the store clerk offers unsolicited opinions about his choice of authors: “Patricia Highsmith knows everything about anxiety”). When Hirayama switches off his reading lamp and removes his glasses to sleep, he dreams in black and white sequences that hint at a more complicated earlier life, fragments of it filtered through leaves.

There’s a soothing aspect to the gentle rhythms of Hirayama’s day, which with each repetition reveals subtle differences. His direct interactions with other people invariably are acts of kindness, and he treats everyone with the same spirit of generosity.

That applies even to annoying Takashi, who in one amusing scene ropes his senior colleague into helping in his frustrated efforts to date the much cooler Amy (Aoi Yamada). The way Amy responds to the Patti Smith album, Horses, and in particular, the song “Redondo Beach,” while Takashi barely pays it any attention indicates that she will remain out of his reach.

While Emoto’s performance is a little broad compared to the restraint of everyone else in the cast, the excitable Takashi serves to show that not everyone is a smooth fit for Hirayama’s orderly world.

When Hirayama’s routine is disrupted and the careful balance is upset, notably when he’s forced to cover the work of two employees one day, we sense how rarely he lets moments of anger overcome him. The sudden appearance of his niece Niko (Arisa Nakano) after a fight with her mother initially requires some adjustment, but scenes in which he folds her into his workday — reluctantly at first, and then happily — are captivating depictions of two generations connecting.

The emotional tug of the movie is never obvious, mostly creeping up on you almost imperceptibly. Chief exceptions, when Hirayama’s feelings are laid bare, include a private moment between the owner of the restaurant he goes to on his day off, known as Mama (Sayuri Ishikawa), and her ex-husband (Tomokazu Miura), with whom he later shares a beer by the river. And an encounter with his estranged sister Keiko (Yumi Aso) when she comes to take Niko home suggests the affluent life and family friction Hirayama left behind, while stirring up feelings of sadness and lost affection that remain with him.

The real reward of Perfect Days, however, is the accumulation of tiny details, tenderly observed fragments of a life that on their own seem inconsequential. When pieced together, they create a poetic, deeply moving account of the unexpected peace, harmony and contentment that one man has worked hard and made difficult decisions to attain.

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