There is something innately pure about Wim Wender’s Perfect Days that will leave you feeling strangely content. The 123 minutes spent observing a snippet of a Japanese janitor’s life provide a welcome escape from our technologically driven existence. While some might consider the entire idea of the film a little too romantic and evasive, I believe generalization was never the objective, and it is through the unexpected that one arrives at a meaningful conversation. In Perfect Days, beauty is found in the mundaneness of everyday existence. The idea of perfection is in the routine and being content with nature as a whole.
Plot Summary: What is the film about?
Hirayama (brilliantly performed by Koji Yakusho) lives in a one-bedroom apartment, where he wakes up in the morning to the sound of the sweeper cleaning the street. The sound fills him up with a sense of hope—a new day, a new beginning. Hirayama’s morning routine involves brushing his teeth and watering his plants, his most prized possession. He quickly changes into his overalls and walks out of the apartment with a smile on his face. Living in that moment—to see the sun gradually rise above the horizon and to breathe the fresh morning air—was enough reason for our protagonist to be happy. He grabs a can of coffee from the vending machine before starting his day. The next leg of his routine is possibly the most exciting—choosing the perfect music to complement the spectacular sunrise view. While the world has moved from cassettes to CDs to iPods and now music apps on phones, Hirayama’s faith in cassettes remains. He never cared for trends, and when his young colleague Takashi mentioned that analog is back in trend, he simply had a smile on his face. The cassettes, which were once considered backdated and useless, are now bought at a high price. Perhaps the futility of the entire cycle made Hirayama laugh.
Hirayama settled for The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” as he drove to his first spot of the day. His duty involved cleaning public bathrooms, and unlike Takashi, he enjoyed the morning shift. During his little breaks from work, he found pleasure in watching the dancing shadows of trees. Even though it was not a well-paying job, Hirayama was a dedicated worker. We are often left to wonder why Hirayama chose to become a janitor, and even though there are no right answers, Perfect Days leaves us some clues. Taking care of a space that is mostly ignored must have been one of the reasons why our protagonist chose to take up the job. Also, maybe the need to be left alone played an important factor in his settling for the role.
When Hirayama found a little boy locked up in a washroom, he helped the boy find his mother. He was left a little disheartened when the panic-stricken mother grabbed hold of her son and cleaned his hands. Without a word exchanged, Hirayama was reminded of how society perceives janitors.
How did Hirayama spend time outside of work?
Every day after work, Hirayama had his lunch at a park. He ritualistically took a picture on his black-and-white Olympus film camera of the tree under which he sat for lunch. The way the sunlight fell on the leaves always caught his attention; he experienced a sense of joy, and he attempted to capture the essence of that moment. Nature continued to mesmerize him, and he never seemed to feel lonely in his solitude. He had lately started to notice a young woman at the park having lunch at the same time, and there was a strange gloom on her face. He did not show interest in having conversations; she was just another addition to his usual routine. Several others were acting as accessories in his everyday reality as well, such as the old men at the sento, the server at the eatery he regularly dined at, the old homeless man who danced to his own tune, the man at the camera shop, and the woman at the bookstore. Even though the interactions are limited, all of these people are significant in their own little way in Hirayama’s life.
Anything out of the ordinary found a spot in Hirayama’s dream; Aya was one such fleeting figure. Hirayama was the reason she discovered Patti Smith’s music, and she was ever grateful to him for it. Even though they might not meet one another ever again, she will remember Hirayama through the music. Another intriguing interaction was the tic-tac-toe game left behind by someone in a toilet stall. Initially, Hirayama ignored it, but he went back to it and decided to continue the game. He did not know the person on the other end, but a sense of connection was built through a piece of paper. Maybe someone was waiting for companionship, and Hirayama helped them through a tough time with a silly game of tic-tac-toe.
What was Hirayama’s relationship with his niece?
