Perfect Days review – Wim Wenders’s zen Japanese drama is his best feature film in years

<span>Kōji Yakusho, as Hirayama, ‘conveys an extraordinarily rich interior life’ in Perfect Days.</span><span>Photograph: 2023 Master Mind Ltd</span>
Kōji Yakusho, as Hirayama, ‘conveys an extraordinarily rich interior life’ in Perfect Days.Photograph: 2023 Master Mind Ltd

Every day is the same. Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho), a taciturn man in his 60s, wakes in his spartan apartment to the reluctant grey light of pre-dawn. He pulls on his overalls, takes a can of coffee from a street vending machine and sets out in his modest little van to start work, diligently cleaning the public toilets of Tokyo. It’s a solitary life. Hirayama can go days saying no more than a few cursory words. If members of the public notice him, they largely view him as an inconvenience. But mostly they don’t even see him. It should be the most soul-crushingly bleak film ever made – a Groundhog Day grind with added despair and urinal cakes. But Wim Wenders’s zen meditation on beauty, fulfilment and simplicity is quite the opposite: it’s an achingly lovely and unexpectedly life-affirming picture. It all depends – and this is central to the film’s gently profound message – on your way of looking at things. Hirayama looks at the world with his eyes, but sees with his heart.

There is a Japanese word, “komorebi”, which was the original title of the film. Literally translated, it means “sunlight leaking through trees”, but there’s more to it than that. It speaks of a profound connection with nature, and the necessity to pause, to take the time to absorb and appreciate the perfection of tiny, seemingly insignificant details. Hirayama has not only grasped all of this, he has made it the keystone of his essence. He sees all things, all people, as equally important, with an equal capacity for transcendence. While other pedestrians ignore the vagrant who camps in a park, Hirayama watches in wonder as the man moves in his own dance of self-expression. And the toilets themselves, although humble in purpose, are architectural gems.

The song choices – in particular the Lou Reed track that gives the film its title and Nina Simone’s Feeling Good – are windows into his soul at any given moment

Hirayama’s ascetic existence is stripped back to basics: music, played on cassette tapes collected, we assume, in his long-ago youth; secondhand books bought from the budget section of the local bookstore; a point-and-shoot film camera with which he captures the things that please him; the interplay between the sky and the trees. Trees, it seems, have a particular significance for Hirayama, something that he pays back by carefully rescuing fragile Japanese maple seedlings in order to nurture them in his apartment.

That this way of living lightly in the world seems as spiritually rewarding as it does is largely thanks to Yakusho’s remarkable performance. The actor, whose previous films include Memoirs of a Geisha, Eureka and Babel, can convey an extraordinarily rich interior life, almost entirely without leaning on dialogue.

Equally important in our understanding of Hirayama’s journey through the world is the choice of music. He listens to 60s and 70s American and British rock – the Velvet Underground, the Kinks, Otis Redding, Patti Smith – and Japanese folk from the same period. The song choices – in particular the Lou Reed track that gives the film its title and Nina Simone’s Feeling Good – are windows into his soul at any given moment. Hirayama has found harmony, although there are suggestions of a previous, more privileged life, in which this was not the case. This sense of peace and equanimity is a rare thing in the central character of a film – cinema, after all, thrives on conflict and discord. They don’t call it drama for nothing.

Related: ‘All my films deal with how to live’: Wim Wenders on Herzog, spirituality and shooting a movie in 16 days

Perfect Days is, by no small margin, Wenders’s most successful narrative film in a long time. With its gentle rhythms, leisurely pacing and quiet profundity, this Tokyo toilet story has an obvious debt to the work of Yasujirō Ozu. But it also put me in mind of Federico Veiroj’s slow cinema gem A Useful Life, and of Wenders’s own masterpiece Wings of Desire. Hirayama might not be an angel, but there’s something elevated about his quiet joy in the world around him.

It’s possible that Perfect Days – Oscar-nominated for best international feature – is as much a manifesto as it is a movie – an argument in favour of an alternative way of being. Perfection, the film argues, is found in a pared-down approach to the world and a rejection of the thirst for new sensations and novelty that drives so much of society. It’s no accident that Hirayama favours analogue technology over digital – the cassette tapes, the film camera. The digital onslaught, with its noise and distractions, is in direct opposition to the spiritual peace and purity that he works towards each day. Perhaps, in its polite and unassuming way, the film advocates not just a new way of looking, but also a new way of living.