As artistic inspiration goes, public toilets don’t usually stir the spirit.
Then again, most toilets aren’t like the public bathrooms in Tokyo.
So when Wim Wenders, the German film director of art-house favorites like “Paris, Texas” and “Wings of Desire,” first toured more than a dozen public toilet buildings around the Japanese capital city in the spring of 2022, he was enchanted by what he described as “little jewels” designed by Pritzker Prize winners including Tadao Ando, Shigeru Ban and Kengo Kuma. Those stylish commodes provided the creative sparks for his latest movie, “Perfect Days,” which has been nominated in the international feature category for an Academy Award and opens in theaters in the United States on Feb. 7.
The movie — a poignant character study of a public-toilet cleaner with a mysterious past who lives a spartan existence and works with the care of a master craftsman — actually had its roots in a bit of propaganda. Wenders had been invited to Japan as the guest of a prominent Japanese businessman who hoped that the director might want to make a series of short films featuring the toilets, which had been conceived as showcases for Japanese artistry and hygienic mastery.
Koji Yanai, the son of the founder of Fast Retailing (the sprawling clothing giant best known for its Uniqlo brand) and a senior executive officer there, had spearheaded the public toilet project to be an architectural display of “Japanese pride.”
“If I say Japanese toilets are world number one, no one will disagree,” Yanai said in an interview late last year. He had recruited the architects to design the public buildings with a distinctive aesthetic that would make them as much art as public utility.
Originally built to welcome the world to Japan for the summer Olympic Games scheduled for 2020, the toilets did not get their moment because the pandemic forced the postponement of the Games to 2021, which were then staged without spectators.
After the quashed Olympic debut, Yanai was seeking another path to promotion. He reached out to Takuma Takasaki, a screenwriter and creative director at Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising firm, to help hatch a plan to champion the toilets internationally.
Takasaki suggested recruiting a filmmaker — Quentin Tarantino, perhaps, or someone like Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. The wish list also included Wenders, and Yanai, a fan since seeing “Paris, Texas” in college, recalled that the director already had an abiding interest in Japan, having made a documentary, “Tokyo-Ga,” a visual diary and homage to the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.
When the invitation arrived, it was the middle of the pandemic and Wenders was feeling nostalgia for Japan, which he had not visited in eight years. “I always felt strangely at home in Tokyo,” Wenders said, as he peeled the wrappers off chocolates his staff had laid in front of him in a bare conference room during the Tokyo International Film Festival last fall, where Wenders was serving as president of the jury.
Having come from Berlin, Wenders was dismayed by the deterioration of civic spirit during the pandemic as residents had trashed a park near his home. In Tokyo — and in the designer toilets in particular — he believed he saw the embodiment of purer impulses like cleanliness and community cooperation.
“I have never seen any toilet anywhere in the world that was done with so much care for detail,” Wenders said. He may have attributed to civic spirit what was accomplished by sanitary workers: Yanai funds cleaners to tend to the architectural toilets two to three times daily, whereas standard public toilets are cleaned once a day.
Before he left Tokyo, Wenders decided he wanted to make a feature-length film where the central character would be a toilet cleaner. Yanai had suggested Koji Yakusho, one of Japan’s most well-known actors, who had gained an international following after he starred in the 1996 romantic drama “Shall We Dance?”
To begin crafting a story, Wenders felt like he needed to know where the main character would live. He spent his last days on that Tokyo reconnaissance trip visiting locations. He settled on Oshiage, a working-class neighborhood in the eastern part of the city where low-slung apartment buildings crouch in the shadow of Skytree, a broadcast tower that pokes out of the landscape.
“The neighborhood for me was very essential,” said Wenders. “I need to love a place in order to set up a camera.”
Shortly after the director returned to Berlin, Takasaki joined him, and in just three weeks, they hammered out the script, which is all in Japanese.
Wenders developed the character into a man who pays quiet attention to detail and derives joy from cherished cassette tapes or shadows of leaves on the ground. The director was channeling his idol, Ozu, even naming the toilet cleaner Hirayama after the family in “Tokyo Story,” considered one of Ozu’s masterpieces.
In conceiving of a daily routine stripped down to a few essentials, Wenders wanted the character to be a “beautiful sign of reduction.”
“Reduction is one of the great tasks of our contemporary civilization,” Wenders said. “And we can only do better with the planet and the climate if we learn how to reduce ourselves.”
Before shooting began in the fall of 2022, the director and Yakusho visited the apartment where they would film the lead character at home, caring for a collection of treasured plants and reading translated works of Faulkner from a neat shelf in his bedroom. Wenders asked the actor to think about how to streamline the props supplied by an art director so that only the items most vital to the character remained.
“I would say — would I really have such a thing?” Yakusho recalled during an interview in a rented office late last year. “And we would get rid of unrealistic things.”
Yakusho spent two days with a toilet cleaner learning his techniques, including how to use some custom-made tools. He said he wanted to perform the role as if Wenders was making a documentary. The director said he had never worked with an actor who “so totally became that character.” Yakusho won the best actor prize at Cannes last spring.
When I visited the set in the fall of 2022, Wenders was shooting a scene in a playground at one of the public toilets designed by Shigeru Ban, a rectangular glass building with translucent panels of purple, red and yellow that turn opaque when users bolt the locks on the stall doors.
Yakusho, dressed in a blue jumpsuit, wore a tool belt around his waist along with blue rubber gloves and white sneakers. He consulted briefly with Wenders through an interpreter. The director, wearing a baggy gray-beige linen three-piece suit, darkened glasses and black cloth sneakers, called “Action!” and Yakusho entered the center stall with a bucket, two trash bags and a roll of toilet paper, while extras stepped into the flanking stalls.
With the afternoon light fading, the tension of the 15-day shooting schedule began to bear down on the set. Between takes, crew members restuffed the trash cans in the toilet stalls so that Yakusho could clean them out again. Impatient, Wenders yelled “Go away!” and the crew skittered to hide behind a row of bicycles.
Wenders said it was the shortest shoot he had ever done, his bare-bones filming technique mirroring the minimalist context of the film.
Writing in Nikkei Asia, Kaori Shoji described the movie as “like a conversation with a Zen Buddhist priest that leaves the interlocutor full of questions but infused with a strange serenity” and the main character’s devotion to his job as “something most Japanese take for granted — the indisputable importance of work is drummed into us from birth.”
Yet some viewers have found the character to represent an unrealistic fantasy. A man who lives an isolated life, satisfied with a low-wage, grimy job is “the dream of men and Western people” who valorize what they see as Japanese equanimity, said Kaori Hayashi, a professor of media studies at the University of Tokyo. “I think those who think this is great are people who are already rich” and who want an escape from overstuffed executive schedules, Hayashi said.
Yakusho acknowledged that his portrayal of a simply contented man might appear idealistic.
“I think a lot of people, when they get the thing they want, they immediately start to want something else,” he said. “You can’t ever escape from that kind of thinking.”
But even if the character was “too ideal and doesn’t exist in real life,” said Yakusho, “I think there is value in striving to be more like that.”
Hikari Hida contributed reporting from Tokyo
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