' ' Cinema Romantico: Perfect Days

Monday, February 26, 2024

Perfect Days

Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho) wakes every morning in his small Tokyo apartment naturally, no alarm clock, to the sound of a woman sweeping up outside, suggesting the sleep of the contented. He trims his salt and pepper moustache and steps outside, stopping to glance up at the sky before grabbing a canned coffee from a nearby vending machine and setting forth on his job cleaning public toilets across the wide expanse of the Japanese capital, evoked in the name emblazoned on the back of his blue uniform, The Tokyo Toilet. When he’s done for the day, he cleans up at a public bath, grabs dinner at the same subway noodle shop, and then settles in for the evening, reading, usually a classic, until he turns out the lights and goes to sleep, seeming to dream in half fragments of the day he’s just experienced, like he really does live 24 hours at a time.

These are Hirayama’s perfect days, in other words, and for an hour of this two-hour movie, this is essentially all it is, plotless, and defined by the smallest variations, slight changes in camera angles, a different cassette tape on his way to work, Van Morrison one day, Lou Reed another. At lunch in the same park each afternoon, from the same bench, Hirayama looks up at the trees, noting the cracks of light between swaying leaves, snapping a photo that he files away with the hundreds and hundreds of photos before, suggesting “Perfect Days” as a sort of cinematic version of Monet’s haystacks, intending to capture the small shifts in the everyday.

Initially, there is no drama, no real conflict, even his job, suggesting something unpleasant, features no more trouble than an annoying co-worker and a still-drunk salaryman stumbling for a place to relieve himself. Gradually, however, hiccups emerge. His annoying co-worker up and quits, leaving Hirayama to cover two shifts in one day. His niece shows up announced, leading her mother, his sister, to come find her, leading to brief, cold interaction hinting at familial drama. An interruption of a routine toward the end prompts Hirayama to buy beer and cigarettes, suggesting an addictive past. But that’s all these are, suggestions, as Wenders pointedly refuses to fill in blanks, never following up on these narrative strands and forgoing a voiceover that might have provided more clarity. That, however, is not the kind of clarity Wenders seeks.

Though Hirayama favors legacy acts on his musical cassette tapes, one artist he does not play is Bruce Springsteen, though I kept thinking of him anyway, and how his work in the 90s, both released and unreleased, is packed with his own variations of lines about slipping, or shedding, his skin. Hirayama has shed his skin too, and all these encounters signify fragments of the past he has left behind. And that’s where they remain, too. They do not alter his future, because in “Perfect Days,” there is no future, and there is no past, there is only now, a line he literally says at one point, which, for a minimalist movie, I honestly could have done without. And that only goes to show why “Perfect Days” requires no voiceover; whatever he says, would be redundant. 

What needs to be said is said in Hirayama’s face, in his expression, in his looking to the sky, in the way he cracks open his can of coffee, in the way he leans back at the noodle bar, so that you can practically see contentment wash across his face. More than merely a man sticking to his routine, “Perfect Days” is a portrait of mindfulness. 

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