top of page
  • Benjamin May

Perfect Days (2023) Review

In 1985, Wim Wenders released ‘Tokya-Ga’, a love letter to the films of Yasujirô Ozu and the city of Tokyo. In that documentary, Wenders captured a portrait of the city as one under the thrall of Americanized homogenization, in many respects far removed from the Tokyo Ozu put on film. Now, nearly forty years later, Wenders’ beautifully subtle ‘Perfect Days’ can be seen not just as a homage to the work of Ozu but to a Tokyo that once seemed forever lost to capitalist coalescence.

A quiet, poignant character study, ‘Perfect Days’ follows Hirayama, a middle-aged public toilet cleaner as he goes about his business in Tokyo. A man of few words and great tranquillity, Hirayama leads a simple life, never straying from his established routines. A series of encounters- with his young assistant and Aya, the girl he is courting, his niece Niko and the proprietress of a bar- leads Hirayama to reevaluate his situation; to look with fresh eyes upon his place within Japan’s capital.

The film is a fascinating, contemplative piece of depth and heart. The narrative- written by Wenders and Takuma Takasaki- is deceptively simple, commenting on life and society in general, as well as in Japan. By making the central character a toilet cleaner who is, for the most part, ignored by those around him, Wenders seems to be commenting on the callousness of modern society. Most people do not thank Hirayama, nor do they even acknowledge his presence, taking the fruits of his labour for granted.

Hirayama takes great pride in his work, never leaving a toilet less than spotless. As most ignore him, the few, small moments of recognition he receives contain great power; they become amplified. This, in fact, is where the key to the film’s impact lies. Wenders and Takasaki make Hirayama’s life so endlessly mundane that the slightest change becomes an immense piece of action. He is so reserved; the smallest smile contains bounteous meaning. His lack of a definitive backstory makes him all the more enigmatic, and his relationships with others all the more compelling. Ozu did similarly effective work, weaving rich tapestries of human experience out of the everyday; as Wenders’s film does masterfully.

As Hirayama navigates the bustling streets of Tokyo, his experiences serve as a mirror to his inner world. The young assistant, Takashi, represents the new generation’s obliviousness to the traditions and struggles of their predecessors, while Aya embodies the potential for connection and change. His niece and the proprietress of the bar offer contrasting perspectives on the role of women in a society that’s in flux, caught between past expectations and future possibilities.

The Tokyo that frames Hirayama’s existence is a character in itself, pulsating with life, yet marked by the solitude of its inhabitants. Wenders captures the dichotomy of a metropolis that’s both alienating and intimate, where the hum of the city can drown out the individual while also drawing out their deepest reflections. Finding beauty in places and things most would overlook, Wenders invites viewers to pause and consider the unnoticed, the unappreciated and the unspoken externals that shape our lives.

Moreover, the film is a visual delight. Aside from the thematic similarities, Wenders incorporates many stylistic elements often seen in Ozu’s work, both compounding the impact of the film and its function as a homage. Wenders and cinematographer Franz Lustig subtly honour Ozu’s cinematic style through the use of the ‘tatami shot,’ offering a low, intimate view that draws the audience into Hirayama’s world.

Similarly, the utilisation of ‘pillow shots’- brief, poetic cutaways to elements of the environment that serve as transitions between scenes- echo Ozu’s tranquil interludes, inviting reflection. These techniques not only pay tribute to Ozu but also enrich the film’s narrative, highlighting the profound in the ordinary- a hallmark of both directors’ storytelling.

Beyond its visual artistry, the film delves into the cultural fabric of contemporary Japan. Through the portrayal of Hirayama’s humble profession, Wenders subtly examines the nuances of Japan’s work ethic and the societal value placed on cleanliness and order. Set against Tokyo’s evolving landscape, the film navigates the delicate balance between cultural preservation and modernization- a universal urban narrative.

The film emerges at a pivotal moment as Japan confronts its global identity. It strikes a chord with viewers, highlighting the quest for purpose in a uniform world and the significance of society’s unsung roles. Wenders crafts a tale that, while rooted in Tokyo’s reality, speaks to a collective experience, urging audiences worldwide to appreciate their own cultural dynamics.

The film’s score further elevates its contemplative atmosphere, while the eclectic soundtrack mirrors Hirayama’s internal journey. From the nostalgic strains of ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ by The Animals to the introspective ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ by The Velvet Underground, each song is carefully chosen to reflect Hirayama’s mood and the changing rhythms of Tokyo. Wenders’ selection of music- including tracks such as Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’ and Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’- not only underscores the narrative but also serves as a homage to the central character’s personal history and the city’s diverse soundscape.

Koji Yakusho stars as Hirayama, supported by Tokio Emoto as Takashi, Aoi Yamada as Aya and Arisa Nakano as his niece Niko. Arguably the finest actor of his generation both in and outside of Japan, Yakusho delivers a performance of nuance, great profundity and depth. It is a stunning piece of work, that demands attention and deserves plaudits. He carries the film with a remarkable ease and sensitivity, working brilliantly with his co-stars. Emoto brings a welcome comedic energy as the lackadaisical Takashi, while Yamada delivers a subtle yet impactful performance as Aya, adding layers of complexity to the narrative, challenging the protagonist to step beyond his comfort zone.

Nakano, in her third role, is terrific. Like Yakusho, she has the ability to convey deep emotions with minimal dialogue, impressing greatly. Alongside them, Sayuri Ishikawa and Tomokazu Miura are marvellous, as the bar proprietress and Tomoyama, a man who crosses paths with Hirayama. Both do sterling work in small but pivotal roles, appearing in two of the most memorable and emotionally resonant scenes in the film.

In conclusion, Wim Wender’s ‘Perfect Days’ is a remarkable piece of work. A quiet but impactful character study, as well as a homage to the work of Yasujirô Ozu, the film is full of depth and power. Boasting a strong narrative, stunning visuals and a stirring score, it works on every level. The performances from the cast are all excellent, with Koji Yakusho’s central one a masterpiece in understatement. In short, this frankly flawless slow burn is about as close to perfect as a film can get.


bottom of page