Make It a Double: Wim Wenders’ PERFECT DAYS and TOKYO-GA (1985)

Wim Wenders’ new film puts into practice the lessons of his 1985 travelogue documentary which explored Tokyo and the world of Ozu

Now playing in theaters, Perfect Days finds director Wim Wenders back in his familiar environs of Tokyo, with an unadorned look at the life of an unmarried public restroom janitor (Kōji Yakusho). The film and its subject find value in simplicity. Protagonist Hirayama is an analog man in a digital world: as those around him interact with the world through cell phones and layers of technology, he listens to the music of his youth on cassette tapes, enjoys curling up with a good book, and captures striking moments with a point-and-shoot 35mm camera that he keeps on hand. The movie’s presentation, framed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, seems to subtly reinforce this.

His life is one of regularity and personal quietude: others in his regular sphere know and understand that he is a man of few words. Seemingly content in his work, we watch how he attends to his job with a meticulous zeal: scrubbing toilets, cleaning glass and counters, even using dental mirrors to view the weird angles and ensure he’s reaching every nook and cranny. Though he says nothing, he obviously notices and bristles at the shoddier work done by his coworker Takashi, a friendly but directionless young man whose primary trait is his immaturity.

Hirayama’s workday follows a pattern: a canned coffee, lunches in the park, and listening to music while traveling between his job sites, and ending with a visit to the bathhouse. Outside of work, his life is also one of routine: frequenting the same eateries and visiting the same shops to purchase a new book or develop a new roll of film. He’s most comfortable where he’s known as a regular and not expected to speak out loud. On the weekends he visits a small bar where he enjoys a gentle flirtation with the lady proprietor, who likes him enough to make the other regular patrons take notice and complain that he gets special treatment.

Wenders gives us a look at this routine in order to show it becoming interrupted by a series of changes, both small and large. When Takashi introduces the girl he is trying to date, Hirayama begrudgingly helps him and even gives him some money, despite innately realizing what the younger man doesn’t: he’s way out of his depth. Later, when Hirayama is forced to work a double shift, we see how badly the change to his routine unbalances his equilibrium and disturbs his typically genial mood. For most people, these minor deviations are just incidental regular life, but for Hirayama, a creature of habit, they are interruptions to his state of mind.

Bigger disruptions also come into play when Hirayama’s runaway niece pays an unexpected visit. The girl’s initial embarrassment of her uncle’s work soon turns to an understanding respectfulness of his lifestyle, and she even pitches in to help. This interruption is the rare positive kind, and it’ll be sad when the girl must return home. It’s only through this interaction that we get a glimpse of Hirayama’s family or the unspoken past hurt that estranged him from them.

In the end, yet another new interruption puts things into a different perspective, leaving with a gentle and hopeful message: change is OK, and sometimes necessary.

Wenders directs the tale with a light touch and gentle affection, and the slice-of-life approach to telling a simple working class story set in Tokyo made me think that this was his way of creating something in the tradition of his favorite filmmaker, Yasujirō Ozu (which I’ve sinced learned is something that he has confirmed).

Tokyo-Ga, his 1985 travelogue in search of Ozu, adds some perspective to this.

Forty years ago, a younger Wenders set out on a pilgrimmage (while insisting it wasn’t one) to Tokyo in search of the spirit of Yasujiro Ozu. As the German director narrates in English, he has a great love for the films of Ozu. While many directors evolve, work, and create in a variety of different genres and styles, Ozu was consistent in his output, telling simple stories centered around family life in Tokyo until his death on his 60th birthday. Unlike virtually any other director, his entire catalogue, spanning decades, could be approached as a single masterwork.

Tokyo-Ga is Wenders’ document of his trip to Tokyo, hoping to still find something of the spirit of the great master there, 20 years after his death. He explores the city, comparing and contrasting the contemporary technological and cultural hub with the version that Ozu depicted. He finds a place of noisy machines, inescapable commercial business, and rampant advertising, but also one with a sense of identity: narrow alleys, quaint neighborhoods, trains – a place that still values humanity and art.

Chishū Ryū visits Ozu’s grave – Tokyo-Ga

Perhaps most relevantly to his search for Ozu, Wenders interviews two of the director’s contemporaries: actor Chishū Ryū and cameraman Yuharu Atsuta, who both share their fondness for the director and their careers with him, as well as a sense of nostalgia for what he meant to them and their careers – things were never quite the same after his passing. Ozu was a man meticulously set in this ways, preferring certain routine in his approach (such as preferring to position the camera statically at the same low angle) – one wonders of perhaps a little of this personality of Ozu made its way into Wenders’ Hirayama.

Yuharu Atsuta demonstrates Ozu’s preferred camera angle – Tokyo-Ga

The film is a little meandering, as Wenders trains his eye on interesting but questionably relevant sidetracks like a pachinko parlor, a golf driving range, a gathering of rockabillies, lots of trains, and a factory where artisans craft realistic looking wax food for restaurant displays. Cinephiles may also enjoy watching him meet up with a couple of other filmmaker friends, Werner Herzog and Chris Marker.

The editing is not organized in the “obvious” way most people would have done it, by inserting clips of Ozu films throughout to complement the relevant discussions. Whether for artistic or budgetary reasons, Wenders bookends the film with a couple of Ozu scenes but his own travelogue is kept uninterrupted. He also prefers to directly narrate his interviewees’ words rather than subtitle them, which I kind of dug as an unusual personal touch.

Now that some decades have passed, I think the film is probably of greater interest than it was in its own time, offering not only its original search for the spirit of Ozu, but a quite detailed window into the past: an outside (and non-American) perspective of Tokyo of 40 years ago.

It works particularly fittingly as a complement to Perfect Days. Here we see the beginning of Wenders documenting his journey into the work and spirit of Ozu, whereas Perfect Days is, at least for now, the culmination of it.

A/V Out

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