Monday, September 04, 2023

Perfect Days (in the presence of Wim Wenders and Koji Yakusho)

Wim Wenders: Perfect Days / パーフェクト・デイズ (JP 2023) with Koji Yakusho (Hirayama) and Arisa Nakano (Hirayama's niece Niko).

Made possible by a donation from Jennifer Wilson.
Galaxy, Telluride Film Festival (TFF), 4 Sep 2023.
In the presence of Wim Wenders and Koji Yakusho.
Q&A hosted by Werner Herzog.

Bilge Ebiri (TFF 2023): " Day after day, Hirayama (Koji Yakusho) spends his time cleaning the varied, architecturally distinct toilets of Tokyo. He doesn’t talk much, but he’s a hard worker—polite, patient and present. During his breaks, he enjoys the sunlight on his face and the leaves on the trees. In the evenings, he eats, reads and dreams. Over the years, Wim Wenders has made many movies about characters who want to flee the world; with PERFECT DAYS, he reminds us that fleeing from the world and wanting to embrace it are two sides of the same coin. He follows Hirayama with loving intimacy through his days as he interacts with co-workers, bystanders and his own niece. Yakusho, one of Japan’s greatest treasures, gives what is surely one of his most powerful performances. It might seem modest in subject matter, yet PERFECT DAYS already feels like a signature work for Wenders: a quiet, mesmerizing film that locates joy and wonder in the simplest of life’s pleasures. " –BE (Japan, 2023, 123 m) In person: Wim Wenders

Festival premiere: 25 May 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
American festival premiere: 1 Sep 2023 Telluride Film Festival.
German premiere: 21 Dec 2023.
Japanese premiere: 22 Dec 2023.

The language of the film is Japanese.
The Q&A was conducted in English and Japanese.

AA: Daily routine as the main action and source of structure in a movie is familiar from Robert Bresson, Jeanne Dielman, Aki Kaurismäki and Paterson. Now is Wim Wenders's turn, and he, too, strikes gold with the concept, in a completely original way. Common to all is that on closer inspection it turns out that there is no such thing as "everyday". In the vision of a poet, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

I became a Wim Wenders convert by his early road movie trilogy (Alice in den Städten, Falsche Bewegung, Im Lauf der Zeit), and Perfect Days is yet another road movie, now set in Tokyo and featuring the toilet cleaner Hirayama (Koji Yakusho), diligent on his beat in his personal van. City traffic on highways and driveways is the element of the action.

On the road Hirayama listens to his favourite music from his C-cassettes from the 1970s and the 1980s, including "Perfect Day" (1972) by Lou Reed. They are examined in bemused disbelief by young colleagues and acquaintances. When Keiko (played by the popular singer Yumi Aso) hears Patti Smith for the first time, she identifies the track with the Shazam app. "Is that on Spotify?" Hirayama does not know. In a humoristic twist, it turns out that C-cassettes are back and command high prices in the retro trade. (I am happy to learn that since I have not thrown mine away). Keiko finds C-cassette sound different and appealing. I wish I could access the soundtrack listing of Perfect Days, and a soundtrack album would be welcome. On the other hand, a problematic implication of being stuck in such soundtracks, similar to what is being heard in cafés everywhere, including Telluride, is that it is a sign of living in the past. "Sunny Afternoon" by The Kinks reminds us that Wim Wenders was an early practitioner of the "jukebox soundtrack" concept in his debut feature film Summer in the City - Dedicated to The Kinks (1971). I believe the father of the concept was Kenneth Anger in Scorpio Rising (1963).

During his lunch breaks in a park Hirayama always takes a photograph with his old analog camera, and every week he brings the film roll to the photo shop. The subject is always the same: a magnificent tree, seen from a low angle against the sky. On closer inspection, it is always different.

Gradually, observing Hirayama's quasi-ritualistic approach to daily life, we realize that he obeys a Buddhist calling in life. Everything is sacred. With the tacit permission of a monk, Hirayama retrieves a maple seedling and nurtures it at home.

