The Still and Moving Center

“komorebi” by lauwsi is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

“Does anyone hear the music they play? Does anyone even try?”

– Bob Dylan, “Three Angels,” New Morning (1970)

In these days of seeming, seeming eschatological blunder, of bad things happening all around us, of Cain on the rise among the ears of corn, when even the poor ol’ sky seems lost in wonder at the human doings below, it is most welcome to come across a film that is quiet at its center, modest in its scope. Making lemonade where only lemons go. We hear and read the talk of handsome men and precious women delivering the news of our AI future, machines on the rise, Elon Musk bringin’ telepathy to life. AI Jesus is here. Or maybe it’s AI Icarus. Where do you weigh in? (Don’t worry: That was rhetorical.)

Perfect Days has a light, deft touch, and I liked it very much. Directed by Wim Wenders, who has given us several screen gems in the past, including Paris, Texas (1984), and Wings of Desire (1987), and Until the End of the World (1991), we are served up with fresh aromatic indications of humanity’s resiliency. The film is in Japanese with English subtitles. Very simple language, unadorned message. It stars Koji Yakusho, Tokio Emoto, and Arisa Nakano. None of them known to Western moviegoers. No Westerner would star in a film of such disorienting modesty and balance. 5-7-5. Haiku.

The storyline is a familiar routine of getting through the day, intact. It’s a story of one man, Hirayama (Yakusho), a janitor for The Tokyo Toilet, who lives in a quiet residential area of Tokyo and who wakes each day on his back on the floor, eyes opening to a new world each morning, rising from his shikibuton (mattress) with kakebuton (quilt), which he folds neatly and places in the corner of his bedroom. He brushes his teeth. He dresses in his blue uniform for the day’s work. He buys a can of coffee outside his residence before hopping into his blue van, in which he plays old cassette tapes of 60s and 70s artists that provide the fine soundtrack for the film and are integral to the plot. Van Morrison, Eric Bourdon and Patti Smith, et alia. Rising Sun. Dock of the Bay. Redondo. And the sweet, almost mystical Nina Simone closing out the film with “Feeling Good.”

By any standard, it would seem, Hirayama’s life is shit. Wenders provides take after take of the same old same old. The banality of his routine would ordinarily be soul-sapping. The aging Tokyo-ite cleans public toilets for a living. All kinds of modern, well-designed shithouses, too–some with sliding doors, and, as Wenders depicts it, all of them dignified and clean and well-lighted. Could be doom and graffiti gloom, but that’s not the story the director wants to tell. We never see one stinkin’ poop. Wenders imposes his special brand of gentle humanity, Hirayama is suffused with the stuff. His kind eyes, his non-judgemental outlook. He is an observer of being, of reality, and exists phenomenologically more than socially or politically. Remove politics and social media from a life and you gots a whole lotta instant silence. Wenders loves this suspension of the unbelievably banal.

It’s not all scrubbing and polishing and spraying after a population needing a place to dump their processed nutrients, perhaps while getting in some texting. Promises are made, or maybe broken. The ubiquity of these structures whose sole function is to help us relieve ourselves of our pent-up toxicity, does, after a while, produce a kind of wonder or even awe. So much depends, it seems, on having a good bowel-cleansing shit. (This may be why it’s important to get off The Grid once every so often.) Praise be (yet again) to the glorious ancient Romans and their foresight as sanitation innovators. All roads lead to Rome.

Wenders shows our hero helping a lost child find his mother. He helps a Black woman figure out how to even open the facilitation door. (She’s ebullient in her gratitude.) In another glorified outhouse he finds that some unknown, lonesome soul has left behind an unfinished tic-tac-toe game, which he plays, making a move and placing the paper back where it was inserted. (They also serve who only sweep and buff, to play with a John Milton line.) And Hirayama finds tree seedlings, gently scoops them into little paper pots, and replants them at home, where he has a small forest of trees on a table needing watering each day.

Hirayama works with a young, Takashi, who is love-smitten and in desperate need to impress his girlfriend. Takashi almost loses her, when she refuses to ride on his motor scooter and begs Hirayama to let him drive his girlfriend home in his van. Later, Hirayama lets Takashi borrow some money in order to be with the girl in a bar. Eventually, Takashi disappoints Hirayama when he quits without notice, forcing the elderly public servant to clean Takashi’s toilets, too. Hirayama’s stress rises, but he manages to flush it. Hirayama, too, seems smitten with a woman bartender who likes to sing to the patrons. We hear her sing, “House of the Rising Sun.” It’s disorienting. But you can see why Hirayama is smitten.

Mostly, Hirayama likes reading books by Patricia Highsmith and William Faulkner. And Japanese short stories. He likes taking photographs of trees with sunlight streaming through. Komorebi. He dreams of and wakes up to these komorebi moments. (One thinks of Anaïs Nin, for some reason.) He listens to others. Wenders teases this out by making Tokyo seem like the quietest metropolis in the world, at least while the camera is focused on Hirayama, who is tuned not to the din all around him but to the still center of the here and now. It’s devastatingly gorgeous, as the Aussies say.

There are plenty of tender moments, if you’re into that kind of thing. As when his niece shows up at his flat unexpectedly and he needs to guide her and protect her, which leads to a near-rapprochement with his sister, who comes to get the niece, and who seems to want to take him away from his shit-cleaning ways. But he doesn’t see it as an occupation that is beneath him.

There is also a scene where Hirayama espies a man embracing the female bartender he likes and he cycles off and goes riverside to drop some suds on his sudden sadness. Out of nowhere, the man finds him, and he explains to Hirayama how he used to be married to the bartender but is now remarried — but more importantly has terminal cancer that has spread throughout his body. Hirayama is infused with empathy for this good man. He tells Hirayama of dying and wishing he knew one thing: If two merging shadows are the same or if one is darker. They sort it out with a little play right there. There shadows commingling, the egalitarian darkness of non-being assured.

The character of Hirayama brought back memories of the time I lived and worked in Papua New Guinea. I would go around snapping photos of the exotic (to me) environs and one time came across Mr. Shit. His truck depicted Rodin’s The Thinker as The Stinker, sitting on a toilet. On the side of the truck was his commercial slogan: Chicken shit, horse shit, cow shit, but no bullshit. He became popular. But when he wanted to run for office as Mr. Shit he was denied and returned to obscurity in this land of loamiest of loams.

I try not to think of the shadow people. For when I think of Japan I think of the shadows of people obliterated by the Bomb who left a shadow burned into the pavement where they were sitting. Like flashbulb existentialism: here one moment, poof! gone then next, but photographed by nature as a witness to the apostasy and outrage. A world of interchanging blast shadows. Motherfucker. And I wonder if Koji Yakusho, a native of Nagasaki, thought of such shadows as he dwelt upon the relativity of all things.

I’ve been thinking of Japan from time to time in the last few years. Mt. Fuji. Aokigahara. The Sea of Trees. Where the foliage bleeds komorebi. I believe in euthanasia. Old men, too. I can see the haiku pouring through the branches of the trees. Aye, Aokigahara. Like Dylan would say, I’m already there in my mind, and that’s good enough for now.

And now, a haiku break:

shadow of your smile
a Heraclitus river
I can swim all day


John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.