Zen masters: How ‘Perfect Days’ connects to ‘The Matrix,’ and ‘Barbie’

“Next time is next time! Now is now!”

That’s the mantra that serves as an unofficial motto in “Perfect Days,” the soul-restoring new film from German director Wim Wenders and the latest addition to the small but potent genre of Zen cinema. The movie follows a contemplative middle-aged man named Hirayama (Kōji Yokusho) as he goes about his job cleaning public toilets in the upscale Shibuya district of Tokyo. (Designed by an international cadre of architects and designers, the toilets themselves double as art installations: Plumbing as whimsy.)

Serenely content in his work, Hiroyama is visited by a young niece (Arisa Nakano) fleeing in rebellion from a wealthy family, and as the two bicycle around Tokyo, the niece starts making plans for her next visit. “Next time is next time!” her uncle gently chides her. “Now is now!” It becomes a playful chant shared between them and a reminder to viewers out there in the dark to squeeze the juice out of every present moment.

Which, of course, is a paradox — perhaps the paradox of movies and, indeed, of all art.

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When we immerse ourselves in a narrative onstage or screen or the printed page, or lose ourselves in a pop song, a symphony, or a painting in a museum, we give ourselves over to a different present tense, that of the story, the melody, the line. We forget our own now and go where the artists or storytellers take us, to their now, the now of the work. It’s a sleight of hand that, at best, can send us back into the daylight with fresh eyes and refreshed spirits.

But this also presents a functional and even metaphysical dilemma to someone like me, a working movie critic of four decades who for much of that time has also been a practicing Zen Buddhist. My spiritual beliefs urge me to rise above the world’s delusions, but what is cinema if not the greatest illusion machine ever invented? The Sixth Grave Precept specifically instructs us to avoid finding fault with others, but how do you square that with a four-star rating system?

By striving to enumerate flaws in the art rather than in the people who make it, for one thing. And by recognizing when the movies themselves serve up lessons in being alive to each moment, recognizing the karmic tragicomedy of life, and savoring the connections that bind everything to everything else. As the sage Dustin Hoffman notes in “I ❤️ Huckabees” (2004), it’s all part of the same blanket.

Yeah, that’s a Zen movie.

“Huckabees” writer-director David O. Russell studied in college under Robert Thurman, the renowned Tibetan Buddhist scholar (and father of Uma), and any comedy whose characters ask themselves “How am I not myself?” with such discombobulated regularity is doing the satori samba. (Also, any movie that divides audiences into those who get it and those who are furious at not getting it is doing something interesting.)

There are films that explicitly address Zen philosophy and themes, like the lovely Korean monks’ journeys “Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?” (1989) and “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring” (2003), and they tend to play to small, appreciative art-house audiences. The Zen movies that don’t announce themselves as such — and sometimes don’t even intend themselves as such — can often be blockbusters, resonating across a mass audience that senses the dharma at a deep and inarticulate level. The very premise of “The Matrix” (1999) is that reality as we perceive it is an illusory construct, and that the truth is out there if you’re willing to take the red pill. (Or you could just meditate.) The hero of that franchise is Neo (Keanu Reeves) — the One, the savior — but in a film like “The Truman Show” (1998), he’s just a schmo like you or me or Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), whose entire existence is revealed to be a televised sham. How am I not myself, indeed.

Last summer’s pop mega-event “Barbie”? A Zen movie. “I want to do the imagining, not be the idea,” says the living doll played by Margot Robbie. “I want to be part of the people who make meaning, not the thing that is made.” That’s the sound of a plaything awakening from her perfect plastic universe into a world of human suffering and joy.

The mother of all stealth Zen movies, of course, is “Groundhog Day” (1993), in which the dyspeptic weatherman played by Bill Murray repeats the same February 2nd over and over and over until he finally gets it right — until he can return to temporal reality as an enlightened being, a bodhisattva whose mission is to save all sentient creatures with compassion and kindness. (Except for Ned Ryerson. Bing!)

The movies, in fact, are full of bodhisattvas if you know where to look. The Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” (1998) has been claimed by Christians, Jews, Nietzschean nihilists and the Stoics, but if “The Dude abides” isn’t a grand statement of Buddhist non-attachment, I’ll eat my theoretical hat. Besides, the Dude himself, Jeff Bridges, has penned a companion book, “The Dude and the Zen Master” (Blue Rider Press, 2013), with his own rōshi, Bernie Glassman, the late founder of the Zen Community of New York.

Even classic cinema can be mined for Buddhist fun and profit. The Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger film “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945) isn’t just one of the foundational romantic comedies and a cook’s tour of the Inner Hebrides but a lesson that the more meticulously we plan our lives, the more surely we’ll be stranded across the water from our goal and have to adjust our sails to the winds that are rather than the winds we want. “Harvey” (1950) casts Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, who is either an alcoholic schizophrenic who sees six-foot rabbits where there are none or a man who has discovered the key to the universe. Stewart’s dreamy certainty and the gentleness with which he assures a psychiatrist, “I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it,” suggest the latter.

I once wrote an article claiming that the Three Stooges are the secret Zen masters of American pop culture, and I stand by the assertion that the slapstick comedians are profound because they are so rigorously unprofound, insisting on the blunt ontology of the smack in the kisser and the kick in the pants. (If nothing else, Curly is a ringer for the Laughing Buddha, and Larry may actually be the Buddha himself.) One of the appeals of Zen is that it acknowledges that everything goes wrong on a regular basis, that life is unsatisfying and violent and short, and also astonishing and infinite and all that we have. This itself is the karmic cream pie in the face of existence — the sound of one hand slapping.

To bring it back to “Perfect Days,” the new Wenders film is a near twin to Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” (2016), in which Adam Driver plays a bus driver named Paterson in Paterson, N.J. Both films are about working-class heroes who find peace in and make art from the repetition of their days. The bus driver in “Paterson” writes poetry, but Hiroyama in “Perfect Days” is poetry, not consciously but in the rhymes of his life and the pentameter of its events. It’s implied he comes from a family of status, and yet he has chosen to live as what the koans call “a true person of no rank,” scrubbing out the toilets of Tokyo and marveling with immediacy at every person and occurrence that crosses his path. “When Buddhas are truly Buddhas,” wrote the 13th-century Zen master Eihei Dogen, “they do not necessarily notice they are Buddhas.”

The moment to appreciate what “Perfect Days” has to say to us isn’t next time. It’s now.

Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at tyburrswatchlist.substack.com.

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