It’s about a guy who cleans toilets in Japan,” I told my friend as we sat down in the theater to watch Perfect Days, the latest film by auteur director and cinephile favorite Wim Wenders, a couple months ago. My friend looked puzzled, wondering why I picked a film with such an unexciting premise. But the premise was precisely what captured my attention. I knew Wenders, who previously directed Wings of Desire, Buena Vista Social Club, and Paris, Texas, was an accomplished filmmaker, and wanted to see how he’d fill up the film’s two-hour run-time.

Unlike movies such as Taxi Driver, where underpaid, unappreciated menial labor on the bottom level of society often drives people to violence and insanity, protagonist Hirayama—played with an understated excellence by Japanese screen actor Koji Yakusho—actually finds solace in his uncomplicated existence. He lives alone in an apartment on the outskirts of Tokyo. After work, he washes at a bathhouse and dines at a cheap restaurant inside a subway station. He listens to cassettes—by Patti Smith, the Kinks, Sachiko Kanenobu, and Lou Reed—in his van, and reads novels—by William Faulkner and Aya Koda—before going to bed. When he wakes up, at sunrise, the cycle repeats.

Hirayama’s contentment is contagious. Leaving the theater made me feel as though I had emerged from meditation, and even months after seeing the film, I still find myself thinking of Hirayama on a regular basis. I now try to perform mundane tasks like brushing my teeth or cleaning my room with the same care and deliberation he shows his toilets. When I eat alone, I savor my food and look at things I would normally ignore: passersby, leaves blowing in the wind. This practice could be seen as sati, or true mindfulness.

Perfect Days is filled with subtle nods to both Buddhism and Shintoism—some more obvious than others. Hirayama lives like a monk, and has the personality of one too. His love for music also struck me as spiritual; Alan Watts once described it as the highest art form because sound, like life itself, is a temporary phenomenon. At times, Perfect Days almost comes across as hagiography, its subject more cosmic than simplistic. This isn’t a cute little film about a guy who cleans toilets; it’s the sweeping portrait of a person who seems to have figured out the secret of existence: to live a life free from pain and suffering, where each day, regardless of circumstances, promises to bring uninterrupted peace.

At times, Perfect Days almost comes across as hagiography, its subject more cosmic than simplistic.

But—and this is what elevates Perfect Days as a piece of cinema—things are not as straightforward as they appear. Hirayama isn’t (yet) a buddha, and his life isn’t entirely free from pain. Though his backstory goes largely unexplained, certain scenes—an encounter with his estranged and wealthy sister, a longing look at a waitress—suggest Hirayama isn’t guided by the light so much as he is haunted by the past. I discuss this and more with Wenders in the following interview, which began with my asking whether Wenders himself knows more about the protagonist’s past than what he shows on-screen:

“Indeed, there was a backstory,” Wenders answered. “I had to write it down, at least for myself, to imagine the character of Hirayama when we wrote the screenplay. And later, I figured, Koji Yakusho would eventually ask me the same question you just did, as an actor. So I wrote five pages to know for myself who Hirayama was. I wrote it as a verbal account by Hirayama himself, looking back at his life, told to me in the first person. It started like this:

I grew up in Kita-Kamakura as a protected child of a wealthy family. I studied economy and law, and became a businessman. I never got along with my father, and my mother died when I was young. I had one sister, and she was my father’s treasure, while he was never there for me, and did not care much for me. He never gave me anything from himself, emotionally, and so I felt to him like towards a stranger…

“I shared those pages with Koji Yakusho just before we started shooting. And, of course, I also gave them to my cowriter, Takuma Takasaki, to read. We didn’t really make use of that biography in the film, and left it very much to the audience to somehow piece Hirayama’s earlier life together. In a more conventional film, you would have certainly found out all about it. We thought it was much better to keep it in the dark and relatively unexplained, so it is up to every viewer to fill in this blank. Obviously, Hirayama wasn’t always a toilet cleaner. When his sister arrives in a big limousine, you can guess that this also informs us of Hirayama’s background, that he came from a rich family. You also find out from the sister that there was a conflict with his father. I still feel like [I am] betraying the film if I now reveal more of that story.

“‘Why did he become a toilet cleaner?’ is a valid question, though. Instead of answering, let me tell you a story instead. On the very last day of the shoot, my wife and I were wearing the same uniform that Hirayama is wearing all through the film, those blue overalls, with the writing ‘The Tokyo Toilet’ on the back, just as an act of solidarity with our leading actor. It was like telling him that, as a director, I was not doing a better job than he did. He did his cleaning job with the same dedication that Japanese craftsmen have toward each object they create, whether it is pottery or carving things out of wood or painting a traditional screen. They treat each and every piece as if it is unique. Hirayama approaches each toilet like that as well.

