Wim Wenders is back, and he’s brought Lou Reed (still dead) with him. It’s not that Wenders hasn’t been making films. He has. It’s just that the only good ones have been documentaries, and there’s an appetite for the Wenders of the ’70s and ’80s who thoughtfully crafted some of the best fiction films ever made in Wings of Desire, The American Friend, and Paris, Texas, to name but a few.

Alas, as a 77-year-old living legend he has earned a pass. As many passes as he wants, actually. But here no pass is needed. With Perfect Days, a passion project he’s wanted to make for decades, Wenders has constructed a daydream of minimalist living (which I don’t mean fashionably) and humanist perspective that has more legs than his past five fiction films combined.

It follows Hirayama (a transcendently even Koji Yakusho) through his daily routine––simple, clean, pleasant––each day a budding journey of expected and unexpected encounters. A night ends, we drift into the dream realm, and we begin again like we did the morning before. A modest 60-something public bathroom janitor in Tokyo, Hirayama lives an almost monastic lifestyle, disciplined and contented in his rituals. 

His purple-lit apartment in the boonies is scarce, mostly floor. He unfurls a body-width sleeping pad before bed and keeps nearby a skinny lamp that allows him to read. He’s always shoulder-deep in a good novel, be it Faulkner or Highsmith. Wenders uses moments like these to portray the relatable sublime. For example, a series of shots that capture the many strange contortions and developments that is reading-laying-down.

Every morning he gives a soft smile when he steps out and smells the dewy dawn air for the first time, the way one might when they have a rare glimpse of existential appreciation in an otherwise-mundane moment. He showers sitting on a stool in a public restroom, enjoys the shit out of his cassette tapes on the drive to work, and whips up the cleanest public restroom you’ve ever seen. 

Hirayama is as present as one can be, completely detached from the world of social media, current pop culture, and (99% of) modern technology. He notices things others don’t. Details: a hazy metallic reflection of the world on the underside of an outdoor awning; the day-to-day differences in the trees he eats lunch by; sunken, unnoticed people.

Thus his life is full––peculiar, off-the-cuff endeavors always presenting themselves through his willingness to be present, even for just a moment in passing. The character himself is proof of how generative, dynamic, and nourishing life can be when we’re simply present––to others, to ourselves, to the moment.

That said, he’s much more of a listener than a talker, always acknowledging but rarely verbally responding to those speaking with him. The first person he opens his mouth for is a child, harbored in one of the stalls of the public bathroom, crying because he’s lost his mom. A grandfatherly figure, Hirayama reassures the boy, takes his hand, and quickly reunites him with his mother to a flood of relief.

The person he talks to the most is his niece, someone he would do absolutely anything for. The person he talks to the least (of those talking to him) is his coworker, a lovable, obnoxious, achingly unaware goofball of a 20-something that would undoubtedly corner you at a party.

He doesn’t hesitate to ask Hirayama for cash (or worse, his perfectly minted Transformer cassette) or beg to borrow his car for a date. Hirayama, rolling his eyes, still silent, feels the need to help, so he gives in. But he’s not being manipulated. He’s just kind, understanding, empathetic––willing to sacrifice his time, money, and few belongings to benefit others, the act of doing so his gift to himself in return.

On paper, a life like Hirayama’s seems static and boring. And it probably would be for most of us. But it prompts the question: why? What would we be missing? What have we conditioned ourselves to expect? From others? From ourselves? Hirayama has food, drink, shelter, transportation, entertainment, family, friends, a steady job he likes, a city he loves, a local bar community, a sick cassette collection––what more could he want? (I imagine a bath or shower would be first on the list). 

It comes as no surprise that Kōji Yakusho took home the Best Actor prize for his zenned-out portrayal. Hirayama isn’t just memorable. He rubs off on you. I’m not about to trash my phone or furniture, or stop talking to most people, or pursue a janitorial passion––those are elements of him. But he’s an inspiration in this approach to life: his devotion to being present, his tendency to put others first, his tranquil openness, his near-mystical lack of insecurity. He finds beauty in the banal, peace in the everyday, fulfillment even in melancholy.

To give us a sense of what’s in Hirayama’s head, Wenders waxes a visual poetic with his dreams, heavily overlaid footage of grainy grayscale nature imagery (the photos Hirayama takes each day) drifting around in the pool of his mind overnight and easing sweetly back into the cool glow of morning. The sound trickles and glistens lightly, a restful sleep for Hirayama indeed.

The hit-laden soundtrack and dialogue-scant screenplay (co-penned by Wenders and Takuma Takasaki) have an enveloping core tenderness that could disarm anyone––whether they’re a sucker for Lou Reed, experimental visuals set to ASMR nature sounds, and areligious asceticism, or are just gentle souls––into naming Perfect Days a personal favorite. 

Of course it’s not always smiles. Hirayama doesn’t live an easy or conflict-free life. He just handles it all remarkably well in that he puts in the time to consider things from all angles, to process. It takes a while for a real conflict to develop, but once it does it only adds layers of appreciation to what we’ve seen. It makes him more human, which is necessary for a character so good-to-the-bone he could be perceived as unrealistic.

The only aspect of his character that doesn’t totally track is his knowledge of and commitment to ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s classic rock, though I can’t say I wish it were any different. The soundtrack is one of the best parts of the film,  The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” and, per the title, Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” just a sample of greats Hirayama listens to on tape on the way to work.

Perfect Days loses a bit of its charm in the last third, but it stays engaging, beautifully shot, and well-soundtracked enough to never shirk interest. It marks Wenders’ first worthwhile, if not great, fiction feature (docs are a different story) since 2004’s Land of Plenty, and it’s a welcome change for the veteran German auteur. Perhaps a Jesus-esque story was the natural next step for a man whose last feature was a Pope Francis documentary subtitled: A Man of His Word. At least he seems to have found some genuine inspiration.

As Reed––and most certainly Hirayama and Wenders–– would say: “You’re going to reap just what you sow.”

Perfect Days premiered in competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and will be released stateside by Neon.

Grade: B

No more articles