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Festival de Cannes

MOVIE REVIEW
Perfect Days (2023)

When Wim Wenders hits, he scores. “Perfect Days” is an unbearably emotional film about being able to find peace and joy in a daily routine that keeps you alive, and the happiness that follows from living, in however small a way, on your own terms. This is not a movie for children, by which is meant people who think life is a limitless playground of opportunity. This is a movie for adults, as in people who understand how choices and circumstances prescribe a life, and that the ways in which people cope with that are the only true choices you have.

Hirayama (Koji Yakusho, who deservedly won the Best Actor prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival) is a janitor for a (real) company in Tokyo which has installed modernist public toilets around the city. His little apartment consists of one room over a very small kitchen. He must perform his daily ablutions over the kitchen sink and visit a bathhouse to wash. Outside the door of his apartment is a vending machine from which he buys a morning can of coffee. He has a little van in which he keeps his gear, and spends his days driving between locations, listening to his vast collection of cassettes (Animals, Lou Reed and Patti Smith among them). He takes pride in his work, using mirrors to check under the rims, for example, and is also a keen observer of the people around him, who generally pay him no attention at all. At lunchtime he eats a rice ball and drinks a juice box in the park. Sometimes after work he goes to watch baseball and eat noodles in a bar in a subway station, where the staff greet him by name and bring over his drink with the toast "For your hard work!" In the evenings he reads, buying books from the hundred-yen shelf in a nearby used bookstore, where the proprietress has opinions about all the authors. He takes photographs of the trees in the park and on Saturdays takes the film to be developed at a place near the laundromat. And he enjoys every minute of it.

He's not alone, even in this solitary life. There's a younger colleague, Takashi (Tokio Emoto), a ceaseless talker who likes to rate things out of ten, and his bargirl girlfriend Aya (Aoi Yamada, making a big impression in a small part) who is intrigued by Hirayama's music and his commitment to physical media. Hirayama also has a teenage niece, Niko (Arisa Nakano), whose arrival is a surprise Hirayama doesn't quite know how to handle. But Niko loves her uncle and is interested in his life, joining him at work with enthusiasm for his routines and experiences. The men at the bathhouse are blindsided by her appearance, though no one is rude enough to ask questions or do anything other than crane their necks as Hirayama and Niko pass together, chatting comfortably. And slowly we have the space to figure out Hirayama's choices, what brought him to living this quiet and thoughtful, and why it makes him happy even as people like his sister Keiko (Yumi Aso) hold his choices in contempt.

Cinematographer Franz Lustig manages to capture both the fleeting glimpses of passing moments that Hirayama observes as well as the feeling they cause in him, how he reacts to them. Hirayama also has a wry sense of humor, often smiling when a kid in the park has a tantrum or a drunk man tells a joke. He doesn't talk much, preferring his thoughts inside his own head; and it's clear he isn't lonely in the slightest. And he also smiles every morning when he steps out his front door and examines the weather.

But the movie isn't an exercise in human superiority, but instead an examination of the victory of staying alive another day. The respect for a life as demonstrated by paying attention to it, a keen awareness of the passing of time and the fragility of love, the ways in which your neighbours come together in community (or don't), and the importance of physical things you can hold in your hand and touch all slowly build, and build, and build to play the audience's emotions like a piano. The scene towards the end, where Hirayama and Tomoyama (Tomokazu Miura) play a silly kid's game on the riverbank shows how easy it can be to make a friend at any age. Tomoyama is the ex-husband of the bar mama (Sayuri Ishikawa, who has a great solo moment as well) in whose bar Hirayama drinks every Saturday, a woman with whom all the men around her are clearly in love, and clearly not going to do anything about it. They are initially not easy together, but Tomoyama needed to talk and Hirayama is excellent at listening, and almost immediately things start to improve.

The little routines and rhythms of a city and the workers who keep it pleasant are rarely paid anything like this kind of attention. It's very easy to pass through life, especially a life without a partner or a child, feeling as if the world doesn't value you; and it's so refreshing to have a movie remind us the value of every individual person. Hirayama could be, like Peter Falk in Mr. Wenders’s “Wings of Desire,” an angel fallen to earth.

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