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“Perfect Days” reviewed

Fantasy comes in many forms, and one of them arises when a work of scrupulous realism strains plausibility to the point that it plays like mere wish fulfillment. The German director Wim Wenders’s latest film, “Perfect Days” (which opens Wednesday), is such a work. Set in Tokyo, it’s a story about a man who’s a manual laborer and, in a sense, an artist, but it offers very little substance about either activity. Wenders follows an aesthetic principle of seemingly passive observation—of withholding, ambiguity, and implication. He relates his protagonist’s experience by means of images and moods. But, rather than offering a stark and incisive vision, this aesthetic of tacitness delivers a sentimentalized prettiness. The results are merely vague, in a way that seems willfully naïve about Japan, about labor, and about art.

The protagonist, Hirayama (Koji Yakusho), is a cleaner for the Tokyo Toilet, a real-life set of seventeen public bathrooms of architectural distinction that opened between 2020 and 2023 in the city’s Shibuya neighborhood. A middle-aged man, he lives alone in a small duplex apartment and follows a rigid daily routine, which Wenders (who wrote the script with Takuma Takasaki) details: Hirayama awakens to the sound of a street sweeper, reshelves a book that he’d been reading before falling asleep, trims his mustache, shaves, waters his plants, dons a jumpsuit, and gets a can of coffee from a vending machine before driving off to work in his van, to the tune of music from one of his audio cassettes, largely of well-curated American rock and pop of the sixties and seventies.

Driving from site to site, Hirayama goes about his work with a precision that matches the orderliness of his home and his schedule. Using a small medical-style mirror, he peers beneath a toilet to see whether the underside needs to be cleaned; he cleans a bidet spray head and a rubber faucet hose, scrubs a urinal filter with a brush, even dusts the electronic components under a lid. At lunchtime, he sits in a park and eats a sandwich, and, while admiring the surroundings, pulls a small 35-mm. camera from his pocket and takes a picture of the foliage on high. He holds the camera away from his eye and merely tilts it in the direction of what he wants to photograph—a memorably self-effacing method. He files his photos obsessively, by month and year, in a meticulous array of identical boxes that occupies many shelves. After work, Hirayama sometimes bathes at a public bathhouse; he dines at a casual restaurant in an underground mall where he’s greeted as a regular. Then he returns home, reads, falls asleep, and—with slumbers punctuated by dreams, always in black-and-white, dominated by foliage and light—he awakens to the sound of a street sweeper and starts his rounds again.

The principle of repetition and variation, as in the musical minimalism championed by Philip Glass and Steve Reich and brought to a radical extreme by Morton Feldman, has long had a cinematic exemplar—Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman,” from 1975, which renders the rigid routine as the taut barrier separating the protagonist from madness, collapse, or rage. Jeanne’s self-imposed restraint is something like a rigor vitae, a severe diminution of life in order to preserve it. Wenders, born some five years before Akerman, belongs to the same generation of filmmakers; both of them made their first features in the early nineteen-seventies. From the start, their works yoked a tamped-down performance style to a conspicuously composed visual one, bringing painterly precision and contemplative reserve to a project of relentless, documentary-like observation. But where Akerman pursued ever bolder applications of this style, Wenders—with a pop-cultural bent—popularized it into a strain of modern melodrama, mixing a trendy chill of alienation with a bittersweet twist of nostalgia.

In “Perfect Days,” Wenders reaches back to the seventies for his fundamental inspiration. The title is borrowed from Lou Reed’s song “Perfect Day,” from 1972, which Hirayama listens to at home. Wenders’s artistic breakthrough film, “Alice in the Cities” (1974), is the story of a German journalist in the United States who defies his assignment in favor of taking Polaroid pictures during his reporting trip. (A book of Wenders’s own Polaroids has been published.) Wenders has also long been obsessed with American rock and pop of that period—so much so that his 1972 film “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick” was long kept out of distribution because of the prohibitive cost of maintaining rights to his needle drops.

In Reed’s song, the narrator is addressing someone about their perfect day together: “I’m glad I spent it with you.” When Hirayama hears that line sung, he’s alone, and the song keeps playing on the soundtrack while he’s outdoors biking, again alone. Hirayama’s solitude is presented not as a deprivation but as self-sufficiency, a contented isolation. The movie offers the vaguest hint that there’s a woman of whom he’s literally dreaming; but nothing in the dreams or elsewhere suggests who she might be. Hirayama interacts with a goofy, young fellow-cleaner named Takashi (Tokio Emoto) who, desperate for money to spend on his girlfriend, Aya (Aoi Yamada), wants to sell the elder man’s treasured cassette tapes at a secondhand store. Aya, taken with the voice of Patti Smith, which she hears while riding along with the two men, pays Hirayama another visit in order to listen again. He also gets a surprise visit from his niece, Niko (Arisa Nakano), who spends a few days with him and joins him in his rounds. When they listen to a cassette of Van Morrison, she wonders whether the song is on Spotify; Hirayama has no idea what that is—and Wenders doesn’t continue their conversation to indicate whether he wants to know, whether Niko tells him, or just how far out of basic awareness of current-day life he, in fact, is.

Hirayama isn’t a complete technophobe; he has a cell phone (a flip phone), but that’s as far as it goes. He’s never seen using a computer, a TV, a VCR, a CD, or a DVD; he pays for everything with cash; his camera uses film (though it’s seemingly autofocus and autoexposure). His incuriosity runs wide; he’s never seen reading a newspaper or a magazine. He reads only books—William Faulkner, Patricia Highsmith, Aya Kōda—none by contemporaries. Though he’s not a literal hermit, his social life appears to be nonexistent, except when he can’t help talking with a colleague, with a neighbor, or with a woman behind the counter of the restaurant in the mall. One man there suspects that he’s having an intimate relationship with a woman, but Hirayama denies it and the movie offers no further hint. What talk he offers is terse, and he doesn’t in any case initiate it.