['Perfect Day’ is] almost a sacred track. Lou Reed was a very close friend of mine, and his music resonated even since the beginning.
Wim Wenders’ stamina is formidable. An icon of the New Wave of German Cinema, the 78-year-old auteur has captivated audiences in a career that now spans four decades and dozens of films. His breakthrough—Paris, Texas—brought him the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or in 1984 and he followed up on that success with the future-proofing classic Wings of Desire, which earned him Cannes’ Best Director prize in 1987. These two films rightfully secured an ironclad reputation for Wenders. Fast forwarding to the present, 2023 marks a banner year, which saw him return to the Croisette with a rare double entry: Anselm, an epic-scale 3D documentary fit to match its subject’s—visionary artist Anselm Keifer, Wenders’ near contemporary—ashen landscapes and harrowing subject matter, and Perfect Days, a quietly captivating character study in the narrative format.
Sitting down with Wenders, Anthem‘s primary topic of conversation is Perfect Days, which concerns Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho in this year’s Cannes Best Actor-winning performance), a middle-aged toilet cleaner in Tokyo who’s opted for a simpler life. It’s Wenders’ first feature in six years, and a return to his first principles in filmmaking: there are blissful driving scenes set to the cassette-tape soundtrack of Lou Reed and Nina Simone, vividly drawn side characters who puncture the protagonist’s serenity, and exchanges that imbue the story with genuine existential weight. It’s the kind of film that will break your heart, only to put it back together again with a unique and delicate potency. Certainly, no one articulates existential malaise quite like Wenders—distilling a lifetime of wisdom into a meditative tale about how we choose to live out our days.
Neon will release Perfect Days in 2024.
How are you, Mr. Wenders?
I’m fine. This is my first solo interview today so far. I’ve been talking together with Kôji [Yakusho] and we had fun. Now we might have just as much fun—the two of us.
We’ll make it fun. I was just thinking about our first meeting. You were with Juliano [Ribeiro Salgado] promoting The Salt of the Earth. At the time, your longstanding love affair with Japan hadn’t fully registered, so when you had asked me where I was from, in retrospect, I wish I could’ve said, “Japan”—not Korea. Maybe you were fishing for that.
[laughs] It was because your name doesn’t really reveal where you’re from.
That’s true. And I remember The Salt of the Earth well. If there’s a connective tissue in your work, in both fiction and non-fiction, maybe it’s that humanity is never too faraway.
I hope so, I hope so. And in the case of Perfect Days, it is somehow a strange mixture of fiction and documentary because of the way we shot the routine of this toilet cleaner. After a while, I felt Kôji had gotten so much into the part that it did have a strange documentary aspect to it—going to all these toilets, following his routine, and driving through Tokyo. After a few days of doing rehearsals before shooting, I thought, “Why don’t I just shoot it?” I asked Kôji, “Would you allow me to do that?” He was a little bit amazed because he had never worked like this. But he said, “Well, if you think so.” So we started doing that on a regular basis, and we were so happy because we felt that our actor was a little bit more in control of Hirayama’s life. If it wasn’t really rehearsed, we felt we had a true character in front of us. Even if he’s fictional and in a strange way a little bit of a utopian man, we felt he had more reality to him when we didn’t rehearse. Kôji started to like it, too, because it’s somehow beautiful when he can be who he’s playing. If you don’t rehearse, Kôji offers you his idea of the man. For me, that was so revealing.
Did you ever ask for a second take?
Every now and then we did a second take, but most of the time, we shot him as if he was the real toilet cleaner, following him in a documentary way. In a documentary, you never say to the person in front of the camera, “Let’s do a rehearsal.” You don’t do that and we didn’t do that with Kôji when he was alone in his apartment, when he was working, and when he’s in his car. All of this we never rehearsed. We always shot directly and we felt we had a real man in front of us.
Hirayama is largely wordless so we can only guess at the full extent of his backstory through observation. You don’t explicitly tell us much so there’s an inherent mystery to this by design. Kôji was also quoted in The LA Times recently saying that you were initially resistant to the idea of giving him too much of Hirayama’s history, although you did acquiesce a bit in the end. He thought that relinquishing too much detail might’ve meant that you would no longer want to make this film. So that’s what was at stake.
