In Perfect Days, Hirayama (Koji Yakusho) is a bathroom cleaner. He starts his day early, gets a coffee from the vending machine, pops a classic rock tape into the stereo, and drives his van to various public restrooms, where he gets to work. He scrubs and tidies the sink meticulously. The various parts of a bidet are wiped. He uses a small mirror to check the underside of a toilet to make sure it’s sparkling in places no one will ever see.
I don’t love work, but I love stories about work. The stakes of a job are so obvious and familiar that you get to skip the explanations of motive (we don’t need to know why Don Draper wants to be a good ad man). What you gain instead is usually a process story — the illustrative part, where you get to see how someone is good at their job.
Perfect Days is that kind of movie. It’s also a pretty good tour of Tokyo’s toilets. In this movie, you watch Hirayama clean a lot of bathrooms. It doesn’t skimp on the finer details of what many would consider a dirty job, and even still, I probably could’ve watched even more of that.
It makes sense that careful observation can be made compelling by director Wim Wenders, a nimble and venerable filmmaker who has for decades spanned narrative and documentary successfully. (Wenders has a 3D doc about Anselm Kiefer also out this winter.) Still, I couldn’t help but feel like Perfect Days offered a tourist’s view of Japan. After all, the first thing people remark on about Tokyo: it’s so clean! A visitor might ask how, exactly, that happens. Perfect Days doesn’t suffer from a Western gaze necessarily, but the film feels scrubbed of any grit or grime — sanitized of the textures that give a movie depth. Mostly, Hirayama’s quiet life came across as pretty twee. Everything is just a little too cute.
For starters, can we talk about the music choices? The opening song is “House of the Rising Sun” (because… Japan, I guess?). I was even more embarrassed when the song made a second appearance. These songs are dad rock standards, but their familiarity makes the film oddly predictable. A cassette tape of Lou Reed’s Transformer shows up, and given the title of the movie, you know what montage is coming next. Each needle drop was more painful than the last.
Like most stories about daily habits, things go off the rails once the routine is disturbed. A horny co-worker — Hirayama’s foil, a zoomer who takes no pride in work — whines that he doesn’t understand why Hirayama works so hard at such a meaningless job. The sudden intrusion of Hirayama’s niece, who’s run away from home, adds a slight wrinkle to his day, too. Her fascination with cleaning goes as far as fodder for her social media. (The movie never quite sneers at young people, but the portrayal of the hipster fascination with analog feels oddly judgmental in a movie that’s mostly free of it.)
But Hirayama adapts. And in fact, he seems to relish trying to continue his routine. In some ways, the daily rhythms have made him unflappable. A more dramatic movie might unravel this. Wenders has no such interest in such melodrama, and Perfect Days is better for it.
Still, a couple of late reveals about Hirayama’s life gently undermine the ways in which this could have just been a story about someone who is good at their job. In some ways, the inclusion of a backstory shows a loss of nerve, a sudden lack of confidence that we could just believe in a character motivated purely by work.
When his favorite restaurant is closed, he doesn’t find another place to eat. Instead, he buys three beers at the convenience store and downs them by the river.
If the film is an exercise in empathy — to appreciate the interior life of the service workers who are too often ignored — then the suggestion that Hirayama has turned to janitorial work because of a dark past (perhaps alcoholism) feels strangely miscalculated. Maybe unfairly, I’d recently watched Wenders’ immaculate Paris, Texas. Being reminded of the heights of the director’s powers only exacerbated the feeling that Perfect Days was underachieving.
Are Hirayama’s days really “perfect”? The movie mostly suggests that, yes, a routine and gratitude for simple pleasures constitute a fulfilling life. Koji Yakusho’s endearing performance certainly sells that idea. But I couldn’t help leaving the movie feeling like things were a bit too neat, a bit too pat, that it was made by someone who really likes a Lou Reed song.