One night, while returning home from work, Hirayama was pleasantly surprised to see his niece, Niko, waiting for him. He soon found out that Niko had a disagreement with her mother and decided to stay at his place. We eventually learn that his sister, Keiko, was financially well off, and Niko was born into a life of privilege, but she preferred the simplistic lifestyle of her uncle. She enjoyed following his routine—for the next two days, she woke up at dawn and assisted Hirayama at his job.
While reading Patricia Highsmith’s “The Terrapin,” Niko comments that she could relate to the character of Victor, a boy who was emotionally abused by his mother, and he ended up killing her after he was convinced that she was responsible for the agonizing death of a turtle. This brief comment provides insight into the kind of relationship Niko shared with her mother. It is through Niko that we learn how her mother preferred not to talk about Hirayama. Every time Niko tried to bring him up, her mother reminded her that he belonged to a different world than theirs. We are left to wonder: What drove Hirayama to abandon the world he was born into, live life with limited means, and find contentment in routine? Maybe he could appreciate his humble existence only after seeing the troubles that the other world brought along. He taught an important lesson to Niko: “Next time is next time; now is now.” Being in the moment instead of chasing the next best thing was Hirayama’s advice from his niece.
Hirayama eventually contacted his sister, and Keiko came to his modest accommodation to take Niko home. There was disappointment in her voice when she discussed his profession. She failed to understand him, but she was hopeful about staying in touch. From their conversation, it becomes evident that something happened in the past that affected Hirayama’s relationship with his family. While we do not know his past, his reaction upon seeing his sister suggests that it was not an easy choice for him to stay away from his family. Was it a mistake he was running away from? Or, did he willingly cut ties with his family? Meeting his sister left him tremendously emotional.
Is Hirayama a happy man?
Every weekend, Hirayama had dinner at a particular restaurant, and he took a liking to the proprietor. She often performed for her guests, and he enjoyed listening to her voice. On one such weekend, Hirayama was surprised to find the restaurant closed. He waited at the laundry store, and after a while, he noticed the owner entering the restaurant with a man. Hirayama peaked in to find the woman embracing the man, and he left hastily. Before he left, the owner and the man saw a glimpse of Hirayama. Upset, he cycled to a department store and bought cans of beer and cigarettes.
Hirayama did not expect the stranger he saw at the bar to follow him to the riverside. The man had heard about Hirayama, that he had been a regular for the last five or six years, and he wanted to clear up any misunderstandings between them. The man explained that he was the owner’s ex-husband, and it had been seven years since they had parted ways. He met her because he was suffering from cancer, and it was getting worse. Even though Hirayama repeatedly confirmed that his relationship with the owner was not romantic, the ex-husband requested that he look after her. The conversation between the strangers took a turn when the man stated aloud how he always wondered if shadows turned darker when they overlapped. Hirayama did not have an answer to his doubt, and he decided to resolve the confusion at that very instant. Hirayama believed that life was only as complicated as one allowed it to be, and most of the time, we have answers right in front of us. The two adult men indulged in a game of shadow tag, and what could have been a depressive episode turned into a cheerful memory.
The next morning, Hirayama woke up to the sound of the sweeper cleaning the street. He had a smile on his face as he stepped out of his home. It was a new day, a fresh beginning.
During Perfect Days‘ ending, Hirayama selects Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” to play in the background as he watches the sun rise above the horizon. For the next few minutes, the camera remains fixed on Hirayama’s face. The broad smile catches our attention at first, but soon, the tears become prominent. We can only assume that becoming the Hirayama that he is today was not an easy journey. He had distanced himself from his family. A decision, whether deliberate or unintentional (or even consequential), can never be easy. To truly focus on the little things that brought him immense pleasure was a lesson that he has perhaps learned over the years. Attaining a sense of contentment comes with liberation. Hirayama’s freedom is in his choice of not chasing after what is expected of him but instead doing what brings him joy. He is the kind of man that capitalists are afraid of—a man secure with the little he possesses and who refuses to indulge in the maddening race—a man whose dreams and ambitions are far from the defined goals. Hirayama is a free man who earns only as much as he needs and spends the rest of his day in leisure, which often involves taking in the beauty of nature.