Even his daily job, toilet cleaning, Hirayama conducts like a sacred ritual, bringing to mind similar scenes in Un condamné à mort s'est échappé. He lives like a monk, an ascetic and ordered life, but his is a happy life based on his own free will. In one single sequence we get a glimpse of an alternative life, the one he has left behind, represented by his sister, the mother of his niece Niko, who has escaped that life to uncle Hirayama. 

An account of a life in solitude, but not in isolation, full of humoristic observations and sad ones including a lonely lady in the park, a child strayed from its family, and a homeless performance artist. Young people find strange a person who does not join the virtual reality of mobile devices. People are glued to them even in the middle of traffic. A young colleague cleans the toilet with one hand and surfs the net with another.

Hirayama has turned life into art. Like Paterson, he has become an artist of life. In the evening Hirayama reads books: William Faulkner, Aya Koda (from whom cinephiles register Nagareru / Flowing, filmed by Mikio Naruse), Patricia Highsmith. In contrast to Aki Kaurismäki, Perfect Days is not an account of alienated labour, and although Hirayama, like Kaurismäki's protagonists, is an outsider, he is more like a monk than an outcast.

Every night when Hirayama falls asleep he sees a dream sequence directed by Donata Wenders. Her dream visions belong to a noble lineage of experimental cinema. They are expressions of what the Japanese call komorebi (木漏れ日 ): a nature experience in which lying on the lawn you watch the sunlight filter through the foliage moving in the wind. It is never the same.

In the leading role, Koji Yakusho offers a performance of silent dignity.

Like Anselm, Perfect Days has been shot in classical Academy, another connection with Ozu.



The Q&A with Wim Wenders and Koji Yakusho, hosted by Werner Herzog, was the most deeply moving I visited during Telluride Film Festival.

Again, like in the tribute event on the opening night, Wenders started with a memory of Tom Luddy. It had occurred to him that when he mounted a photograph exhibition of great film artists, each had been introduced to him by Tom, also visible in photographs. "He was an arch angel of the cinema".

The first topic was about directing a Japanese film by a German director who does not know the language. The screenplay had been translated into Japanese, of course, but in the actual shooting the communication took place via eyes and little gestures. "Koji Yakusho knows exactly what the camera does". They ended up shooting only one take as a rule. There were no rehearsals. "Fortunately there were not very many lines", commented Yakusho. His character's name Hirayama is an homage to Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu. Wenders and Herzog both praised Yakusho as the heir to Chishu Ryu. Wenders stated that Perfect Days is a love letter to Japan and Ozu.

On the subject of the road movie, Herzog offered that this time Wenders has created a road movie into the soul of one man. The soul is revealed in solitude, absorbing everything, crying and laughing at the same time. 

Wenders picked up: a road movie is always a journey into the unknown. Komorebi is a message from outer space. Herzog praised Donata Wenders's dream sequences. They are always reflections of that day, via hundreds of shadows and reflections. The sky is the bridge, conveying a texture of solitude.

Herzog commented on the theme of solitude, and Wenders made a distinction between different forms of solitude. In Japanese culture, there is also a value in loneliness. It is a quality that involves respect to others.

Herzog discussed the male solitude in samurai and Melville films, the taciturn warrior, but Wenders saw his film from another angle: a pursuit of a form of reduction, in this film more than one kind of reduction.




The House of the Rising Sun
The Animals


Redondo Beach
Patti Smith


[Walkin' Thru The] Sleepy City
The Rolling Stones


Pale Blue Eyes
The Velvet Underground


[Sittin' On] the Dock of the Bay
Otis Redding


Aoi Sakana
Sachiko Kanenobu - Topic


Sunny Afternoon (Mono Mix)
The Kinks


Brown Eyed Girl
Van Morrison


Perfect Day
Lou Reed


Feeling Good
Nina Simone


P.S. 3 DEC 2023


Pale Blue Eyes
Written by Lou Reed
Performed by The Velvet Underground

(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay
Written by Otis Redding and Steve Cropper
Performed by Otis Redding

Redondo Beach
Written by Patti Smith, Leonard J. Kaye and Richard Sohl
Performed by Patti Smith

(Walkin' Thru the) Sleepy City
Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
Performed by The Rolling Stones

Aoi sakana (Blue Fish)
Lyrics and music by Sachiko Kanenobu
Performed by Sachiko Kanenobu

Perfect Day
Written by Lou Reed
Performed by Lou Reed

Sunny Afternoon
Written by Ray Davies
Performed by The Kinks

The House of the Rising Sun
Japanese version
Written by Maki Asakawa

Brown Eyed Girl
Written by Van Morrison
Performed by Van Morrison


P.S. 15 JAN 2023


PERFECT DAYS marks your return to Japan after several decades. How did it come about and what’s its story, in an nutshell? 

