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Wim Wenders: ‘We had to do what was simple and right’

Wim Wenders, director of ‘Perfect Days’, on how they made a quietly transcendental film about toilets

Koji Yakusho in 'Perfect Days'

By Uday Bhatia

LAST PUBLISHED 18.04.2024  |  05:34 PM IST

Wim Wenders has always been a wanderer. Many of his films, right from early features like Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road, are stories of travel and travellers. His renown has allowed him to wander too, making films everywhere from his hometown of Dusseldorf to the Texas desert and the streets of Havana. In 2022, he was invited to Tokyo to make a documentary on the city’s toilets. He opted instead to make a fiction film about a man named Hirayama, played by Kōji Yakusho, a toilet cleaner who lives on his own and takes pleasure in his simple, unchanging daily routine.

Perfect Days was shot in 16 days and premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival (it was also Japan’s official entry for the 2024 Oscars, the first by a non-Japanese film-maker). It’s a quiet, serene film, with a performance of great charm and dignity from the veteran Yakusho. With the film now streaming on MUBI, we spoke to Wenders about switching from shooting in 3D to 2D, jukebox filmmaking, and Peter Falk. Edited excerpts:

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You’d already made two documentaries before in Japan, and this project was also suggested as a documentary. Why did you do it as a fiction film?

I considered the documentary idea, which was actually four short documentary features on the architects of the Tokyo Toilet Project and their tiny masterpieces. In Tokyo, back after years and years of absence, just after the pandemic, there seemed to be a possession of the city (by its citizens) again. I saw a sense of the common good; they had parties in the streets and the parks and even the cemeteries, but they were also spotless afterwards.

I told the producers, instead of doing four short films, let me tell a story that would deal with this in a bigger context and that would show the entire city. Your toilets will appear, but they will not have to carry the weight. Also, who’s going to want to watch four documentaries on toilets? I thought I was talking myself out of a good job. But they said, if you think you can make a feature film in 16 days, we are all for it.

Did you deliberately keep the dialogue in the film to a minimum?

I depended heavily on my co-writer Takuma Takasaki because I could not write a script with a Japanese character without help. We imagined the character together and agreed on a man who wouldn’t speak much, who spoke when necessary and wasn’t into small talk, was into reduction and minimalism. I like the work ethic of Japanese craftspersons I’ve met. To have that attitude applied to a service job, I thought it was a beautiful idea.

Takuma came with me to Berlin because I could spend only one week in Tokyo. The script didn’t take much more than four weeks.

We already had a lead actor. Koji was willing to do it even if there was no script. He said, if Wim wants to do this film with me, then I’m at your disposal. I thought, if we can write it for him, that’ll be so nice and so easy.

Several scenes are Hirayama listening to classic rock while driving his car. Did this take you back to your own early films?

We decided our minimalist man, Hirayama, would still have the music of his youth, from the 1970s, he would still have his cassettes. When he decided to live this simpler life, his cassettes were all he needed. And he is driving an old car, and the only thing you can play in that car would be cassettes.

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When we wrote the script, Takuma and I decided to put the music into the scenes. As you said, there’s not much dialogue. We felt the choice of songs would define the character a little bit and do some of the storytelling. At first I was a little bit worried about imposing my musical taste on a Japanese character. But Takuma said, don’t you worry, we certainly listened to the same music in Japan in the 1970s, the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith and the Rolling Stones. We DJ’d our way through the script, so to speak. It was like a mixtape.

Hirayama was the father in ‘Tokyo Story’ too. Was this character, or Yasujirō Ozu in general, an influence on your film?

Insofar as our character is a bit of an old-fashioned Japanese man, maybe he was inspired by the characters of Ozu. But then again, we carefully avoided making a film like an Ozu film. If anything, it is carried by the spirit of Ozu. And you’re right, we called him Hirayama because of Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon.

He’s such a specific character in his enjoyment of small, simple things. I was reminded of Peter Falk in ‘Wings of Desire’, especially the scene where he talks about enjoying coffee and cigarettes and sketching.

Thank you for this comparison. You’re the first to evoke Peter Falk in this context. Peter is playing an ex-angel and, in a way, Hirayama is in that category. But then again, in a previous life he was probably a businessman from a privileged background. You’re right, he has a little bit of that Peter Falk sparkle in his eyes.

You shot the documentary ‘Anselm’ (2023) in 3D just before starting work on this film. Was it a challenge to adjust?

It was a bit demanding, because I was so much in that 3D world. We had worked for two years on that. I went to Tokyo because we had finished editing and I had a month to myself. That’s when I shot Perfect Days.

Franz Lustig and I—the same director of photography who did Anselm—it took us a while to get away from depth and volume. But we adjusted and we came up with this lovely format for Perfect Days. We realised we needed to shoot with a full aperture to get the tatami floor in his apartment. The toilets were also small; you’d never see their floors if we hadn’t chosen this wide format. And as it was the preferred format of Ozu’s films, we thought it was a good thing.

We felt that since we’re making a film on Hirayama, we had to adopt his philosophy to our filmmaking and do what was simple and right. We eliminated fancy things, tracks and dolly and gimble and cranes, and shot the entire film hand-held. And that gave it its very own look. In the end, the fictional film felt more like we were making a documentary than the quite elaborate documentary we made before.