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Review: Perfect Days

Perfect Days is a film about cherishing small pleasures. It’s about ordinary people living ordinary lives. It’s about the soothing familiarity of a routine and the sudden disruption (either unwelcome or surprisingly refreshing) thereof. But most importantly, it’s about finding unexpected beauty in things that are overlooked and undervalued.

The protagonist, Hirayama, is a janitor, cleaning toilets around Tokyo’s various public parks. In many ways, he is painfully average, albeit a bit old-fashioned: he collects cassette tapes, used books, plants, and photographs of nature. His days are defined by mundane rituals: his alarm clock is the rhythmic scrape of broom bristles sweeping the sidewalk beneath his window; before driving to work, he always quietly enjoys a can of Boss Coffee while the engine of his van warms up; and the handful of restaurants that he frequents consistently have his usual order ready as soon as he enters.

His profession, of course, means that he is often unnoticed at best and disrespected at worst—in one particularly uncomfortable scene, for example, the mother of a lost child fussily scrubs the boy’s hand immediately after Hirayama reunites them. Still, if he resents his lowly status, he refuses to show it, greeting the sunrise with a bright smile that only occasionally falters. Indeed, his relative invisibility has caused him to develop an appreciation for the brief, fleeting moments of peace that society at large has learned to ignore—leaves swaying in a gentle breeze, shadows dancing on a weathered concrete wall, reflected light shimmering on the ceiling of a bathhouse.

The movie’s craftsmanship mirrors the meticulousness with which its central character approaches both his menial labor and his personal hygiene (that mustache is immaculately maintained). Wim Wenders’ direction is intentionally unspectacular and unobtrusive; with very few exceptions, he merely observes the action, allowing the story to unfold at its own pace—at seventy-eight, the esteemed auteur (whose credits include Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire) obviously has nothing left to prove, and can therefore afford to be patient and minimalistic in his style. The editing is equally accomplished; each cut is delicate and sublime, making even seemingly inconsequential frames feel essential and impactful, especially during the surreal dream sequences—hypnotic, abstract montages in which black-and-white images dissolve and cross-fade and otherwise overlap, delighting and dazzling the senses.

But it is Koji Yakusho’s phenomenal performance that truly anchors the narrative. Because the role is predominantly nonverbal, the actor must rely on his eyes alone to convey emotion; the result is absolutely devastating in its subtlety—a compelling portrait of a wounded man desperately struggling against the inherent loneliness of self-imposed solitude, hiding his private suffering behind a friendly grin and an optimistic attitude.

Perfect Days is, in conclusion, a perfect cinematic experience. Hopefully, its recent Oscar nomination will attract a wider audience; this is the type of production that deserves commercial success as well as critical acclaim.

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