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‘Perfect Days’ Review: Hanging On

Pay attention to the shadows in “Perfect Days.” Pay attention also to the trees, to the ways Hirayama (Koji Yakusho) looks at them. They’re as much a character in the story as he is.

Hirayama cleans Tokyo’s public toilets for a living, rising before dawn to gently water the seedlings he grows in his home and then drive off to begin his shift. On the way to work, he picks a cassette tape — Van Morrison, the Velvet Underground, Nina Simone — and listens while driving down the highway. Tokyo’s Skytree skyscraper looms in the distance.

Hirayama clearly derives enjoyment from performing his work well, but there’s more to his life than labor, and more to this movie than a simplistic celebration of manual toil. He keeps to a simple routine, the kind so carefully constructed you start to wonder if it’s a bulwark against chaos. He exits his apartment and breathes deeply, once, at the same time every morning. He drinks the same coffee, eats the same sandwich, snaps the same photos of the tree canopy. He frequents the same restaurants and bars, public baths and bookstores, places where everyone knows who he is.

Pivotal to his peace is Hirayama’s collection of physical media, a surprising sight in a digital world: In addition to his extensive collection of cassettes, he has shelves of used paperbacks and boxes of tree photographs filed and stashed in his small, neat apartment. They are anchors in time, companions throughout his days, riches rounding out his life. When he brings a book to the bar on the weekend, the proprietor tells him admiringly that he’s such an intellectual. “I wouldn’t say that,” he says.

In fact, Hirayama says very little. (The first time I saw the film, the subtitles were mistakenly turned off, and the audience didn’t even realize for about half an hour.) Instead he is an observer, attending to Tokyo and to the people in it with a tenderness and forbearance that, if you’re not paying attention, you’ll ascribe to a simple nature. It’s only when you watch his expression, at times, that something else flickers, a pain that flashes only briefly. “Perfect Days” chronicles only a couple of weeks — one easy and placid, the other full of disruption — and slowly, exquisitely hints that the structure of Hirayama’s life enables him to exist in the present, representing a choice that may have come after a long trauma. There are clues in his encounters with family members and strangers and, later, in his rattled response to an unexpected sight.

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