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SFF 2023: Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days; the search for truthful images, in life and cinema

This review is part of Tharunka’s continued coverage of the 70th Sydney Film Festival. Read the rest of the reviews here.

In Wim Wenders’ The State of Things, a parable of the impracticalities and contradictions of filmmaking, lies an unrivalled piece of wisdom. 

‘As story comes in, life sneaks out’. 

This thesis hangs over the director’s latest film, the blissfully quotidian Perfect Days. It is by the omission of an inciting incident – the kind which might propel Wenders’ janitorial lead into the territory of conventional plot – that we become invested in his peaceful routine. Each morning, Hirayama rises early, sprays his plants and drives to the fuzzy accompaniment of a cassette tape – a technically inferior but surreptitiously expressive medium. At work, he diligently attends to the architecturally advanced toilets of Tokyo’s Shibuya district. Through the conscientiousness of his cleaning and cinematographer Franz Lustig’s gently roaming, ever-inventive camera, the simple and often undesirable task of sanitising becomes irrepressibly pleasurable.

For Hirayama, fulfilment is found in the spare moments within the rigorous mundanity. A moment of scattered light never goes unadmired, a tree canopy is habitually photographed with an analogue point-and-shoot. He’ll file away his favourites, and cut up the rest. For Hirayama, it’s a matter of essence. This is found in a tall glass of water ‘for a hard day’s work,’ served at the izakaya he frequents. As his cubic blue van slides down cascading highways, it exists in the diegetic murmurings of The Velvet Underground’s Pale Blue Eyes or Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay – favoured tracks of the calm observer to life’s vicissitudes. After drifting through the purple-lit haze of his tatami-lain home, we sink into monochrome dream sequences (installations, the credits call them), abstract and endlessly fascinating. This is Hirayama’s real work; an unconscious artistic act, chemically developing the gathered material of perception.

When new characters threaten to disrupt Hirayama’s established pattern of existence, we share his dread and discomfort. Are they concealing plot, a feared backstory, some simple explanation for his idiosyncratic behaviour? Aside from a suggestive encounter with an estranged sister, we are spared such banalities and trusted to fill in the gaps. What’s left is the bare intimacy of isolated interactions. ‘Do shadows get darker when they overlap?’ one shadow’s bearer asks Hirayama. They have to, he answers – an unflinching statement about how we unknowably change one another.

The film represents Tokyo, its inhabitants, and contends with a common Japanese philosophy and approach to living, namely ikigai. This is a framework for finding joy in daily activity and the simplest of tasks, understood as the reason to get up in the morning. Yet by all accounts, the filmmaker is not Japanese, but German. This might raise doubts to authenticity, even questions of appropriation, but the material is handled so delicately that any concern soon proves insubstantial. For one, the work is co-written by native writer Takuma Takasaki, and this collaboration was surely not insignificant in attaining the piece’s specificity. 

It’s also worth positioning this culturally adventurous act in Wenders’ wider oeuvre. Paris, Texas, his most well-known film in English-speaking countries, also depicts a landscape and people distinct from his own. The result represents America less than it does American cinema; a virtual country born out of the real nation’s myth-making, interpreted via the voice of an outsider. This manifests through the iconography of westerns, crime dramas, road trips, Los Angeles itself, spliced together with ethereal style to reveal America as the amorphous product of its own dream factory. It is an almost parodic portrait of a country suffocating in its own mythic images. Both Paris, Texas and Perfect Days act as interlocutors with a national cinema culture, and the romantic promises of their ideologies. 

In Perfect Days, the relationship is one of reverence, an earnest longing for an ideal of Japan, based on its cinema, that may well have passed. We can trace the beginnings of Wenders’ interest to the documentary Tokyo-Ga from 1985. Venturing to the land of his filmic ancestor, Yasujirō Ozu, he finds an urban techno-capitalist landscape adrift from the traditions captured in Ozu’s cinema. He describes the images he captures as ‘inhuman’, compared to Ozu’s ‘mythic’ images. As Wenders observes Tokyo, his monotone narration is the unsure first draft of a manifesto for Perfect Days. He finds Ozu’s films to be ‘thoroughly Japanese … at the same time, universal.’ Positioning Perfect Days in Tokyo, he hopes to find a similar universal in the culturally specific. The idea came to the German filmmaker inextricably tied with the setting, on a level both spiritual and practical.

Japan carries a shared dedication to the common good, a commitment to perfection of one’s craft and, as it so happens, gorgeously designed public restrooms. In Tokyo-Ga, he admires the Japanese ability to turn even a game of golf into a quest for pure form. He visits golf stadiums where solo golfers hit ball after ball, with no intention of getting them in the hole, but simply to perfect their swing. Why does Hirayama clean toilets so thoroughly, only for them to be dirtied soon after?

Wenders brings his eye to a foreign city, country, and culture, but lets its inhabitants play themselves. Wielding the camera implicates an external perspective, just as the writing of this article by a non-Japanese voice does. But Wenders avoids playing the anthropologist, a role I don’t wish to inhabit here either. The director omits the inclusion of a white protagonist, a saviour or an observer who might guide the viewer into “understanding” the local culture, to be amused, inspired, or confused by it. The likes of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, despite its many other artistic qualities, could be found guilty of this. 

Perfect Days marks a resurgence for Wenders, releasing the same year as his documentary Anselm (also playing at SFF this year), and it bears the conclusion to a decades-long struggle.

In The State of Things, a director is told, ‘Fuck reality . . . Cinema is not about life going by, people don’t want to see that’. It speaks to an internal conflict over the role of cinema which Wenders has not been able to resolve until now. In Tokyo-Ga, he remarks that viewers have grown to accept un-reality in film, and that moments of truth on-screen are fleeting. Ozu himself once wrote that when he started out, ‘films were merely the unfolding of a plot, and were as yet unable to express human emotions’. He spent the rest of his life trying to perfect truthful images, and Wenders is carrying on that tradition. Perfect Days is his most vital attempt at capturing images that brim with life, to the point of overflowing.

Editor: Nicole Cadelina