Oscar-nominated ‘Perfect Days’ is ‘not about toilets’ Wim Wenders says

When German film-maker Wim Wenders divulged his unusual muse — the intricately designed public toilets of Tokyo — German newspapers initially scoffed, finding humor in the concept. Today, that laughter gives way to reverence as Wenders’ movie “Perfect Days” receives an Oscar nomination, underscoring that the film transcends its seemingly mundane subject matter.

Europe often regards toilets as the antithesis of culture, Wenders explained during an online interview, yet he points out that this notion does not hold true in Japan. Centering his narrative in the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo, “Perfect Days” follows the life of a quiet cleaner, played by the esteemed Koji Yakusho, who dedicates himself to maintaining the pristine condition of a series of architecturally significant restrooms.

Yakusho’s character approaches his duties with a profound meticulousness, a reflection of his personal discipline. Yet, as the narrative unfolds day by day, a broader meditation on solitude in the urban landscape, the essence of community, and the introspections brought about by aging emerges. The film foreshadows this depth from its inception, persuading critics to see beyond the superficial and understand that “Perfect Days,” while indeed featuring toilets, is not solely about them. Instead, it showcases a distinctly Japanese hospitality and a profound respect for human necessity.

Celebrated at the Cannes Film Festival where Yakusho clinched the Best Actor award, “Perfect Days” has found itself competing for Best International Feature at the Oscars on March 10, accomplishing the feat as Japan’s first submission directed by a non-Japanese filmmaker.

Renowned for his eclectic range, the 78-year-old Wenders has a portfolio that spans from the wanderlust-inducing drama “Paris, Texas” to the documentary “Buena Vista Social Club.” Despite being thrice Oscar-nominated, an actual win has eluded him so far.

The film manifests Wenders’ sense of loss during 2020 when the pandemic eroded the collective spirit, littering Berlin’s parks with refuse. Then came a serendipitous proposition from Koji Yanai, the progeny of Uniqlo’s billionaire founder, inciting Wenders to turn his gaze upon Tokyo’s public toilet project. Initially intended to inspire a sequence of shorts, Wenders’ encounter with the architecturally daring facilities prompted a decision to create a full-length feature.

Writing the screenplay with advertising figurehead Takuma Takasaki, Wenders approached language barriers by allowing visual storytelling to speak the clearest, affirming that “the main language in movies is still the eyes.” Filming wrapped up in just two weeks, with a conscious choice to limit dialogue.

Wenders, revisiting Tokyo after his ode to filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu in “Tokyo-Ga” (1985), finds fascination in the city’s layered existence, with everyday life superimposed upon an ever-bustling metropolis. The film beautifully links the dotonbori, (public baths), underground eateries, and Hirayama’s modest abode, snug beneath the looming Skytree tower. These elements become as integral to the narrative tapestry as the restrooms that the protagonist scrupulously cleans.

Glimpses of Japanese culture permeate the film, with Wenders expressing admiration for concepts like “komorebi,” a term denoting the interplay of light and leaves, which captures the protagonist’s photographic hobby during lunch breaks. For Wenders, this encapsulates the appreciation of often overlooked minutiae that enriches life.

Though some have critiqued the portrayal of Hirayama’s life as overly romantic, Yakusho found personal enrichment in his role’s discipline, equating his character’s toilet-cleaning precision to that of a monk’s zen practice. Advocates of the film laud these depictions of simplicity and mindfulness, discovering a profound connection to Yakusho’s character who finds “real, small joys in various things.”

With age, Wenders becomes more discerning in his projects, understanding that with every new film, the possibilities for others diminish. His embrace of every project bears a consciousness of time’s constraints. A testament to this is “Perfect Days,” which allowed Wenders a novel expression of his long-held appreciation for Japanese culture. Whether Wenders’ next venture leads him back to Tokyo or even into the cosmos remains to be seen. What is undeniable, though, is the delightful resonance of “Perfect Days” — a film that challenges preconceptions and celebrates the unsung beauty of the everyday.

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