A closeup of actor Kōji Yakusho in a blue shirt with the words "The Tokyo Toilet" on the left side, in "Perfect Days."

Wim Wenders’ ‘Perfect Days’ finds a perfect role for Kōji Yakusho

The Japanese legend showcases his many layers as an actor while playing a character with more to him than meets the eye

Kōji Yakusho plays Hirayama, a worker for The Tokyo Toilet, in "Perfect Days."

Courtesy of Neon

Words by Andy Crump

Hirayama, the reticent protagonist in Wim Wenders’ new film Perfect Days, carries on according to a mechanized cycle: Wake up early, water plants, buy coffee, head to his job cleaning Tokyo’s public toilets, administer his responsibilities to preternatural results, photograph trees on his lunch break, finish his shift, visit the public baths, eat dinner out, go home, read, sleep. The sun rises. The new day dawns. Hirayama rinses, lathers, and repeats, a smile twinkling in his eyes and occasionally teasing across his lips.

It is implied that little, if any, variation influences Hirayama’s routine up until the events of the film, where a series of encounters with his coworker, his family, his likely crush, and a quotidian parade of strangers throw tiny wrenches in the machinery. It’s implied that Hirayama has created this structure for himself as a coping strategy, a reaction to a haunted, wrenching past whose particulars Wenders leaves vague. The logic tracks; Hirayama says so little and keeps so much to himself that we must conclude he’s either constitutionally boring, or intentionally walling himself off from others, as well as from the crippling burden of his own emotions.

Kōji Yakusho, the actor behind the man, is anything but boring, so we can cut the first option. That leaves the second option, and the second, with Yakusho’s casting in mind, leaves much to the imagination. Yakusho is indisputably one of Japan’s great modern actors, a peerless artist whose best work may remain ahead of him; if his years have merely been “pretty good”so far, then what he has left to accomplish in his career is practically impossible to imagine. 

Yakusho’s reputation is not only defined by his appearances in slickly produced and high-minded movies; instead, it’s defined by a diversity of roles in a range of genres. For every piece of studio prestige bait (Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha) or arthouse awards hopeful (Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel), there’s a hyper-violent spectacle (Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins), a gangster film (Kazuya Shiraishi’s The Blood of Wolves), a gruesome horror movie (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure), or an animated coming-of-age fantasy (Mamoru Hosada’s The Boy and the Beast). Great acting need not be segregated by respectability, and Yakusho’s filmography declares this statement. The staggering total of awards he’s received and been nominated for—close to 90 in all, including 21 for the Japan Academy Film Prize and, most recently, the Best Actor prize at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival for Perfect Days—have earned him the well-deserved esteem of others; the variety of modes he’s tackled has earned him street cred.

Kōji Yakusho in "Perfect Days," stands in front of a mirror, looking at a piece of paper.

Kōji Yakusho in "Perfect Days."

Courtesy of Neon

Yakusho’s versatility is the key to Hirayama

Mashing both his professional distinctions with his unpretentious choice in projects leads us to Hirayama, a character absent of pretense in a film too humble for the term to apply. Who Hirayama is remains a mystery, more or less, right to the final shot, a closeup locked onto Yakusho’s face as he teeters between beatific and anguished. What we learn of his background is given scant air time, because Hirayama’s identity—where he comes from and how he came to clean toilets for a living—is irrelevant. We know who he is from watching him watch Tokyo’s bustling procession of everyday folk: An observer of the trivial things the rest of us don’t pay any mind to, and a gentle, caring person aside. All else is window dressing.

Wenders knew what he was doing when he cast Yakusho as his leading man. Acknowledging the context of Hirayama’s interior elusion, it’s natural to draw on Yakusho’s previous work to fill in the blanks. Is Hirayama a former thief? A Yakuza in exile? A disgraced amoral detective, as in Tetsuya Nakashima’s The World of Kanako? A salaryman buckling under a midlife crisis, a la Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata? What did Hirayama do before serving as custodian for The Tokyo Toilet? What deep, abiding shame lingers in his yesteryears that led him to not only his vocation, but his lifestyle and austere mien? Perfect Days presents Hirayama as enough of a cipher for Yakusho’s career to bleed into the film around its edges; he’s the perfect actor matched to a perfect role, whose ambiguities afford a degree of creative freedom well suited to his portrayer’s talents.

Some viewers will spend Perfect Days trying to match pieces of Yakusho’s body of work to Hirayama’s quiet particularities. The film’s many supplementary characters, on the other hand, can’t get a handle on how to react to his gentle, unassuming, unfailingly amicable ways other than with the sort of dumbfounded glances usually reserved for car accidents or exotic zoo exhibits. Unlike us, the young lady eating her lunch on the park bench next to Hirayama’s has no corroborative supporting material for making educated guesses about his history. She can only gawk. Even Takashi (Tokio Emoto), Hirayama’s younger yappy coworker, is at a loss as to how to describe him to Aya (Aoi Yamada), the aloof object of Takashi’s affection (and hormonal urges). 

A young Asian man and young Asian woman sit in the front seats of a vehicle, with an older Asian man squeezing between them from the back seat.

From left, Tokio Emoto, Kōji Yakusho and Aoi Yamada in "Perfect Days."

Courtesy of Neon

To Takashi, and all others who casually wander through Hirayama’s orbit, this stoic and fundamentally kindly man is practically a sideshow freak. Surprisingly, it’s Aya who appreciates what Hirayama says through saying nothing at all. When she asks permission to play a Patti Smith tape while carpooling in his work van, his eyes flip to her in a brief show of reciprocal admiration. Hirayama never directly tells Takashi to put a lid on his babble; Yakusho’s performance does that heavy lifting instead, soft in body language but stern in gaze. Likewise, when Hirayama finds a lost boy hiding  in a toilet stall, Yakusho assumes a gentle posture while shepherding the child toward his frantic mother, an action taken without pause and with no expectation of gratitude in return. 

The mother obliges Hirayama’s buttoned-down humility without so much as an acknowledging glance. Such is his reward. The boy, on the other hand, waves at the old man, who returns the gesture in kind. It’s a contrast between a child’s guilelessness and an adult’s acculturated suspicion, not to mention apathy. The boy recognizes Hirayama’s goodness where his mother’s instinct is to whisk him away. Hirayama is one of Tokyo’s sanitation workers, certainly, but he could be anyone else beyond that, and Yakusho’s presence functions as a springboard for the “what ifs” people ask themselves when they encounter his character. Broadly, he’s an avuncular, genial figure, ready with a polite nod,  bow or grin for anyone he meets over the course of his day. Specifically, he’s a bit more tragic—but almost no one gets to see that side of him apart from the audience.

Actor Kōji Yakusho, in a blue denim jumpsuit, holds the hand of a small Asian boy in a yellow shirt and denim shorts, comes down some outdoor stairs in "Perfect Days."

Kōji Yakusho as Hirayama helps a lost boy in "Perfect Days."

Courtesy of Neon

The only prominent character in Perfect Days privileged with personal details about Hirayama beyond the surface is Niko (Arisa Nakano), his teenage niece, whom he finds waiting for him outside his apartment in the movie’s second half. Niko has brashly run away from her mother, Hirayama’s sister Keiko (Yumi Asō), to visit her estranged uncle and get to know him. Having an obvious soft spot for his niece, merely a child the last time he saw her, he allows her to shadow him and even help him out at work. They’re a sweet, lighthearted duo, but the breeziness belies Niko’s piercing gaze: When she stares at Hirayama, she genuinely sees him, even if she doesn’t always understand what she’s seeing. The guardrails he’s built around himself keep her at a distance, too, though he’s willing to open up with her to an extent he refuses to with everyone else.

Hirayama’s world is Yakusho’s world too

“The world is made up of many worlds. Some are connected and some are not,” Hirayama tells Niko on a leisurely evening bike ride. Textually, he’s explaining the rift dividing him and Keiko—they lead different lives, in different social ecosystems. But the line reflects back on Yakusho too, who likewise inhabits many worlds through his work. This is something of a Barnum statement. Most actors inhabit a rich array of worlds in the course of their careers. But Yakusho’s career has taken him to disconnected worlds, some grounded in recognizable realities, others in lurid grunge that’s alien to Wenders’ audience. 

Actors Arisa Nakano and Kōji Yakusho ride bikes with a city skyline in the background in "Perfect Days."

From left, Arisa Nakano and Kōji Yakusho as niece Niko and uncle Hirayama in "Perfect Days.'

Courtesy of Neon

The World of Kanako, for instance, is set in a sensational urban underworld, which Yakusho’s unscrupulous ex-detective, Fujishima, delves into in pursuit of his missing daughter Kanako (Nana Komatsu). Fujishima employs threats, intimidation, and brute force in dispensing justice, but these tactics belie his heartsick, broken down spirit. Like Hirayama, he’s chosen a path away from a normal, stable life; those paths, of course, are drastically different. But Yakusho embodies them with similar grace. He simply keeps it up front in his performance as Hirayama, and smothered by unconscionable brutality as Fujishima. 

Grace, in fact, may be the quality tying together the whole of Yakusho’s filmography, a unifying detail that speaks volumes about each of his characters. In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Third Murder, the film western audiences likely best know him for, Yakusho plays Misumi, fresh off of a 30-year prison sentence for revenge killing the owner of the factory where he worked before being fired. Misumi frequently changes the story he tells police about the night of the murder, raising questions about his guilt and his motive; he may have killed the owner on another person’s behalf, and he may be lying to spare their dignity. Misumi is blunt in his deflections of the truth. He is nonetheless courteous, even while evasive—just like Hirayama. The key difference is that Misumi talks and Hirayama keeps mum. 

Actors Kōji Yakusho and Arisa Nakano sit on an outdoor bench looking up and smiling in "Perfect Days."

From left, Kōji Yakusho as Hirayama and Arisa Nakano as Niko in bond as uncle and niece in "Perfect Days."

Courtesy of Neon

In a way, Misumi feels like a necessary building block for Yakusho to play Hirayama in the first place. Even Fujishima’s unprincipled barbarism is one more tool in the box for facilitating Yakusho’s gift at maintaining secret identities hidden deep beneath exterior presentations, and Perfect Days puts those tools to the test. It’s the role Yakusho has been climbing toward through four decades of character exploration across all walks of life, and through all manner of human experiences—the good, the bad, and the grimy.

Perfect Days is currently in limited release in New York and Los Angeles, with a wider release slated for the end of February.

Published on February 20, 2024

Words by Andy Crump

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers movies, beer, music, fatherhood, and way too many other subjects for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours: Paste Magazine, Inverse, The New York Times, Hop Culture, Polygon, and Men's Health, plus more. You can follow him on Bluesky and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.