WW: The film came as a surprise letter early last year. “Would you be interested in shooting a series of short fictional films in Tokyo, maybe 4 or 5 of them, about 15 to 20 minutes each? These films would all deal with an amazing public social project, involve the work of great architects and we would ensure you could develop the scripts yourself and get the best possible cast. And we’d guarantee you have total artistic freedom.” That sounded interesting, to say the least. For years already, I was longing to go back to Japan and had real attacks of homesickness for Tokyo.

So, I read on: the subject would involve public toilets and the hope was to find a character through whom one could understand the essence of a Japanese welcoming culture, in which toilets play a whole different role than in our own Western vision of “sanitation”. For us, indeed, toilets are not part of our culture, on the contrary, they are the incarnation of its absence. In Japan, they are small sanctuaries of peace and dignity …

I liked the photos I saw of those marvels of architectures. They rather looked like temples of sanitation than toilets. I liked the idea of “art” linked to them. And I certainly liked to see them in a fictional context. I always feel that “places” are better protected in stories than in a non-fictional context. But I didn’t like the idea of a series of short films. That is not my language. Instead of shooting 4 times 4 days, I answered, why wouldn’t we shoot a real film in these 17 days. What can you do with 4 short films, anyway. Imagine you had a long feature film instead! The answer was: we love your idea! But can it be done? I wrote back: Yes! If we reduce our story to fewer locations and to one leading part. But first I’d have to come and see for myself. I cannot imagine a story without knowing the places for it. And I am in the middle of a shoot. I can give you a week in May and then we can possibly do it in October, when I would have a window in postproduction from that other film. (Which was ANSELM, in its second year already and in the editing room. All shooting for it was done.)

I ended up traveling to Tokyo in May for 10 days. I was able to meet my dream cast for the possible role to be written, Koji Yakusho. (Whom I’d seen in a dozen of movies and always admired.) I saw these places, all of them located in Shibuya that I love. These toilets were too beautiful to be true. But they weren’t what this film was going to be about. This could only become a movie if we managed to create a unique caretaker, a truly believable, real character. His story alone would matter, and only if his life was worth watching, he could carry the film, and those places, and all the ideas attached to them, like the acute sense of “the common good” in Japan, the mutual respect for “the city” and “each other” that make public life in Japan so different to our world. I couldn’t possibly write this on my own. But I had a great sparring partner and co-writer in Takuma Takasaki. We dug deep to find our man …

The film describes in an almost poetic way the beauty of the everyday through the story of a man who lives a modest but very content life in Tokyo.

Yes, all of that is true. But it all came out of Hirayama. That’s what we decided to call this man who slowly took shape in front of our inner eyes. I imagined a man who had a privileged and rich past and who had fallen deeply. And who then had an epiphany one day, when his life was at its lowest point, watching the reflection of leaves created by the sun that was miraculously shining into the hellhole he was waking up in. The Japanese language has a special name for these fugitive apparitions that sometimes appear out of nowhere: “komorebi”: the dance of leaves in the wind, falling like a shadow play onto a wall in front of you, created by a light source out there in the universe, the sun. 

Such an apparition saved Hirayama and he chose to live another life, one of simplicity and modesty. And he became the cleaner who he is in our story. Dedicated, content with the few things he has, among them his old photo camera (with which he only takes pictures of trees and komorebis), his pocket books and his old cassette recorder with the collection of cassette tapes he saved from his younger days. His choice of music also informed us about our title, when Hirayama (on the script already) one day listens to “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed.

