Pin It
Perfect Days, 2024
Perfect Days, 2024(Film still)

How Japan’s “Heartbreakingly Beautiful” Loos Inspired Wim Wenders’ New Film

Perfect Days: The German auteur discusses the origins of his new film and the influence of Japanese film and culture on his work

Lead ImagePerfect Days, 2024(Film still)

A key proponent of the New German Cinema of the 1970s, Wim Wenders has become a well-decorated man over a half-century of filmmaking. He’s won a Cannes Palme d’Or (Paris, Texas), a Cannes best director award (Wings of Desire) and a Venice Golden Lion (The State of Things), as well as receiving three separate nominations for dest documentary at the Academy Awards. But in 2024, the German icon is breaking new ground. For the first time ever, a Wenders narrative feature – his “lifetime masterpiece”, as the International Federation of Film Critics put it – has made the shortlist for best international feature at the Oscars. The kicker? This is a Japanese movie … about toilets.

A headliner at the BFI London Film Festival in 2023, Perfect Days chronicles the day-to-day life of a near-mute attendant to the sparkling new public toilets in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. In near-solitude, dedicated blue-collar worker Hirayama repeats a structured routine that includes listening to cassette tapes of Patti Smith and Lou Reed; reading Faulkner and Highsmith; and, of course, scrubbing bog basins and refilling plundered loo roll holders. Though evidently a wise, cultured man capable of some kind of greatness, he never complains about the hardships and banality of his role – how he got here is the film’s great mystery.

Precisely constructed and naturalistic in presentation, and bolstered by a sensational central performance by Cannes 2023 best actor winner Kōji Yakusho (Cure), Perfect Days will continue its charm offensive when it goes on general theatrical release in the UK via MUBI on February 23. So what’s the secret to the film’s subtle brilliance? As Wenders tells AnOther one autumn afternoon, the answer is Japan, a society that has captivated the director since his early career, and a nation responsible for some of the most serene filmmaking he has witnessed.

“My history with Japan started in the mid-70s,” says Wenders, wistfully. “My distributor in New York told me, ‘I have three new films in my programme and I feel you need to see them’ – and after being bombarded with letters, I caved. They were by a director I didn’t know called Yasujiro Ozu. I saw them, and immediately I understood why this person thought everybody should know him.”

Ozu, an indisputable filmmaking icon in Japan, died in 1963, long before Wenders’ first encounter with his work. And though today he is a household name for cinephiles all over the world – in 2022, for example, Tokyo Story was ranked the fourth greatest film of all time in a poll of 1,639 critics by leading UK publication Sight & Sound – Ozu’s films had not yet been widely exported by the Japanese studios in the mid-70s. They simply didn’t believe that Westerners would be able to contemplate his delicate filmmaking, so inherently steeped, as it was, in traditional Japanese values and culture. But Wenders understood.

“I saw Tokyo Story, and I stayed for the next three shows [of Ozu’s films] that day until I stumbled out of the theatre late at night. I’d never seen anything that had so much shaken my world. It wasn’t necessarily the story, it was the way it was told – and the world I saw in there was a paradise of filmmaking. It was an utterly involving world: the world of the Japanese family. From then, I was clear. This was, from now, going to be my master.”

Wenders’ passion grew after he represented German cinema at a festival in Japan in 1977 – an invitation the director accepted, he says, purely so he could take three days off to watch 12 un-subtitled Ozu films at the Japanese Film Institute. He began to take in the country’s culture “almost by osmosis” thereafter, and increasingly incorporated his travels into his work. The 1985 travelogue Tokyo-ga would follow Wenders as he explored the traces of Ozu via interviews with his dearest collaborators. In 1989, he made Notebook on Cities and Clothes, a documentary about master tailor and fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto (in January 2024, meanwhile, he walked the runway in Paris decked in the designer’s Autumn/Winter collection). He shot a segment of sci-fi feature Until the End of the World in Japan with Chishū Ryū, one of Ozu’s most beloved screen performers, in 1991. And after making “two or three” visits a year throughout the 90s, Wenders published the photo project Journey to Onomichi in 2009, documenting his trip to a coastal town that featured prominently in Tokyo Story.

