Perfect Days review: Wim Wenders’s elegant, touching film may be his best drama since Wings of Desire

Selected as the Japanese entry for the international feature Oscar, this is a film to live your life by

Perfect Days
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Director: Wim Wenders
Cert: PG
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Tokio Emoto, Arisa Nakano, Aoi Yamada, Yumi Aso, Sayuri Ishikawa, Tomokazu Miura as Tomoyama
Running Time: 2 hrs 4 mins

One can think of few happier developments than a particular incarnation of Wim Wenders returning happily to cinemas. The great German hasn’t gone away. In recent decades he has made acclaimed documentaries such as Pina, The Salt of the Earth and last year’s Anselm. But Wenders has not delivered a wholly successful fiction film in the current century. Until now. The elegant, touching Perfect Days may be the director’s best drama in 35 years. That takes us back to Wings of Desire and the last days of the Berlin Wall.

The film carries on a sparky conversation with earlier works such as Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road. We are again engaged with American culture and with American music in particular. But, if those projects redefined the road movie, Perfect Days could be seen as an anti-road movie: the protagonist listens to Patti Smith and Velvet Underground while driving the same route to the same apparently mundane locations. Far from being a paean to open space, it is a tribute to the quietly fulfilling quotidian.

The project began when Wenders was invited to contribute a short film on Tokyo’s suavely designed public lavatories. His Tokyo Toilet Project evolved into a feature about an apparently contented man in late middle age who looks to have mastered the art of living simply and well. Hirayama (Koji Yakusho) rises. He drives to one of the facilities while listening to carefully curated dad rock on cassette: Brown Eyed Girl, (Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay, Sunny Afternoon. He cleans the beautifully designed loos – few of which seem visibly soiled – with an assiduousness that borders on the obsessive. He buys a book at weekends. He dines in the same restaurant.

Some critics have wondered if Wenders, as a European, is within his rights to impose a class of spiritual contentment on a Japanese man working in a potentially menial job (not that Hirayama would see it that way). But the film, written by Takuma Takasaki and the director, seems to have gone down well with the domestic cinematic establishment. Perfect Days was selected as the Japanese entry for the international feature Oscar and went on to secure a place among the final five nominees.


On one level the project can be approached as a meditational tool. The harmonies of Hirayama’s life offer more satisfactory escape from daily trials than any superhero fantasy. Franz Lustig’s camera finds an ordered beauty in the damp streets of a city seen at its least threatening. This is an agreeable way to be.

But, with the greatest subtlety, Yakusho’s performance – the veteran walked away with the best actor prize at Cannes last year – gives us hints of an earlier life that was less happy and that still colours the present. His niece arrives and we pick up that Hirayama and his wealthy sister, the girl’s mother, are not on cordial terms. Later we learn of an apparent rift with his father. Perhaps our hero has escaped within himself.

For all that, there is never any sense that Hirayama is living a delusion. Persuaded, against his better judgment, into becoming half-committed mentor to a young assistant, he emerges as a man in as much control of his destiny as any of us can claim. He bonds with a stranger in distress. He helps out. By the close, the picture risks taking on the quality of those allegorical novels that provided solace in the post-hippie era. Jonathan Livingstone Lavatory Cleaner. Zen and the Art of Lavatory Maintenance. But better than that. Sharper, less sentimental, less aphoristic. A film to live your life by.

Perfect Days opens on Friday, February 23rd

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist