A celebration of all things analogue: What we can learn from a Tokyo toilet cleaner

One of my favourite summer jobs as a student in London in the early 1980s was cleaning the toilets at the Customs House office building on the banks of the Thames, next to the old Billingsgate Fish Market.

I would get up at dawn, cycle from my house in Peckham along near deserted streets to London Bridge, down Fish Street Hill and breathe in the heady aroma from the market. I would begin my shift at six o’clock, and although the building was quite extensive, I could usually get all my work done by nine, assuming there were no major blockages or spillages to deal with.

After work, I would walk up the embankment to the Monument to the Great Fire of London on Pudding Lane, find a place to sit down and quietly eat a sandwich while the city workers and tourists milled around. From then on, the rest of the day was mine to do as I pleased.

So, when I heard that the great German filmmaker Wim Wenders had produced a feature film Perfect Days focusing on the daily life of a toilet cleaner in Tokyo, I had to get tickets as soon as possible.

The film’s protagonist (if that is the right word) is Hirayama, an introverted middle-aged man, probably from a wealthy background, who has retreated (for reasons that are only hinted at) into a world that is self-contained, calm and ordered, and allows time for daily reflection and contemplation.

Every workday, Hirayama’s routine is the same. He rises at dawn, carefully folds his bedding in his immaculate tatami room, brushes his teeth, shaves and clips his moustache. He lovingly mists his collection of seedlings, picks up his keys and spare change and steps outside where he takes a deep breath and looks up at the sky. He buys a can of Boss coffee from the vending machine outside his house – in the shadow of the Tokyo Sky Tree – gets in his van, selects a cassette tape from his collection of 1960s and 70s music and heads off to work in the architect-designed public toilets across town in Shibuya.

Canals and flyovers in downtown Tokyo

Hirayama is meticulous, dedicated and thorough in his approach to work, and even has specially devised tools to ensure every hidden part of the restroom is cleaned. I was less dedicated but I did recognise one aspect of his work, namely that both of us were basically invisible to the people using the bathrooms. I found this irritating, even insulting, at the time but Hirayama simply accepts it as part of his world and meekly vacates the premises when customers walk in regardless of the cleaning sign outside.

Every day at lunchtime, Hirayama goes to the same park, sits on the same bench, eats the same type of sandwich, and admires the trees above him. The trees, we learn, are his friends, and he seeks to capture the shimmering light playing in their foliage (Komorebi 木漏れ日) with his old analogue camera.

After work, he visits the same bathhouse, eats at the same modest café, and returns home to read from a collection of paperbacks he has picked up from the one dollar shelf at his local bookstore.

At the weekend, he visits his local photo shop to develop his komoribi images and buy another role of film. He does his laundry and spends the evening at an izakaya owned by Mama, a talented singer who Hirayama might have feelings for but dare not express them.

Hirayama’s daily routine is designed to minimalize human interaction. For the first half of the movie, he hardly utters a word but he is gradually drawn out of his cocoon, first by his annoying junior workmate’s futile attempts to go on a date with Amy, a woman who is way out of his league. Amy is intrigued by Hirayama’s tape collection but has no idea how to play them. After Hirayama plays a tape for her in his van, she is mesmerised by the sound of Patti Smith singing Redondo Beach. She gives a stunned Hirayama a kiss on the check and jumps out.

Later, the surprise arrival of his niece, Niko, who has run away from home after a fight with her mother, opens up new horizons for Hirayama and allows him to talk to someone who perhaps intuitively understands his pain.

As Hirayama’s world begins to broaden, he becomes slightly more emboldened and comfortable in the company of others. The movie ends with tight close-up of Hirayama in his van, torn between sadness and joy, listening to Nina Simone:

It’s a new dawn

It’s a new day

It’s a new life for me, ooh

And I’m feeling good.

We don’t know if it really is a new life for Hirayama or just a new day but there is hope, as in the ending of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, in which the camera lingers on Pam Grier in her car signing along to Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street, an anthem about escaping the ghetto.

But there is so much more to Perfect Days than the surface “a day in the life” narrative. Wim Wenders adores the Japanese filmmaker Ozu Yasujiro, and even made a documentary about his classic film, Tokyo Story, in 1985. Ozu’s influence is very evident in Wender’s lingering camera work, slow pacing and detailed observation.

Hirayama takes time to appreciate the world around him and only seeks to capture fleeting images of sunlight in the trees when the moment is right. He is the utter refutation of social media. His images are purely analogue and not shared with anyone, they are his personal record of the ever-changing world in one place.

The photographs he prints out are tactile, just like his cassette tapes and paperback books. They feel real, not just an ephemeral cacophony of ones and zeros. Hirayama uses coin operated vending machines and laundromats, he does not use credit cards or own a smart phone. The internet is another world.

It is the minutiae of the real, the tangible, that fascinates him. On one occasion, Hirayama finds a piece of paper hidden in one of his public bathrooms. He is about to throw it in the trash but he takes a closer look. Someone has drawn a tic tac toe grid with the first circle already in the middle. Hirayama smiles and adds a X to the grid and slides the folded paper back into its hiding place. The next day, an O has been added. He reciprocates with another X and at the end of the game, his hidden interlocutor draws a smiley face and writes “thank you.”

We can tell that Hirayama really enjoys these “childish” games like the “shadow tag” he plays after sharing a drink on the river bank with Mama’s terminally ill former husband. At heart, Hirayama is still a child and this perhaps helps explain his connection with his wayward teenage niece Niko.

Hirayama and Niko sing a mantra together which contains a life lesson for all of us.

今度は今度 (Kondo wa kondo)

今は今(Ima wa ima).

“Next time is next time. Now is now.” Focus on the present, enjoy the world around you, don’t worry about the future.

Perfect Days is without doubt Wim Wenders best film for a long time and deserves to win the Oscar it has been nominated for. But regardless of international plaudits, it worth seeing now and appreciating the moment. “Next time is next time.”

3 thoughts on “A celebration of all things analogue: What we can learn from a Tokyo toilet cleaner

  1. Furkan says:

    I have never imagined myself that I am going to read a blog text about a movie without getting bored. However, you wrote it so perfect! It got more meaningful for me when you gave the example from your own life. I feel like we are missing the joy of life when we stuck between 1s and 0s. I imagine myself that I found a way out from this rat trap.
    Thanks Scott.

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