‘Perfect Days’ is a perfect movie about cleaning public toilets

The premise of “Perfect Days” is perfectly simple: Hirayama (Kôji Yakusho) lives in Tokyo, where he cleans bathrooms in the city’s Shibuya district, approaching his job with the same care and detail he gives to the tree seedlings he’s nurturing in his modest, sparsely furnished apartment. Living alone, he pursues quiet routine, starting each day with a vending-machine coffee; driving to work listening to one of his cherished boomer-era cassette tapes; enjoying a noonday sandwich at a verdant park, where he photographs swaying treetops; and using his day off to do laundry, get his pictures developed and buy new film.

The fact that writer-director Wim Wenders has called a movie about cleaning toilets “Perfect Days” might strike some viewers as the height of absurdity, even perverse humor. But once they get a glimpse of Hirayama in action, the dreams (literal and figurative) behind the drudgery reveal themselves in a series of revelatory moments. Wenders, who wrote “Perfect Days” with Takuma Takasaki, was inspired by a visit to the Tokyo Toilet Project, wherein more than a dozen creators designed public facilities that stand as graceful testaments to dignity, ingenuity and aesthetic excellence. Instead of creating a documentary, which might have been the expected thing, Wenders conceived of a protagonist who is as easily taken for granted as the public spaces where he works.

Luckily, Wenders takes time to look — and to look back. Hirayama shares a name with the main character of “An Autumn Afternoon,” the final film of the legendary Japanese minimalist Yasujiro Ozu. “Perfect Days” shares the poetic, contemplative rhythms of Ozu at his most lyrical; even Wenders’s squared-off frame evokes a quieter, more harmonious era. (“Perfect Days” is filmed with crystalline crispness by Franz Lustig.) Yakusho, who won an acting award for his performance at Cannes last year, lends a Chaplin-esque winsomeness to a character who in more patronizing hands might be pathetic or, worse, too adorable for words. But as Hirayama comes into focus — largely in a wordless series of thoughtfully repeated actions, then through some unexpected encounters with co-workers, neighbors and others — his interior life deepens. What looks like ascetic isolation, it turns out, is a busy, full life of meditative discipline and precision; a confrontation later in the film suggests that lingering anger and renunciation might also be at play.

Or maybe not. Wenders doesn’t answer every question raised in “Perfect Days,” which bears more than a whiff of Jim Jarmusch at his most wryly absurdist. Instead, the filmmaker and his monumentally modest hero are content to sit with the mystery: trimming his mustache, dressing in his smart blue jumpsuit, playing oldies by the likes of Lou Reed, Van Morrison and the Kinks, reveling in Tokyo’s breathtaking built and natural landscapes, and meticulously scrubbing and shining those fabulously bespoke latrines. It’s a living, sure. But at its most fleeting, ecstatic and spiritually attuned, it’s also a wonderful life.

PG. At area theaters. Contains profanity, partial nudity and smoking. In Japanese with subtitles. 123 minutes.

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