Perfect Days (2023)

Yakusho is flawless is the aptly titled ‘Perfect Days’

There’s a reason Kôji Yakusho took home the top acting prize at May’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s stirringly on display in the Oscar-nominated “Perfect Days,” one of the best character studies you’ll ever witness.

Reminiscent of stars from the silent era, Yakusho rarely utters a word as the camera follows his Hirayama through his unwavering regimen of work and leisure. It almost doesn’t matter that Hirayama cleans toilets for a living. It certainly doesn’t to him. And that’s the hidden beauty in director Wim Wenders’ lovely reminder that it isn’t what you do in life that makes it worth living. Rather, it’s the little pleasures you derive from living each day to the fullest.

It’s all very Zen. Not the sort of subject matter that will appeal to the masses. But perhaps it should. In this era of division, a chasm as wide as any since the Civil War, the film suggests that building peace and harmony within oneself can translate to a more peaceful and harmonious society. Accordingly, Wenders and his co-writer, Takuma Takasaki, create an aura of tranquility that envelops you as Franz Lustig’s camera patiently follows Hirayama through a series of rituals performed not out of obligation, but out of a loving desire, whether it’s carefully tending to his array of houseplants, reading poetry or using a tiny mirror to examine beneath toilet rims to ensure spotlessness.

You’re in awe of Hirayama’s ability to perform these methodical tasks with an inherent contentment that personifies the adage, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” It’s never indicated, but it seems evident that Hirayama possesses traits of a high-functioning autistic, especially his adherence to routine and an obsessive preoccupation with classic albums from the 1960s and ’70s – on cassette. No CDs or vinyl for this guy. And his taste in Western music is impeccable, encompassing The Kinks, Patti Smith, Van Morrison, Nina Simone and Lou Reed, whose gorgeous “Perfect Day” lends its title to Wenders’ cosmic film.

Surprisingly, the movie’s most powerful moments are when Hirayama is simply relaxing on a park bench eating lunch and observing others, much like we are observing him. During these noontime respites, he engages in his other passion – photography. Analog, of course. And through his lens, we experience Hirayama’s world. The subject may be as mundane as a brilliant sun filtering through the leaves or a homeless man (Min Tanaka) practicing tai chi. Yet, from Hirayama’s perspective, there emerges a strong sense of beauty and grace.

Others, like Hirayama’s goofy, unreliable assistant, Takashi (an excellent Tokio Emoto), can’t understand this being one with the universe. They consider Hirayama weird. But at the same time, there’s a thinly veiled envy of his constant state of nirvana. A few beg to differ. Not so coincidentally all of them are female, which seems logical, given their greater capacity for empathy. Heck, even his estranged sister, Keiko (Yumi Aso), can’t help but respect the audacity her brother exhibited years ago in turning his back on the family’s wealth and status.

It’s an admirable existence that Keiko’s daughter, Niko (Arisa Nakano), seeks to pursue after running away from home to hole up with Hirayama and later join him on his daily rounds. At first, she’s shocked by his unsavory profession, but in no time, she’s grabbing a mop to swab alongside him. Their scenes are much too brief, but they are as joyous as they are affecting. Ditto, for Hirayama’s encounters with Takashi’s disaffected girlfriend, Aya (Aoi Yamada), whose soul is touched after just one listen to Patti Smith’s “Redondo Beach,” and with Mama (Sayuri Ishikawa), the chanteuse tavern owner (love her rendition of “House of the Rising Sun”) with a huge soft spot for the man of few words. And vice versa.

Each of these interactions could easily have drifted toward the sentimental. But as was the case with his masterpiece, “Paris Texas,” Wenders rejects the maudlin and sap. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be moved. I wish I could count how many times Hirayama’s story brought a lump to my throat.

That’s all Yakusho. But as good as he is at evoking Hirayama’s humanity, that’s often upstaged by the designer restrooms being spiffed up. They may seem the work of an over-the-top production designer, but these public loos are the real deal, most of them nestled in the tony Shibuya section of Tokyo. They are true works of art, my favorite being the facility that is transparent when not in use but turns opaque whenever a person enters.

Wenders makes ample use of that particular convenience. In fact, in the hands of him and Lustig, the entire city becomes an urban paradise, with the Tokyo Skytree assuming a godlike presence, often looming in the background. But it’s Yakusho who’s most mesmerizing in one of the best performances of this or any year. His expressive eyes and perpetual smile magnetically pull you in, commanding your attention. You go willingly, lured by the prospect of seeing the world differently, with Hirayama as the conduit. And like him, you embrace every second of what’s not just a perfect day, but a perfect movie.

Movie review

Perfect Days

Rating: PG for some language, smoking, partial nudity

Cast: Kôji Yakusho, Tokio Emoto, Arisa Nakano, Sayuri Ishikawa

Director: Wim Wenders

Writer: Takuma Takasaki and Wim Wenders

Runtime: 123 minutes

Where: In theaters

Grade: A

One Response

  1. The scene where his sister asks about seeing their father reveals a deep pain in his life. It should make you question why he detached from his wealthy family. Was he cast out or did he run away? Wenders masterfully makes you question everything about his life in exile in an instant.

Leave a Reply