At the Movies

Wim Wenders and Yakusho Kōji Take Film to the Toilet with “Perfect Days”

Cinema Culture

The German auteur Wim Wenders helmed the 2023 Perfect Days, featuring leading Japanese actor Yakusho Kōji in a quiet, evocative role as a Tokyo toilet cleaner, of all things. A look at the film and the motivations behind it.

It All Begins with Toilets

The master German filmmaker Wim Wenders’s career spans more than 50 years. A regular prize winner at the world’s major film festivals in Berlin, Venice, and Cannes, Wenders also developed a close connection with Japan during his career. He shot Tokyo-Ga, a 1985 documentary about Japan’s much-loved filmmaker Ozu Yasujirō, and also shot parts of his epic 1991 science fiction movie Until the End of the World in Tokyo. Thus, Perfect Days marks Wenders’s return to filmmaking in Tokyo after a three-decade hiatus.

The original impetus for this movie was not his, however. It was born from the initiative of Yanai Kōji of Uniqlo and Fast Retailing fame and the novelist/creative director Takasaki Takuma. In cooperation with the Nippon Foundation and Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, Yanai initiated the Tokyo Toilet Project to renovate 17 public restrooms in Shibuya based on ideas from 16 world-renowned architects and designers in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. The last project completed was the Nishisandō public toilet designed by Fujimoto Sō, design producer of the 2025 Osaka Kansai World Expo site.

The first project completed was the Haru-no-Ogawa Community Park toilet designed by architect Ban Shigeru in Yoyogi. The glass becomes opaque when the toilet is in use. (© Eirei Ken; courtesy Nippon Foundation)
The first project completed was the Haru-no-Ogawa Community Park toilet designed by architect Ban Shigeru in Yoyogi. The glass becomes opaque when the toilet is in use. (© Eirei Ken; courtesy Nippon Foundation)

The Tokyo Toilet Project used innovative designs to transform Shibuya’s public toilets and, in turn, people’s perceptions of the spaces around toilets. However, keeping these toilets beautiful relies on the daily work of cleaners, as well as heightened awareness on the part of users is required. Yanai approached Takasaki with an idea for a multimedia production based on the project that would subconsciously appeal to people and hopefully effect a change in behavior.

Perfect Days Director Wim Wenders. (© Peter Lindbergh 2015)
Perfect Days Director Wim Wenders. (© Peter Lindbergh 2015)

Yanai and Takasaki both quickly settled on Wenders as a potential director. They approached him by sending a letter with the offer of funding, only stipulating that the production had to be about Tokyo’s public toilets and cleaners. The original idea was an omnibus of shorter films, but after Wenders himself visited Japan in May 2022 to view potential locations, he settled on a full-length feature film. The screen play was cowritten by Wenders and Takasaki.

A Master Craftsman Portrays a New Type of Heroism

The proposal to use the actor Yakusho Kōji must have also pushed Wenders to sign on; production soon got rolling with a headline actor in tow. Yakusho plays the main character of Hirayama. The name itself is a callback to Ozu masterpieces Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon, as both movies centered on characters and families with that name. This Hirayama is a toilet cleaner in Tokyo’s Shibuya who lives alone in a modest downtown flat with a view of Tokyo Skytree.

Hirayama’s silent devotion to his cleaning job. (© 2023 Master Mind)
Hirayama’s silent devotion to his cleaning job. (© 2023 Master Mind)

Every morning Hirayama wakes up at a set time, gets ready in the same way, puts on a uniform, and drives to his Shibuya workplace in his tiny “kei car” loaded with cleaning equipment. He is obsessively meticulous in his work and thoroughly polishes every inch of the toilets he cleans. His young coworkers admonish him for going to such lengths “when the toilets are just going to get dirty again.” However, Hirayama simply ignores them and gets on with his work.

Hirayama's colleague Takashi (Emoto Tokio) is young and irritating, but also shows surprising depth. (© 2023 Master Mind)
Hirayama’s colleague Takashi (Emoto Tokio) is young and irritating, but also shows surprising depth. (© 2023 Master Mind)

During his lunch breaks, Hirayama enjoys quick and simple meals surrounded by the lush greenery of Yoyogi-Hachiman Shrine close to one of the public toilets. After work, he washes off the day’s grime in a public bath, has dinner and a single drink at an izakaya in Asakusa Station’s underground shopping area, and returns home to fall asleep while reading a book.

Every day appears to be a repetition of this process, but little by little the viewer notices small changes. The weather and temperature slowly change, and coworkers do not always turn up to work. There are numerous unexpected encounters. Hirayama’s personality is also gradually revealed in the way he pursues his small hobbies on his days off.

The movie is set in contemporary times, but Hirayama leads a life without television or the internet. (© 2023 Master Mind)
The movie is set in contemporary times, but Hirayama leads a life without television or the internet. (© 2023 Master Mind)

What Is a Perfect Day?

The movie’s title references the song “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed, also featured in the film. Reed was another artist that Wenders admired. Unlike with Ozu, though, Wenders had the chance to interact with Reed and he has featured his music and even asked Reed to appear in previous films.