Hirayama’s routine became the backbone of our script. The beauty of such a regular rhythm of “always the same” pattern of days is that you start seeing all the little things that are not the same and change every time. The fact is that if you indeed learn to entirely live in the HERE AND NOW, there is no more routine, there’s only a never-ending chain of unique events, of unique encounters and unique moments. Hirayama takes us into this realm of bliss and contentment. And as the film sees the world through his eyes, we also see all the people he encounters with the same openness and generosity: his lazy co-worker Takashi and his girlfriend Aya, a homeless man living in a park where Hirayama works every day, his niece Niko who seeks refuge at her uncle’s place, “mama”, the owner of a modest little restaurant where Hirayama goes on his free days, her ex-husband and many others. 

What is it about Japan and its culture that holds such fascination for you, and specifically what elements of Japanese culture are prevalent for you in this film?

“Service” has a whole different connotation in Japan than in our world. At the end of the shoot I met a famous American photographer who couldn’t believe I had made a film about a man who cleaned toilets. “That’s the story of my life!” he said. “When I came as a young man to Japan to learn martial arts, the famous teacher I went to said to me: “If you work in public toilets for half a year, cleaning them every day, then you can come back and see me. That’s what I did. I got up every day at 6am to clean toilets, in one of the poorest districts of Tokyo. The teacher followed that from a distance and took me up as a student afterwards. But up to this day, I still do it for a week, every year.” (The man is now in his sixties and has never returned to America.) Anyway, that is just an example. There are other stories of heads of big companies who gained the respect of their workers only after they arrived at work before them and cleaned the common toilets. This is not “inferior” work. It is rather some form of spiritual attitude, a gesture of equality and modesty.

And then you only have to live shortly in America to understand the importance of “The Common Good”. Once during a long stay in Japan, when I was working there on the dream sequences of “Until the End of the World” I received the visit of an American friend who had never been to Japan before. It was winter time and many people ran around with masks. (30 years before the pandemic.) “Why are they all so scared to catch a bug?” my friend asked me. I told him: “No, not at all. They have a cold already, and they wear masks to protect the others:” He looked at me in disbelief. “No, you’re kidding!” They were not, that is a common attitude.

You have a long association with Tokyo and Japan. Tokyo itself plays an important role in PERFECT DAYS, because you had the extraordinary chance to shoot in places where it is usually not allowed to shoot. How was the experience of shooting in Tokyo? And how has Tokyo changed since Tokyo-Ga?

WW: I loved Tokyo the first time I ever wandered around there and got lost. That was already in the late seventies. It was a time of sheer wonder. I’d walk around for hours, not knowing where I was in this huge city, then just step onto any subway and find my hotel destination again. Every day I went into another area. I was amazed by the seemingly chaotic structure of he city where you would find old blocks with ancient wooden houses next to skyscrapers and busy intersections, where you’d walk under these science-fiction double- and triple decker freeways and find the most peaceful living areas and mazes of tiny streets right next to them. I was fascinated by all the future I could see shaping up. Then, I had always seen the United States as the place to encounter the future. Here in Japan I found another version of the future, one that suited me really well. 

And then, of course, I was informed through the films of Yasujiro Ozu (who is still my declared master, even if I only got to see his work when I was already a young filmmaker with several films under his belt.) He had given us an almost seismographic account of the changing Japanese culture from the twenties to the early sixties when he died. “Tokyo-Ga” I made in 82 on his traces, trying to see how Tokyo had already changed since he last shot there 20 years earlier. 

You are famous for integrating music into your films in a very special way. Now in PERFECT DAYS you have come up with a very special music concept.

It seemed wrong to conceive of a “score” for this simple everyday life. But as Hirayama listens to his cassettes of music from the sixties through to the eighties mostly, his musical taste gave us a soundtrack of his life, from the Velvet Underground, Otis Redding, Patti Smith, the Kinks or Lou Reed to others, also to Japanese music from that period. 

You dedicate the film to the maestro Ozu. What elements of his work have had the most influence on you?

WW: Mostly the feeling that permeates his films that every thing and every person is unique, that every moment is happening only once, that the everyday stories are the only eternal stories.

No comments: