Wim Wenders Perfect Days interview

Filmmaker Wim Wenders on Perfect Days, his homage to Tokyo and its utopic public toilets

The renowned director reflects on his latest film, Japan’s choice for Best International Feature at the Oscars this year.

Wim Wenders has directed some of the greatest films of the past half-century, including Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas and Pina. He’s a filmmaker who embraces the moment’s spontaneity, equally working in documentary and fiction. He prefers a barebones style even within his fiction projects, with a minimal script written as the film progresses. The characters and the scenery guide the story as they work.

As he said in an interview with The Progessive Magazine earlier this year, “I like storytelling on the road and I like it because the road is the only way to allow you to shoot in chronological order. And if you shoot in chronological order, you have the freedom to turn the story around, whenever you want. If you shoot your ending in the first week, you cannot change anything anymore.”

Wenders has also been an international filmmaker, the road taking him worldwide. Outside of his native Germany, he’s made films all over the United States, Lisbon, France, Italy, Cuba and even in Montreal in 2015 for Every Thing Will Be Fine. With his latest film, Perfect Days, he returns to Tokyo, where he shot the documentary Tokyo-Ga, about the films of the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, in 1985. 

Perfect Days has been an unexpected smash for Wenders. It’s been a festival darling and is now Wenders’ fourth nomination at the Oscars (his first for fiction; the other three are for his documentary work). As Wenders explains, Perfect Days is an homage to a city he loves. It follows the careful routine of its main character, Hirayama (Koji Yakusho), in his work as a cleaner of public toilets. It’s a movie of simple beauty and simple pleasures: the light through the trees, the familiarity of a good book and Hirayama’s curated collection of cassette tapes featuring music from Lou Reed, the Animals, Otis Redding and Patti Smith (among others). 

Wim Wenders sat down to speak with us via Zoom before the film’s release and one month before the Oscar ceremony. 

Justine Smith: How are you?

Wim Wenders: I’m good. I’d rather be in Montreal than Los Angeles, but I’m here because of the Oscars. 

JS: I’d love to start by actually talking about cities. You’ve made so many films worldwide, highlighting different urban environments. Of course, with Perfect Days, you’re shooting in Tokyo. I love that you find ways to showcase cities that feel intimate and personal, not what we expect. How do you find a way to tell the story of a city in your films?

Wim Wenders: Tokyo is a city like no other. I know it very well. I’ve shot there before. I did a documentary there 40 years ago. I’ve known Tokyo for almost 50 years and I love it because I love the people and how they live in their city. Life is very different there; life is more civilized than any other city I know. That’s what interested me at the end of the pandemic. Where I live, in Berlin and Europe, I regret how things unfolded. I suffered because one of the major victims of the pandemic was the sense of common decency. 

In Tokyo, it was the opposite. I was there when the lockdown lifted, and people took back their city. It happened with such kindness and care. There was so much respect for parks and roads and institutions. I was very moved. I was invited to watch this social project, a kind of art project where great architects constructed 15 public toilets. Utopic toilets, public toilets, but they were more like little temples. I was there to see them, and I was supposed to make these short films about the architects and their designs, but instead, I wanted to make a film about Tokyo, this city I love so much, and this moment after the pandemic. 

I decided then to think of a fiction. I needed a script and a great actor. The people who invited me to make these four short documentaries about architects and their work said, “Okay if you believe you can really make a film at the same time, a fiction, we are curious enough to participate.” They asked, “Who would you like as an actor?” And I’m not modest, I told them I wanted the best, the greatest Japanese actor of all since I first saw him in Shall We Dance and Babel. That was Koji Yakusho. So, they called Koji Yakusho, and the next day, they told me he said yes and he’d like to make a film with me. So, I wrote a script just for him and a script for the city of Tokyo. It’s a film for this city.

Wim Wenders Perfect Days interview

JS: The film you made in Tokyo 40 years ago was Tokyo-Ga, which is a film about the great Japanese filmmaker Ozu. In some of your other interviews, I read that Ozu was a big inspiration here. Has your relationship with Ozu’s work changed over time?

Wim Wenders: Ozu died 60 years ago, so he’s not really in fashion anymore. It’s a part of the history of cinema, and for many people, it’s a history long past. His last film, An Autumn Afternoon, was made in 1962. It was actually shot in Tokyo, and the main character in the film was Hirayama. So, we called our character Hirayama as well. But we didn’t make a film like Ozu. We made a contemporary film, but in the spirit of Ozu, was really only directed films about ordinary life. He didn’t make elaborate fiction or movies about superheroes. He celebrated family life and the everyday, and so does our film. It’s about the everyday life of someone who has a very simple life cleaning the fabulous toilets of Shibuya. 

JS: I find it interesting that many of the reviews of the film describe it as both “melancholic” and a “feel-good movie.” I think of melancholy as the memory of past happiness. Ozu’s films invoke that but so does Perfect Days. How do you reconcile these seemingly paradoxical emotions within the film?

Wim Wenders: In the films of Ozu and in Perfect Days, we have characters who live in the moment. It’s something he had to learn, maybe. It’s about the feeling of the moment, of being present. (The character) does his work every day as if it’s the first time. He does it with the ethos or the morale of a craftsman. It’s like a man who makes poetry or carves wood — people who work with their hands are highly esteemed, much more than in our society. In Japan, a good craftsperson can be a social hero like our Hirayama. He cleans toilets with that same attitude. He does his best every time, just like a man making vases. Every one needs to be the best he’s ever made. He does his best for others, society and this common appreciation of simple or beautiful things. 

In the movie, we learn to see the world through Hirayama’s eyes. We enter his happy world, where he doesn’t need very much. He’s a man who decides to live very simply. We understand that he was probably very privileged in another life. A businessman maybe, he might even have been rich, but he chose this simple voice and decided to experience the most joy possible from it. There’s maybe a nostalgia there, too. Did he make the right choice? 

He left that life of privilege in exchange for a simple life. He chooses to live a life with more happiness and fewer distractions. He does things he loves. He takes photos. He works cleaning toilets but also takes care of plants and trees. At night, he reads a book. When he’s finished the book, he will buy another one. He won’t buy 10 the way we might. He just buys one $1 book. Then, when he finishes that one, he buys another one. He’s a man who lives in reduction and simplicity. To be happy, he doesn’t need very much. He needs his music on these old cassettes, books and a camera to take photos. He also needs the trees that he loves and the light that he loves. 

JS: The other part of his life is his dreams, these black-and-white sequences. Can you discuss this aspect of the film?

Wim Wenders: In his everyday routine, there is still enormous variation. Unpredictable things happen. But every day, he finishes with his book, and then he sleeps, and we see the end of a dream where see a small reflection of that day. Some are very small memories of that day, the memory of details’ faces, movements and the light in the trees. Or his friend, the tree. They function as little reflection and the sum of his time. It’s the whole day captured in the edge of a dream. ■

Read our review of Perfect Days from TIFF 2023.

Perfect Days (directed by Wim Wenders)

Perfect Days opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Feb. 16.

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