Perfect Days is a film about, among other things, toilets. The verité drama follows a toilet cleaner in Tokyo as he goes about his days, cleaning public restrooms, reading classic literature, and listening to music from his youth on cassette tapes. Slowly, ever so slowly, the film pieces together a portrait of a man who takes pride in the life he has, because it's the life he has. But it's also about so much more than that.
Director Wim Wenders, a three-time Oscar nominee for his documentary work, is at the helm of Perfect Days, and it's clear that even in this narrative film, Wenders' passion for observing, processing, and capturing the world around him continues to be the beating heart of his filmmaking. At the 96th Oscars, Perfect Days is nominated for Best International Feature Film.
"It's the first time I'm in the race with a fictional story, which is exciting," Wenders says. Still, the German auteur admits he was "shocked" when he learned that Japan had chosen his film as their official entry at the Oscars. "I just took it that their nomination is really an act of recognition towards the lead actor."
Japanese screen icon Kôji Yakusho stars as Hirayama, and when Perfect Days premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival, he won Best Performance by an Actor. "When he got home, hundreds of people met him at the airport. He's very much loved there, and this was the first time he won international recognition," Wenders shares. "The way I look at it is that he was sent into the Oscar race and I, as the director, am his sidekick."
For Yakusho's part, he is taking a page from Wenders. "I read an article about Wim where he said something like, 'No matter how much you're criticized, don't lose confidence,'" he recounts, "'and no matter how much you're praised, don't be arrogant.'"
In conversation with A.frame, the director and star reflect on the experience of capturing Perfect Days.
'Perfect Days' began as a very different project: Wenders had been asked to shoot a series of short films highlighting the public toilets in Tokyo, which were originally designed for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Once in Japan, Wenders found himself struck by another inspiration: A feature-length character study about the life of one of the cleaners, Hirayama.
KŌJI YAKUSHO: Hearing that the film was about public toilets and a janitor who cleans them and that the film was going to be set almost entirely in restrooms made me think it would be a potentially very interesting project. Then the producers shared that they wanted Wim Wenders to direct it and I thought, 'There's no way he’s going to fly to Japan to make a movie about toilets.' But he said yes right away, and I was doubly excited to work on it when that happened. That's really where the film all began.
WIM WENDERS: It's almost a professional disease that I see more than most people. My wife is sometimes amazed how much I see out of the corner of my eyes. Films very often tell what's in the center of your vision, and Hirayama, the lead character in Perfect Days, is a person who sees a lot more and pays attention to some of the little things we forget to. He sees the homeless man who lives next to one of these toilets; he respects, greets, and treats him like everybody else. Hirayama is a person who sees everything that gets lost so often in movies.
YAKUSHO: I think Wim was half-joking when he told me in preparation not to watch any TV or use the internet — he said I could watch a little sumo wrestling — and he said that because Hirayama doesn’t have a TV or the internet. He watches a little bit of sumo wrestling when he goes to the bathhouse, but that's it. During the shoot, there also weren't any written lines. There was just a document that Wim created with his wishes for each scene. And he did change certain parts of the script on set. In the script, for instance, Hirayama almost comes across like a training monk or something. He says no words and he doesn't show any emotions. But sometimes Wim would tell me to smile or to get angry, and I think those little moments added some aspects that made him relatable for the audience. They made him someone easy for viewers to relate to.
The film was shot in only 16 days, with Wenders embracing a shooting style that exists between traditional documentary and narrative filmmaking. The director added an arthouse touch by shooting in 4:3, a nod to the legendary Yasujirō Ozu, but also a practical choice: "It is essential to see the floor," he says of the toilets.
WENDERS: Although it was a fictional story, we had a documentary approach. The camera was always on my DOP Franz Lustig's shoulder — never on a tripod, never on tracks, never on a gimbal or a Steadicam or a crane. We were very much shooting it in a documentary style. The camera was really trying to be part of his world. It was witnessing the life of this man and was sometimes very close to him, but we were in his world and we followed him. This fictional film with the totally fictitious character, Hirayama, was shot like a documentary.
YAKUSHO: The shoot went by so fast. It was mostly just me alone in most scenes. It was kind of like I was living life as Hirayama does and the camera would just follow me around. It was my chance to really learn, 'Okay, this is how Hirayama lives. This is how he sees the world.' I think that's also what Wim wanted for me. After a while, we didn't even need to do any rehearsals, either. We'd just go straight into filming new takes.
WENDERS: We'd rehearse every shot, and then we'd shoot it. And each time, I thought, 'Why didn't I shoot the rehearsal?' After a few days, I asked, 'Would you allow me to shoot the next rehearsal?' He was a little bit amazed and said, 'Why not?' That hadn't happened to him in his professional career, so we did, and it was perfect. I didn't need another take. In the end, he got used to the process and really loved it, because he was so much in control of his character. You wouldn't rehearse in a documentary.
By the end of the movie, it's impossible not to fall in love with Hirayama, which is all the more impressive considering Yakusho's largely silent performance. Often, the film finds him driving the streets of Tokyo listening to the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones, and Nina Simone — a soundtrack of Wenders' own favorite music from the '70s and '80s.
YAKUSHO: I figured that Perfect Days might really be the only time I'd get to be in a film with so few lines. I really enjoyed that aspect of it. Personally, I don't like having a lot of long lines, so I had a lot of fun with this film. I really enjoyed that aspect of it.
WENDERS: The songs are very much part of the storytelling process, to the point that we put them into the script when we wrote it. For instance, the lyrics to Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" were on the first page of the script. They were not even intended to be used in the film. For me, they described how I imagined this character, his philosophy, and his way of living. They were my prologue. It was only in the end that I realized they were the best way to end the film. As we filmed the last shot of the entire shoot, the scene of him returning to work for the last time and listening to that song, we realize as an audience that he lived that song. He knew exactly what she was singing, and that's reflected in his face. He was laughing and crying simultaneously, and he wasn't the only one crying. My DOP was sitting next to him and weeping like a baby filming Hirayama listening to Nina Simone. My only concern was that my cameraman was giving up on shooting, because how could he both cry and hold the camera? He managed it, and the shot looks great.
YAKUSHO: When I first saw the film, it's really just all me, essentially, so it was hard for me to watch it objectively. I felt that the Tokyo shown by Wim was different from the one I see in most other Japanese films. Wim always said that he envies Hirayama and the way he lives and the leisurely pace at which time seems to go by for him. I felt that way, too. I really envy Hirayama, because his life stands in stark contrast to mine.
—Reporting by Alex Welch
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best International Feature Film category for an interview.