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Koji Yakusho in Perfect Days | Image courtesy Mastermind Ltd

“Anyway, after we had finished the last close-up of Hirayama listening to the Nina Simone song, we realized that this was the only night during the entire stay in Tokyo in which we could possibly visit my favorite bar in Shinjuku, La Jetée, named after the film by Chris Marker. So my wife and I took a taxi there, still in those uniforms. At the bar, Tomoyo, the owner, wasn’t shocked by our appearance; she only laughed and prepared our drinks. It was still early in the evening and we were alone. But then another customer came in, an American in his mid-60s. He didn’t know us, but he was quite surprised by our outfits. ‘How come you are wearing those toilet cleaner uniforms?’ So I explained we had just shot a film about a toilet cleaner. That seemed to bother him even more. ‘I cannot believe this!’ He told us his story:

I came to Japan as a young man, to avoid being drafted for the war in Vietnam. And I came to Tokyo, because I knew of a great martial arts master who lived here, and I wanted to learn from him. I went to see him and asked him if he was going to teach me. He looked at me for a long time. Then he said: ‘I will do this, young man. But first, you have to do something yourself. I’d ask you to go to the Tsukiji district of Tokyo, where the fish market is, and clean public toilets there for a year. I’ll give you the address of the company. When you’ve done this for a whole year, you can come back to me.’ Well, I did it for exactly one year, then went back to the master. He said: ‘OK, I’ve heard you took that job seriously. Good, so I can start teaching you now. But first, you have to promise me something else. When we’re done and you go your own way, I want you to continue cleaning public toilets for the rest of your life, one week a year.’ I promised him that. And I still do it, once a year. It is a very important part of my life, of who I am. That’s why your uniforms shocked me so much.

“I told you this whole story in order to make you understand that cleaning toilets has a very different connotation in Japan. It is a low job, sure, but it is owed a lot of respect. And it has a sort of metaphoric dimension, if not metaphysical…”

In the film’s final (and, for me, most moving) scene, Hirayama is driving his van to work and listening to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” as the sun comes up. It’s the same setup we saw when we first met him, and yet something’s different. Where Hirayama originally appeared a saint, devoid of fears and regrets, we now believe his feelings are a bit more complicated. As he listens to the music, he smiles, then tears up, then smiles and cries at the same time. What’s going on in his head? Is this joy, sadness, both, neither?

“We wanted to release Hirayama out of the film, so he could continue his life without us watching, so to speak. The scene of the evening before is still reverberating, when he met this man by the river who was already marked by death and whom he was able to take out of his grief for a small moment. Also, his sister is still on his mind, his niece Niko who had to return to her ‘family prison.’ All of this goes through Hirayama’s head, while he is listening on that last morning to the song by Nina Simone. He knows the lyrics to this song well. They mean a lot to him. And through these words, he sees his whole life in front of him. Did he make the right decision to live the life he is living now? With all of this in front of his inner eye, he is driving through morning traffic. That’s all I told Koji Yakusho as ‘direction.’ Little did I know how far he was going to take that scene…

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Koji Yakusho and Arisa Nakano in Perfect Days | Image courtesy Mastermind Ltd

“We shot it first from the side, with Hirayama driving his tiny van in real traffic. So he also had to keep his eyes on the road and was responsible for all his passengers. My director of photography, Franz Lustig, was sitting in the passenger seat, shooting a side angle from up close. I was behind, crammed in with the camera assistant and the sound engineer, looking down on my little monitor watching Koji drive, put in the cassette, and listen, with the song playing over his face, as if we could read Simone’s lyrics on it. I was very moved, and when I looked up, I saw Franz weeping, no longer able to look through his viewfinder, tears streaming down his face. I just prayed he was able to hold on to that unbelievable shot. What Koji was doing, I didn’t know was possible for an actor. Laughing and crying at the same time, letting his entire life show—his doubts, but also, his joy and his confidence…”

Reading through reviews of Perfect Days, I came across an article from the Brooklyn Rail that raised a valid point about the film’s presentation. Although Hirayama is a meticulous cleaner, Tokyo’s toilets are never all that dirty—at least, not compared to other countries. Pair that with the city’s bright blue skies, sunny afternoons, and lush parks, and it makes you wonder if someone cleaning toilets along America’s trash-covered highways could be as happy as Hirayama. But then I had another thought: Is Hirayama happy because the world he lives in is so beautiful, or does the world simply appear that way because we see it through his perspective, his worldview?

It’s his routine, unexpectedly, that allows Hirayama to live so much in the moment.

“That was the whole idea. You see the world more and more from Hirayama’s point of view! From the moment he opens his eyes in the morning to the moment in the evening when these eyes fall asleep over his book, you look all day through these friendly, vibrant eyes. And you slowly learn to watch the world like he does. You see, basically every film does that, [they] take you into somebody’s universe, even horror movies. You show somebody’s face, then you cut to what he or she sees: already, the audience, consciously or not, is seeing the world through that person’s eyes. Only that they’re not always willing to enter his (or her) mind. Hirayama manages to take us along, not immediately but slowly. Through his effort to always do his best, through his silence, through his kindness to each and every person, through his attentiveness, he slowly manages to let us, the audience, also live in the here and now, a place so many of us have even forgotten is there… By the way, most of the time during the shoot it was gray, sometimes raining.”