Well, it was strictly that I didn’t want the audience to know too much, and therefore, we didn’t have many scenes in the film that revealed his story. It was basically just the arrival of the rich sister in her Lexus that showed us where he was coming from, and when she’s giving him the present saying, “This is your favorite chocolate.” We realize he did grow up in privileged circumstances. We also realize there was conflict with his father, but not much more. I thought it was so important that the audience had to piece that together and sort of invent it on their own. That’s why I didn’t put it in the script. But when Kôji asked me for more, of course, he had all the right to know. The biography I had written for the man I only shared with him. Nobody else.
What about your co-writer, Takuma [Takasaki]?
Well, when I gave it to Kôji, I also had to give it to Takuma, who also always wondered because he had his own history of Hirayama. We sort of agreed that he had once lived in privileged circumstances. When I gave it to Takuma, he laughed and said, “Mine was almost the same.” So it was then in the open, at least about the character. But we didn’t want that to be part of the script. I felt it was very, very important that there was a mystery about where he was coming from and who he had been before and why he loved to read and why he took pictures and why he still had all this music. All of this, I think, is good if the audience just has to guess because that keeps the character very much alive. That keeps them connected to him.
And you do drop hints to steer us in a certain direction regarding Hirayama’s background and interior. You see slivers of his past in the subliminal dream sequences, which contain elements of “komorebi” [meaning “sunlight leaking through the trees” in Japanese] as well.
Thank you for watching closely. You do have hints in there. The dream sequences are a little bit of his subconscious and they reveal a little bit more about him. Altogether, the man is in almost every shot. There’s not much of the film without him, so the audience does start to see the world through his eyes. You slowly adopt his point of view. He doesn’t speak much. He could speak more probably, but he doesn’t like small talk. He only speaks when he thinks it’s necessary. All of that you slowly take in as the audience. That is what you normally do in any movie: you identify with it and see through the character’s eyes. That is what I wanted to achieve in the film. You adopt his kind view of the world. He sees the little things. Some of these things that he sees out of the corner of his eyes appear in his dreams. He likes people. He has respect for the homeless, as much as he does for the banker who comes and wants to take a leak in his toilet.
Hirayama’s love of people and his love of service feels like an extension of you—his maker. You studied medicine. In Germany, you once worked in a hospital with the sick: washing them, feeding them, and prepping them for operations. You said you loved doing this.
Yes. I like that he wants to be of service. That is something he thinks is important and beautiful and great. That gives him self-respect. His self-respect also stems from the fact that he does things as good as he can. He’s a little bit cross with his assistant, Takashi, because he just does things superfluously. Hirayama does have a great sense of the common good and that, for me, is the core of his character. The common good is something that he lives by.
The film is also culture-specific and relates deeply to Japan. Watching the film, I was reminded of the time I asked for directions in the Tokyo subway. This elderly woman missed her train literally walking me to my platform. It’s not uncommon to hear this in Japan.
Yes, I totally agree. He lives that kind of character. He’s connected. And maybe he doesn’t wanna speak too much because he feels that he’s connected anyway without words.
Your connection to Japan has been thoroughly documented. Your love of [Yasujirō] Ozu. Your film Tokyo-Ga. You just recently returned to the Tokyo International Film Festival to screen Perfect Days, and to serve as jury president. I think this is really telling: you once spoke about having a longing to go back to Japan—feeling a real “homesickness.” Yet, you never settled there permanently. I would think you would. Did you ever come close?
Well, the longest period of time was definitely when we were doing Until the End of the World. It was a good month in one go in Tokyo and Hakone. Or maybe the longest was when we did post-production for that film because I stayed there for six weeks. After I went to Tokyo for the fiftieth time, I decided to stop counting. I must have been there more than a hundred times. Even the very first time I got there, I felt strangely at home. Of course, it was also the movies I’d seen of Yasujirō Ozu, but I could put my finger on it more when I shot [Notebook on Cities and Clothes] with my friend Yohji Yamamoto. We did become a little bit like brothers. I realized we were basically the same age. I realized we really shared a life in common—growing up in countries traumatized by the war and then going through some strange form of Americanization. We really shared that. I felt it was a big part of my biography that I also saw reflected in Japan.
I’m curious to know more about this incredible soundtrack and how it came together.