It was around Christmas 2021 that the most recent opportunity to work in Japan arose, just as Wenders found himself growing “homesick” once again. “I got a letter from Tokyo inviting me to come and see these little architectural marvels by some great Japanese architects, who otherwise would build stadiums and museums and high-rises,” he says, laying out the roots for what would become Perfect Days. “Each of them had built the tiniest building you can imagine: a toilet. I didn’t really know what it meant, but as it came with an invitation to go to Tokyo, I said yes, I’ll come.”

Backed by the non-profit Nippon Foundation, the Tokyo Toilet Project had been responsible for the creation of new facilities at 17 locations across Shibuya, Tokyo, each one designed by leading architects intent on transforming perceptions of public loos in Japan. This was a response to the widespread stigmas revealed in a 2016 government survey, in which barely one per cent of participants reported frequently using toilets at parks and public areas, while 90 per cent insisted they rarely or never used them due to the belief they were unclean, unsanitary and unsafe. The team behind the project wanted Wenders to make a series of short documentaries to highlight the work that had been completed. But for Wenders, this fascinating initiative was worthy of a greater platform.

“I saw all these toilets, and they were heartbreakingly beautiful,” the director says. “I told them I cannot make these documentaries, because I know that places better show their meaning and purpose in fiction.” He recalls how his 1987 drama Wings of Desire had a similar genesis: conceived as a documentary about Berlin before the fall of the Wall, the production ultimately became what the director describes as an “outrageous fiction”. Wenders thus told the Tokyo project leaders: “I love your toilets, but even more so, I love Tokyo. And so I’d like to do a film that deals with toilets in a more metaphorical sense – in the sense of the common good that I so much cherish here.”

That sense of order and harmony and zen is embodied emphatically through the dignified performance of Yakusho – quite simply “the best actor they have” in Japan, in Wenders’ words. But of course, Shibuya’s stunning toilets are no less a focus in Perfect Days than if it had been pure documentary. Augmented by exquisite shot composition, natural lighting, and Franz Lustig’s delicate urban and suburban cinematography, the loos provide some of the most integral and even ethereal attributes of the film’s impressive visual signature.

Perfect Days thus follows humble Hirayama as he scrubs the white walls of Fumihiko Maki’s ‘Squid Toilet’ in Ebisu East Park; partakes in a game of tic-tac-toe inside Tadao Ando’s circular restrooms, surrounded by cherry trees in Jingu-Dori Park; and labours within the jagged concrete walls of Wonderwall’s constructs in Ebisu Park, which reference primitive kawaya huts used in the early Jōmon period. Of all the architectural highlights, perhaps the most memorable are the coloured facilities designed by Shigeru Ban at Yoyogi Fukamachi Mini Park – which feature fully transparent glass walls that turn (opaque) different colours once the doors are locked. There’s an almost utopian feel to it, something that Wenders wanted to reflect in the narrative itself. 

“I did idealise Japan a little bit in this movie, and in this character,” he says. “I’m not sure if a man like this really exists – but I think he should.” As he reflects, Wenders seems to allude to the “paradise” he had once found in Ozu’s filmmaking, the old master’s minimalist approach and restrained storytelling embodied in Hirayama’s ascetic style of living and tolerance of others. “Just as I needed angels in order to show Berlin [in Wings of Desire], I needed a caretaker for these toilets. And so we decided to call him Hirayama – the name of Chishū Ryū’s character in Tokyo Story.”

Manifesting the gentle and stoic grandfather of Ozu’s masterwork, Wenders expresses hope that work like this can invoke a future where people can learn to reduce their desires, what they consume, and how much they need to own. “It’s obviously all a little bit utopian,” he concludes, “but I wanted to show that idea of getting along with less and being happier for it.” He signs off optimistic: “Now that we have made the movie, I think that many people understand why he needs to exist.”

Perfect Days is out in UK cinemas on February 23.