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Movie review: 'Perfect Days' near-perfect movie from Wim Wenders

James Verniere, Boston Herald on

Published in Entertainment News

A German-Japanese co-production, Wim Wenders’ Academy Award-nominated “Perfect Days” boasts an absolutely beatific performance from its lead actor Koji Yakusho (“Shall We Dance?”), winner of the best actor prize at Cannes. In the film, which is in Japanese with subtitles, Yakusho plays Hirayama, a Tokyo sanitation worker, whose daily routine is cleaning the toilets of public bathrooms in the city.

Awakened from his sleep by the rustle of his neighbor’s broom, Hirayama rises from his narrow futon in his narrow duplex. He waters his potted saplings, puts on the blue (almost purple) “The Tokyo Toilet” uniform and rides to his jobs in his tiny van, listening to a tape of The Animals singing “House of the Rising Sun.” We watch Hirayama, who takes great pride in what would appear to be demeaning work, go through the motions of his job – cleaning toilets, urinals, sinks, floors and other spaces inside the facilities – with an almost religious devotion, precision and vigor. With his white towel scarf, the soft-spoken Hirayama is the samurai of the latrine, the Zen master of Tokyo sanitation.

In his free time, Hirayama indulges passions for music and photography, He photographs the city’s trees. Although his life appears to be lonely and monotonous, Hirayama revels in it. He is the master of his soul. After his work, Hirayama goes to the public baths and ends his day with a drink at a commuter bar.

Then, it all begins again, and, of course, complications set in. One is in regard to Hirayama’s young colleague Takashi (Tokio Emoto), a less disciplined Tokyo Toilet worker involved in a relationship with a young woman named Aya (Aoi Yamada), who works in a bar. Another thing involves Hirayama’s niece Niko (Arisa Nakano), who runs away from his estranged sister Keiko’s home. Keiko (Yumi Aso) does not know that her brother cleans toilets. In another development, Hirayama discovers an incomplete game of tic-tac-toe in a privy. Hirayama also owns a valuable collection of vintage audio tapes, including a collectible Patti Smith recording, which becomes an issue when Takashi needs cash.

“Perfect Days” is about the importance of beauty and art in the lives of even the most humble among us. For many of us, these things are what sustain us and lift us out of our drab lives. “Laborare est orare,” goes the Latin saying, a reference to the monastic practice of simultaneously working and praying and the connection between the two activities, a notion attributed to the Order of St. Benedict. Surely, Hirayama is an example of this. His humble work is a form of spiritual expression. Cinematographer Franz Lustig, a frequent Wenders collaborator, turns toilets into temples.

Wenders, who has directed 88 films and whose credits include the 1977 Patricia Highsmith adaptation “The American Friend” and the 1987 favorite “Wings of Desire,” again with the great Bruno Ganz, co-wrote the screenplay of “Perfect Days” with Takuma Takasaki. The film started out as a Tokyo-funded short to celebrate the architecturally-significant Tokyo public park toilet system. Then, it became Wenders’ most acclaimed and art house-friendly effort in years.

The connection between Hirayama’s arguably Sisyphean routine and Wenders’ work as a filmmaker is unavoidable and rich. How is making a film like cleaning a toilet? I’m sure Wenders, whose acclaimed 3D documentary “Anselm” premiered at Cannes a few days after “Perfect Days,” has many stories to tell us.

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'PERFECT DAYS'

(In Japanese with English subtitles)

Grade: A-

MPA rating: PG (for some language, partial nudity and smoking)

Running time: 2:03

How to watch: Now in theaters

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