Lou Reed, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 71, was the frontman of the iconic band Velvet Underground. Their debut studio album The Velvet Underground and Nico was recorded in 1966 with Andy Warhol as producer. The band is widely recognized to have profoundly influenced the alternative rock scene of later generations even after disbanding in 1973. Reed left the band earlier, in 1970, and “Perfect Day” is from Reed’s second solo album Transformer, released in 1972 and produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson.

Aya (Yamada Aoi), a love interest of coworker Takashi, enjoys a Patti Smith song on one of Hirayama’s cassette tapes. (© 2023 Master Mind)
Aya (Yamada Aoi), a love interest of coworker Takashi, enjoys a Patti Smith song on one of Hirayama’s cassette tapes. (© 2023 Master Mind)

“Perfect Day” is in one sense a simple but beautiful love song about an ordinary day spent with a loved one. However, some of its lyrics seem out of place for a love song. The subtext suggests that outside of this perfect day there are bitterness, life regrets, and darkness.

The film’s title is actually a pluralized form of the song title referring to “uneventful,” repetitive days spent by a seemingly content Hirayama. However, given Wenders’ deep affinity for Lou Reed’s music, he is also hinting at the presence of harsh realities in the background of Hirayama’s daily life.

The song also ends with a refrain of a biblical verse: “You’re going to reap just what you sow.” This could be taken two ways: One is that by being patient and doing good now, you will be rewarded in the future; alternatively, it could mean that the adverse situation one is currently experiencing is a “reward” for past misdeeds.

Hirayama often bumps into a homeless man (Tanaka Min) in the park (© 2023 Master Mind)
Hirayama often bumps into a homeless man (Tanaka Min) in the park (© 2023 Master Mind)

Reaping What One Sows

Wenders’s depiction of Hirayama is of a man who does not follow the trends of the world and lives without a television or access to the internet. He listens to old Western music on cassettes, loves film cameras, and reads books. Such people exist today, although they are probably relatively uncommon. But Yakusho’s portrayal of Hirayama makes him seem both ordinary and extraordinary. He is disciplined, but not narrow-minded, and his character is full of lovable humanity. The viewer wonders why Hirayama lives so selflessly, why he never talks at length about himself, and why he devotes so much care to a job that most people do their best to avoid.

The humble and unassuming Hirayama never gets carried away, but you do get the sense he may be proud that what he does every day protects the work of world-class artists, satisfies Tokyo’s residents and users of public facilities, and upholds Tokyo’s image. Wenders never allows Hirayama to talk freely, expose his motivations, or reminisce, but there is much more to the character. The viewer, however, must rely on the subtle clues that leak out from Hirayama’s facial expressions and demeanor to pick up on this, resulting in an inexpressible sadness gradually sneaking up on the viewer as the film unfolds. Yakusho was eventually awarded Best Actor at the seventy-sixth Cannes International Film Festival for his masterful performance.

Hirayama’s niece Nico (Nakano Yūsa) visits him. This name should immediately ring a bell for Lou Reed and Velvet Underground fans. (© 2023 Master Mind)
Hirayama’s niece Nico (Nakano Yūsa) visits him. This name should immediately ring a bell for Lou Reed and Velvet Underground fans. (© 2023 Master Mind)

Wenders has a reputation as an early pioneer and master of the road trip genre, but in Perfect Days he depicts the daily life of a man who never travels anywhere, except for a few key locations. Every day the protagonist leaves home in the morning by car but returns at dusk. The streets he moves through will be familiar to people living in Tokyo, but Wenders gives them a fresh gloss based on his unique perspective as a visitor. Small surprises and detours appear as adventures with the destination unknown.

It is remarkable how the emotions brought out by the film all started with plans to build and refurbish toilets. The Tokyo Toilet Project was an ambitious and creative public works endeavor in itself, but thanks to the power of film, it could in time come to have an even greater impact on people’s behavior and memories. It stands as a monument to the real cleaners who, of course, continued to work during filming, allowing the facilities to continue to fulfill their utility as toilets.

The appeal of Perfect Days certainly owes much to the brilliant coupling of Wim Wenders and Yakusho Kōji, but when thinking about the movie’s background, other emotions are brought back to life. Lou Reed’s twisted refrain about “reaping what you sow” echoes positively, making one want to start each day by looking up at the sky—just like Hirayama.

(© 2023 Master Mind)
(© 2023 Master Mind)

(© 2023 Master Mind)
(© 2023 Master Mind)

Perfect Days (2023)

  • Director: Wim Wenders
  • Running time: 124 mins.
  • Official website: https://www.perfectdays-movie.jp/en/
  • Perfect Days was selected to open the thirty-sixth Tokyo International Film Festival and has been shortlisted for the International Feature Film prize at the ninety-sixth Academy Awards, to be presented in March 2024. The movie was released on December 22, 2023.

Trailer

(Translated from Japanese. Banner photo: Hirayama [Yakusho Kōji] with niece Nico [Nakano Yūsa] in Perfect Days, directed by Wim Wenders. © Master Mind.)

cinema movie Cannes Ozu Yasujirō Yakusho Kōji Wim Wenders