Wim Wenders’ film Perfect Days is enjoying enormous success in cinemas. Unexpectedly, the screening at the Giorgione cinema in Venice reveals a lively and chatty community of cinephiles (or perhaps just curious people) of mixed ages. These are residents, not tourists, who often participate en masse in events like these, despite the death knells sounded by most regarding the fate of the city.
Let’s get to the movie. What follows is the account of a non-“insider”, what watching the film instinctively suggested to the writer; the transcription of immediate (and unmediated) impressions free from reading reviews or bibliographical notes about Wenders and his poetics, which I deliberately avoided. In short, it’s the product of a challenging exercise that sometimes, for fun, imposes itself on us in front of a work of art considered a priori, by most, to be cryptic and conceptual. Commenting on a torn canvas by Fontana, without having studied spatialism…
Burrhus Skinner wrote that “culture is what remains after we have forgotten everything”. The invitation is to see the film and then compare these lines with the personal impressions that each one has drawn from it. There remain many unanswered questions, interpretative mysteries which nevertheless constitute an integral part of the film’s charm, and which perhaps the author has deliberately left to everyone’s sensitivity.
Hirayama is an extremely taciturn and methodical man. The camera describes his awakenings, which are always the same; the quick ablution, the watering of the plants he grows almost religiously, the original cassettes of Seventies hits inserted in the car’s player, wearing overalls with the writing “Tokyo City Toilet” and the meticulous cleaning of the metropolis’ toilets, which constitutes his job.
We immediately understand that Hirayama’s time is not suffered, but rather subservient to his needs. He is unscathed by the technological evolution following the 1970s. He uses public telephones, doesn’t have a cell phone (he doesn’t even know what that means!), has no appliances, uses public toilets and laundromats. He eats his meals at the diners in Tokyo and goes to bed after reading novels of Western literature, strictly in paperback.
The film is poetic, moving, a masterpiece, but anyone who leaves the cinema will wonder what message Wenders wanted to convey.
Precisely the final ending of the film, the wonderful smile that the protagonist, in the foreground, gives to himself and to the spectators expresses his contentment, the measured serene complacency of someone who has achieved full self-satisfaction. This goal, Wenders seems to suggest, is achieved through subtraction rather than through the frenzy of accumulation, avoiding setting oneself the material goals specific to the contemporary development model.
Every day the protagonist savors the magnificent view of the tree in the park where he stops for lunch, lingering on the light that filters through the branches. It contributes to the neatness of Tokyo’s public bathrooms, splendid architecture surrounded by greenery and oases of relief from the metropolitan chaos, represented by another architectural icon (the Tokyo Skytree Tower by Tadao Ando – the tallest tower in the world) that he encounters every day on his way to work. Through the repetitiveness of almost ritual actions, he shares the harmony of the world, appreciates the beauty that permeates everything, be it nature, animate or inanimate beings and objects.
Despite his apparent, almost misanthropic introversion, Hirayama is a generous and compassionate man. This can be seen in the episode where he lends money to a colleague, in which he proves willing to accompany him in his van to go out with his girlfriend. There is the hospitality he offers to his niece who unexpectedly shows up at his place, without ever having known him, except fleetingly as a child.
Hirayama doesn’t ask questions, he welcomes his neighbor unconditionally, always with staid moderation. The final scene with the alleged love rival is amazing. The two men, perfect strangers, play chasing each other’s shadows. But what does the question that one of the two asks the other mean: “but if the two shadows overlap, is the color darker?” And the negative response to the phenomenon that both give each other?
What do the overlapping images allude to? Perhaps to the memories of the protagonist’s life that invariably emerge in the mind at daybreak, always different images, always gray and white, almost pinhole photos?
It’s impossible, at this point, not to give in to the temptation to foray online.
From Doppiozero we learn that the night visions of the sleeping Hirayama were created and written by Donata, the director’s wife.
From Vanity Fair, the reference to the Japanese word komorebi, watching the light filter through the trees,
draws attention to the fact that we tend to look at the trees but not at the light that passes through. It’s like when we look at our hand and see the five fingers, but not the space between the fingers. Seeing the light between the trees means practicing grasping the completeness of everything.
Again in the same article, on the repetitiveness/rituality of simple daily actions as a practice of awareness:
Zen develops the concept of time in three points, “Losing time”, “Taking time”, “Winning time”. When we deal with the simple and daily things of our life, which many think are a “waste of time”, in reality we “take time” and therefore “we win over the passage of time”. In short, we decide our time. A Zen master said, “the majority of people are lived by time, with my practice I am the one who lives by time.
The protagonist lives in the analogue. In his monastic life, perhaps he is unaware of the digital. He takes photographs with the old camera with film which he then develops. He places the photos in numbered boxes, after discarding those that in his opinion did not turn out well, according to a personal criterion that remains incomprehensible to the viewer.
