Living in the clouds: Perfect Days is just a monotonous Tokyo story

Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of MUBI

The idea that depicting monotony needn’t be monotonous is hardly a new idea.

Take Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman which with exacting slowness depicts three days in the life of a repressed housewife. Or more recently Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, which spans a week in the life of the poet. These are unvarnished works which, through acute psychological detail nonetheless build to crescendos of genuine dramatic heft.

Just because something is boring, they suggest, doesn’t mean that the experience of watching of it should be. There are, however, some films which are boring to watch, which slide towards tedium and frustrate with their emotional dullness.

Wim Wenders’ new film, Perfect Days, is one of the latter; a series of trite encounters which say dull things about a dull subject, exacerbated by the smug contentment with which it presents itself. Happy to be slight, it’s a work of maddening incuriosity, full of broad gestures made by characters who only occasionally register psychologically or emotionally.

Perfect Days follows Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho), who works as a cleaner for the Tokyo Toilet, a series of seventeen public toilets of artistic distinction in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighbourhood. He lives in a small apartment, and like the protagonists of Akerman or Jarmusch follows an intense daily routine.

He is woken by the sound of an old lady sweeping outside; he reads, shaves, waters his plants, dons a set of overalls, gets a coffee from a vending machine, and starts his van. He soundtracks his drives with cassettes of 70’s American rock.

Hirayama goes from toilet to toilet and treats his work with a seriousness which baffles his younger colleague, Takashi (Tokio Emoto). His routine is repetitive but not without pleasure: after work he washes in a bathhouse and eats in a restaurant before returning home to sleep.

Wenders and co-screenwriter Takuma Takasaki try to portray Hirayama as an enigma, they make various allusions to his past without ever explicitly revealing just how he came to be cleaning toilets.

The film lusts after Hirayama via incessant close-ups which try, and fail, to imbue him with a sort of spiritual purity. If only everyone who cleaned up faeces and urine for a living could find such joy in the morning sky… It is wishful and, ultimately, deeply belittling.

Realising this, Toni Froschhammer’s editing rears its head and any scenes involving cleaning are zipped through snappily. Perfect Days focuses then on a series of mildly excruciating encounters between the cleaner and various other zany outsider-figures.

He gets dragged along to a music store by Takashi and listens to Patti Smith with Takashi’s girlfriend Aya (Aoi Yamada). These moments are sweet, but shallow – though Takashi and Aya suggest themselves, in their brief appearances, to be vastly more interesting characters than Hirayama. Sensing our awareness of this the film has Aya disappear, and Takashi leave his job.

If the first hour of Perfect Days is a slog, the second is more compelling owing to the abrupt appearance of Hirayama’s teenage niece Niko (Arisa Nakano), who has run away from home. The film slows down and takes a breath.

Wenders and Takasaki finally begin to do more than merely gesture towards psychology; Niko cannot fathom why her uncle would take a job such as his so seriously, Hirayama can’t fathom why someone wouldn’t. She watches her uncle work with a mixture of fascination and revulsion.

Yakusho and Nakano imbue these scenes with two senses of weariness, middle-aged and adolescent, and the effect is moving if derivative. Hirayama is the surname of the family in Yasujirō Ozu’s 1953 Tokyo Story, a film which so painfully depicts the inevitable rifts that fissure between young and old, tradition and modernity.

So, if the second hour of Perfect Days is a rehashing of old ideas, at least the film finally expresses an opinion on something.

Why Wenders doesn’t devote the entirety of his film’s runtime to the dynamic between Hirayama and Niko is a question with a straightforward answer: to do so would require a genuine interest in depicting psychology and not merely capturing superficial quirks.

Lurking behind a veneer of arthouse pretension, Perfect Days is little more than a tedious and arrogant film full of hollow motifs and dull images. No doubt the cultural bourgeoisie Wenders has spent fifty years pandering to will relish it – it must be lovely living in the clouds.

Perfect Days – official trailer

Perfect Days releases in cinemas on 23 February, for Birmingham screenings follow the below links:

The Electric Cinema:
Mockingbird Cinema:

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