Once we had written into the script that the man was listening to cassettes in his car and at home, and that he probably still had these cassettes from his youth, I had a better handle on the character. I asked Takuma if we could write the songs I had in mind into the script and he said, “By all means, let’s do that. That’s very good. That’s part of the storytelling.” So we did. But after a while, I felt a little hesitant and I asked him one more time, “Am I not imposing my own musical taste?” He said, “Hirayama’s youth was in the ‘70s. I swear to god, we listened to the same music in Japan as you did so don’t hesitate.” And I did remember that I saw The Kinks only twice in my life and both times were in Tokyo. I realized this music could be part of the storytelling and I could share it with Hirayama. Once I understood that, and given the fact that he had these cassettes that all the kids were interested in and calling them “these funny little square boxes,” I realized that the soundtrack of the film was a little bit of a compilation—a mixtape. When I realized it was that, I knew what songs he was going to listen to.
Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” seems especially sentimental. It inspired the film’s title.
For me, it’s almost a sacred track. Lou Reed was a very close friend of mine, and his music resonated ever since the beginning. When I heard him as part of The Velvet Underground, his music had already struck a big chord in me. It was always a voice that was very dear to my heart. Also, the lyrics. Lou was a great guitar player and a great singer, and his voice is very, very precious to me. I once wrote a story about their self-titled third album, The Velvet Underground, which has “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Jesus” and “Candy Says”—all these songs about some kind of love. I wrote a story about how this album saved my life, actually. It really did. But it’s a long story. Lou is somebody who really invokes a lot of feeling. If I put a song of his into a movie, it’s almost as if he becomes the co-author, the co-storyteller. He’s the only one we hear twice in the film with “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Perfect Day.” And Perfect Days was not always the title of the film. The title of the film for the longest time was Komorebi. But when we shot the scene where Hirayama is lying on the floor listening to “Perfect Day,” I looked at Takuma and we both had the same idea at the same time. We both nodded and said, “Yes, that’s the title.”
I find it difficult to separate the song from the film now. The same could be said about Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” which you call the film’s hero song. We watch Hirayama drive into the sunrise—his sunrise—to that track in the end. It’s a crescendo of emotions.
We’re losing him out of the story and we move away from him, but in a strange way, through that song, you see a continuation of his life as he looks to his future in the sunrise of Tokyo. And you have to know that this song was in the script from the beginning as our foremost piece. I had the lyrics to that song on the first page of the script. It was like a motto of the film because I felt that Hirayama’s life and his way of looking at life was in that song. We didn’t even know where we were gonna play it. When we got close to the ending of the film, I realized I missed the song. We then decided it was going to be in the last shot of the film. Our first page became the last shot. And Kôji knew very well what she was singing. He knew very well how important it was to me that people would see the song reflected on his face. What he then did surpassed all my highest hopes. We shot it twice. We did it once with my DoP [Franz Lustig] sitting next to him in the passenger seat, in real traffic. Kôji put in a cassette for real and we listened to it. Franz was shooting the entire song in one go. And I was sitting in the back of this crummy little car with a little iPad in front of me so I could see what Franz was shooting. When I looked up, I saw that Franz was weeping like a baby, just overcome by the emotions that emanated from the way Kôji was living that song. Franz was crying so hard that I was afraid he would miss the shot. I was so sure he couldn’t see through the viewfinder anymore. Then we shot it one more time from the front in a parked car and with a green screen around him because you cannot really drive and have a camera right in front of your face. That time, both Franz and I cried. The rest of the crew, too. We were just all completely in awe of what we saw in front of us.
These are the moments you live for on a movie set.
Especially if you hope it might happen, but you do not know how to produce it. There wasn’t any indication in the script that this was so important. It was just a way of letting him out of the story. But I told Kôji it was important for me that the words of Nina Simone were reflected on his face—that he both laughed and cried at the same time. Of course, it became the film’s “holy shot.”
You created magic together. I’m looking forward to getting Kôji’s perspective as well.
Thank you so much for this talk, Kee. It’s lovely that you stop because I see that they’re trying to remind us we are done. [Wim addressing Kôji] I warmed up the seat for you, Kôji.
[Editor’s Note: The companion story on Kôji Yakusho will go live at Anthem on December 30.]