The meticulousness and care with which the photographs are enumerated and dated, apparently always of identical content – the shadow of the light between the trees – perhaps refers to the protagonist’s desire to keep track and represent the passage of time, as Opalka did by tracing the numbers in the canvas? The Google algorithm does not propose links between the great Franco-Polish painter and Wim Wenders. But the concept of time, present in Japanese culture as in German culture, is taken up by the conceptual artist On Kawara. The Date Paintings series, which is part of the Today Series, consists of a small rectangular painting with a monochromatic background, on which only the letters and numbers that make up the date of the current day are painted in white…; the painting is placed in a cardboard box, labeled with the corresponding date and lined inside with a clipping from a newspaper read by the artist during that day.
In Wenders’ film, as already underlined, time is not subject to change. It is therefore not represented by events or an abstract numerical series, but rather by color, and the thousand and always different shades in which gray and chiaroscuro are expressed in nature.
More suggestions of colors… The pinhole photography of our artist friend Mariateresa Sartori still comes to mind, who through the exhibition captures graphic signs otherwise irretrievably lost in memory.
In reality, the insistence with which Wenders lingers on chiaroscuro, on shadows and reflections, deserves further study: the beautiful book recently published by Laura Imai Messina, Il Japan in color (Einaudi 2023), is helpful. In this book the genesis of the various shades of Japanese colors is theorized and narrated: “everything in Japan has its own color, because with color you can say everything”. We then learn that Japanese gray is declined in “blunt blade grey, dove feather grey, plum grey, thin ink grey, Fukagawa grey, the color “grey above the clouds”, Rikyu grey, etc.
I happened to discover, with a sort of self-satisfaction, that the term wabi sabi, noted in Imai Messina’s book regarding the gray of the same name, is also cited by others regarding the film and is exemplified with the term “the limit of the essential ”, that is, living a life in which if I add one thing it is too much, but if one thing is missing it becomes poor. It is the Zen concept of living essentiality. Thus, on page 81 of Prof. Imai Messina’s writing in the chapter “the gray RikYu and the spirit of Wabi Sabi” we read just as follows:
The wabi atmosphere can be perceived in the neutral tones of old temples and sanctuaries with a wooden soul, among the stones of the gardens, on the moss-covered steps and in the ancient tea rooms of Nara and Kyoto. Wherever there is something whose raw nature, constant change is accepted… […] Wabi was already in use in ancient times with the meaning of “to worry, to be troubled by internal questions as well as physical afflictions. Sabi, on the other hand, is derived from a verb that means being rough, desolate – and which describes the aging of things, the fading of color. Unlike what one might think, however, the connotation is not entirely negative, and over time it has rather come to occupy such a vast place in Japanese culture that it still symbolizes part of that popular spirit in dealing with life in general as much as that fragmented part of life, of little things and daily routines. In the period …, the word sabi began to be used to praise waka poetry, and it ended up being used as a term that tout court described a precise aesthetic sense, that of what is both fine and faded, old and refined. It is still the color of the time today. Of what no longer hurts and takes away the agitation of desire. It is detachment, when you prepare to leave and say goodbye with a nostalgia that no longer hurts.
Himayama’s meeting with his sister makes us understand that something broke in the family a long time ago, perhaps an irreparable disagreement with his father. Conflicts which evidently made the protagonist distance himself and led him to choose a different life. It is clear that it was a thoughtful decision with no regrets. The ritual that permeates all the gestures he makes and that marks the rhythm of his days “subtracts the agitation of desire”. The presence of a diversion or an unexpected event, or an accident (the unexpected resignation of a colleague from the workplace) are all accepted without expressions of disappointment, with the detachment “when one prepares to leave and says goodbye with a nostalgia that does not it hurts more” which La Imai Messina writes about in her book. Thus, in the perfection of nature in compassion towards others, yet another wonderful day begins.
About the architecture of public toilets in Tokyo: Toilets have always been a symbol of the Japanese hospitality culture known throughout the world. The Tokyo Toilet project, which involved a pool of international creatives of the caliber of Kengo Kuma and Tadao Andō in the redesigning of the city’s public toilets is confirmation of this.
In total, sixteen prestigious brands have curated the restyling of seventeen public toilets in Shibuya, one of the most colorful, frenetic and characteristic neighborhoods of the Japanese capital. The result is a perfect synthesis between aesthetics, functionality and, above all, accessibility.
The Tokyo Toilet project, which started in 2020, is part of the city’s great urban beautification work. The collaboration between local officials, the tourism board and The Nippon Foundation has therefore led to the completion of new toilet service units. The declared objective of the initiative is “to deny the cliché according to which public bathrooms are dark, dirty, smelly and dangerous places”, to instead make them new symbols of hospitality, spaces characterized by accessibility and inclusion”.
The sixteen studios involved in the Tokyo Toilet project are, in alphabetical order: Fumihiko Maki; Kashiwa Sato; Kengo Kuma; Masamichi Katayama; Nao Tamura; Shigeru Ban; Tadao Ando; Tomohito Ushiro; Junko Kobayashi; Kazoo Sato; Marc Newson; Miles Pennington; NIGO®; Sou Fujimoto; Takenosuke Sakakura; Toyo Ito”l
Listen to the Perfect Days soundtrack HERE
Translation by Paul Rosenberg
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