In ‘Perfect Days,’ Toilet-Cleaning Is Sacred | Sojourners

In ‘Perfect Days,’ Toilet-Cleaning Is Sacred

'Perfect Days,' Neon

Across its 123-minute runtime, Perfect Days more or less consists of the same scenes. Middle-aged Japanese man Hirayama awakens and grooms himself in his small flat. He purchases a coffee and goes to work, cleaning public restrooms around Tokyo, usually alone. During lunch, Hirayama sits in a public park and snaps photos of leaves. For dinner, he eats at a mall restaurant. At night, Hirayama washes in a bathhouse and reads from an American novel before going to sleep. The next day, he starts the process again. 

That description might be enough to turn off some viewers, even before they learn that the Oscar-nominated film has very little dialogue, all of it in Japanese. But through Hirayama’s mundane life, German director Wim Wenders, who co-wrote the film with Takuma Takasaki, portrays the soul of a servant. Played by a stunning Kōji Yakusho, Hirayama’s mundane work of toilet washing becomes a sanctified act, for one simple reason: He does it for other people.

This isn’t to say that Hirayama’s life lacks drama. His routine bends from time to time, usually when an interruption occurs. These interruptions range from the impositions of his brash co-worker Takashi (Tokio Emoto), who repeatedly asks to borrow money and tries to swipe cassettes, to the unannounced arrival of Hirayama’s runaway niece Nico (Arisa Nakano). But none of these interruptions resolve through battles or protestations. Unlike most modern cinema, the theme of Perfect Days isn’t delivered via conflict.

Instead, Wenders and Takasaki locate the meaning of Hirayama’s life in the small, the sacred, and very often, the communal. He finds meaning through the act of cleaning public restrooms and the connections this service invites. Wenders and his cinematographer Franz Lustig lovingly photograph nature, following Hirayama’s awestruck eye to some tree or plant that enchants him; they devote the same attention to the bathrooms that Hirayama cleans. Hirayama considers the lilies, sure, but he spends even more time considering the toilet bowl.

The bathrooms seen in Perfect Days were created for the Tokyo Toilet project, a public works project intended to capture Japan’s hospitality culture. The bathrooms were designed by “Japan’s leading artists” to be more than just places for biological functions. They are spaces of expression and human interaction, so that’s how Wenders and Lustig shoot them. The most striking of the bathrooms is a box shaped structure made of multi-colored glass in light shades of orange and purple. When one of the stalls in the structure is occupied, that glass turns opaque, providing privacy while filling the space with soft and inviting light.

It’s in these beautiful spaces that Hirayama encounters and serves others more directly. When a tourist asks in English how the colored glass bathroom works, Hirayama doesn’t demand she speak his language. Instead, he steps into one of the stalls and demonstrates how to make the glass cloudy and usable. In a different bathroom, Hirayama discovers a slip of paper with the beginning of a tic-tac-toe game. He plays his turn and slips it back into the crack where it was lodged, continuing the match each time he returns. 

Hirayama’s opponent never appears on screen, nor do most of the people who benefit from his cleaning. Furthermore, most don’t even acknowledge Hirayama, even when he steps out of the toilet so they can use it. But he doesn’t work for recognition, a point reinforced every time the camera trains on his face easily the greatest special effect in the film. From the crinkles in his crow’s feet when he smiles to the lines along his clenched jaw when checking the sink for wayward grime, Hirayama’s face captures the imminence of the work.

Although he doesn’t work for recognition, Hirayama undoubtedly works for people. He is no solitary monk or misanthrope. Hirayama stops to acknowledge the unhoused man (Min Tanaka) who performs dances in the park across from one of the toilets. He closes his eyes while listening to a restaurateur called Mama (Sayuri Ishikawa) sing a lament to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” In these and so many other instances, Hirayama revels in his connections to other people.

Such connections recur throughout the gospels, but perhaps most memorably when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. This mundane act, performed by a teacher on his students, was a break from convention. But as recorded in John 13, Jesus performed the act as an example, so that they too will humble themselves in service of other people, and thus, emulate God.

That emphasis on service helps us understand an early moment in Perfect Days, one that otherwise makes no sense. When a drunken youth stumbles into the bathroom, Hirayama stays silent and steps outside to wait. He says nothing when the youth carelessly knocks over his “Wet Floor” sign. He just sets the sign back up and returns to the ego-less dirty work of cleaning.

Hirayama may not lead an enviable life, but it is not without delight. In the closing scene, the camera stays fixed on Hirayma’s face joy colliding with longing in a single unbroken shot of Hirayama driving away. There’s a peace that passes understanding in the real work of service.