Hirayama’s life is steeped in routine: he makes his bed, waters his plants, gets a can of coffee from a vending machine, puts on a cassette in his van, and drives to work. He eats the same lunch inside the same park looking at the same tree, always snapping a picture with his camera. Sometimes he visits the bookstore, and once a week—on Sunday—he treats himself by eating at a slightly nicer restaurant whose owner sings a mean cover of “House of the Rising Sun” in Japanese. As the film goes on, though, unexpected events pull Hirayama out of his routine—his coworker begs if he can drive him to his date, his teenage niece shows up at his door after running away from her home. Hirayama adapts to, and even comes close to enjoying, these changes, but he also expresses discomfort—a worry that these intrusions could pull him out of his self-imposed monasticism, perhaps?

“I’d say: Hirayama’s life is definitely not unshakable, not in a permanent state of security. It is based on routine, sure, because routine does give structure and thereby also a lot of freedom, amazingly so. You do not have to structure every day from scratch if you have a routine. It’s his routine, unexpectedly, that allows Hirayama to live so much in the moment. That is a great freedom in itself, the ability to inhabit the here and now so fully. So his life spans between the rigidity of his routine and the total fluidity of the ever-presence. Does that ‘discrepancy,’ if it is one, present a constancy? We were so close to Hirayama during the shoot that we felt even slight upheavals very strongly, together with a readiness on behalf of Hirayama to face these ‘developments.’

“Niko’s arrival is the biggest upset. At first, you feel Hirayama is almost scared of her bringing along too much change. When he sleeps down in his kitchen and looks up at the ceiling, above which she is now sleeping on his futon, you feel the uncertainty that has invaded his little house. His nightly reading routine is down the drain, and with it, possibly, routine itself. The next day, he tries so much to avoid waking her up, because he is scared of what could happen. And of course, it then happens: she wakes up and wants to come along to his work! His beloved morning solitude in his car is down the drain as well.

“But he adjusts amazingly. Asking her if she wants to share his lousy coffee experience is a courageous first step. And letting her choose the morning song for his cassette player is another big step. And if you look hard, you see that Hirayama is starting to enjoy the disruption. Yes, he can adjust, absolutely! His routine does not haunt him—he is able to escape the oppressive force it brings along so often. He is indeed a free man. When he feels he has to explain something to Niko about living in the moment—‘Then is then and now is now…’—he is also taking a lesson from her right afterwards, when she turns his mantra into a little improvised song. He joins her, singing the little melody that she has just invented, and even starts riding curves with his bicycle, like she does.”

The film ends with a definition of the Japanese term komorebi, of which there is no suitable English equivalent. In closing, Wenders imparted on me the importance of komorebi for Hirayama, and, perhaps, for us all after the credits for Perfect Days roll and the theater starts to clear:

“Well, you now have entered so deeply into Hirayama’s soul with me that I feel I can safely share some of his thoughts with you. This is another excerpt from those pages of his biography in the first person”:

I became very successful, without actually ever trying hard. When my wife and I realized we had nothing in common, we separated, by mutual agreement. We totally lost touch with each other… I had become very empty. I drank a lot and also used drugs. I had no more pleasure in life, no aspiration whatsoever. My house, I hated it; my office, I hated it; the people I knew, I hated them. Most of all, I hated myself. I was disgusted with my life and with who I had become…

I stayed in cheap hotels, or sometimes didn’t even care anymore where I ended up at night. Pain was the only thing left in my heart, a deep, nagging pain, the pain of nothingness, not even a feeling of loneliness, just emptiness. That was a more horrifying pain than any other…

One morning, I woke up in a hellhole of a bad hotel, with that pain waking up together with me. I thought of ending my life right there. I stared at the empty dark wall in front of me, and the idea of my death was the only thing left on my mind to end the pain. And then, believe it or not, a light suddenly showed up in front of me. It came out of nowhere, from a crack in the dirty curtain. Somehow, a ray of early morning sunlight had found its way through the adjoining tall and ugly buildings into this backyard hellhole. And it fell on my wall through the leaves of the only tree that grew in that backyard. What appeared in front of me was a miraculous komorebi spectacle that totally came out of nowhere. It broke into the nothingness of my mind and my pain. And it was only there for me! And for the first time in my life, I realized that the light there on that wall had traveled through the universe, over millions of miles, from the sun just to me, into my hell. That realization made me shiver…

I am not a religious man, but that light in front of me broke through all my barriers. In an instant, this experience turned me into a new person. And I wanted to hold on to it. That was the only thing I wanted to hold on to. I had no other life to hold on to, anyway. When it happened, I was not aware that you can exist so much in the moment. I wanted to remain in that present tense. In that presence, there was no pain. The light from afar, I started to see afterwards, was there all the time, around me, around everybody, but nobody seemed to realize or think about it. And the trees with their leaves were also there, everywhere, but everybody took them for granted. And the wind that moved the leaves in the light was also always there, but nobody seemed to feel it. I became a gardener, to be with the light and the trees. The trees need the light to live, and they turn light into air for us to breathe. I became part of that cycle…  

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