PG, 125 minutes

Four Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Simplicity and lyrical fluidity are hallmarks of the style of veteran German filmmaker, Wim Wenders. So are the faces of the actors who inhabit his characters, seen through an inquisitive, searching camera. This long and languorous character study of a Tokyo man in late middle age is a wonderful return to form for the cinema auteur.

Hirayama, a solitary man with a past that he is reticent about, is dignified, retiring and full of goodwill, despite where life has landed him. Koji Yakusho is marvellous in the role.

Hirayama works as a toilet cleaner in an upmarket district, driving there each day from his modest apartment near a tall telco tower on the other side of town. The commute affords time to indulge his love of music. No Spotify for him. His playlist is always in analog form.

The first cassette tape he pops in the slot is the Animals’ classic, House of the Rising Sun, an intriguing selection. Other fave artists from the days of his youth include Otis Redding, Van Morrison, Lou Reed (whose Perfect Day features, of course) and Nina Simone. The music makes those routine trips along city expressways a deep pleasure. As a master of the road movie and one of its early exponents during the 1970s and 1980s, Wenders has wonderful way of combining the rhythms of road travel with a memorable soundtrack.

Back at his apartment there are plenty of music choices to indulge, and plenty of bedtime reading too, without a kindle in sight. The southern gothic novels of William Faulkner and crime fiction of Patricia Highsmith are current favourites.

Out of place in the rushed, distracted urban world that hurtles past

In another corner of his apartment, there is an indexed collection of printed photographs, taken during lunch with his little old Olympus camera. How antique a relatively recent but superseded technology can look these days! On the balcony, a collection of potted plants, maple seedlings at various stages of development, are doing well. Sourced from parks and whisked away from mowers, they have a better chance of survival.

Going about his working day he is disciplined and meticulous, in contrast to his young assistant Takashi (an overdrawn performance from Tokio Emoto), who arrives at work late and pays more attention to his cell phone than cleaning. As we follow Hirayama’s routine inside the cubicles, it’s clear that great attention to detail is a requirement of the job. As he politely steps aside, allowing clients busting for a pee to interrupt his work, they rush in or hurry out, knocking over his sign. He looks out of place in the distracted, rushed urban world that hurtles past.

We, on the other hand, are allowed a moment’s pause to appreciate the design of the modern Japanese toilet block, certainly something to behold. I was particularly taken by the one with transparent coloured glass that turns opaque the instant someone enters and locks the door.

The dignity and beauty of everyday life, famously captured by a past master of Japanese cinema, Ozu, is reflected here

Hirayama has a nod for strangers, like a young woman who has lunch nearby in the park. She rewards his courtesy with suspicion, but a homeless man who does tai chi waves to him. In the evening he drops in on a woman who runs a bar. She seems to have something for him, but modesty or reticence hold him back.

Unexpected connections can, however, unsettle or threaten his sense of well-being. A girl who Takashi fancies, but doesn’t reciprocate, Aya (Aoi Yamada) plants an innocent kiss of thanks on Hirayama’s cheek for letting her listen to something particular on a cassette. Then a young niece (Arisa Nakano) shows up at his apartment, spending a few nights there while on the run from home and her mother, Hirayama’s estranged sister. Then, the former husband of the woman at the local bar he fancies with a lovely singing voice shows up and shares his pain.

It may sound gloomy, but it isn’t. The game of noughts and crosses with an invisible client is a sweet, winsome touch. And there are others.

The dignity and beauty of the everyday, famously captured by a past master of Japanese cinema, Ozu, is reflected here in this story of a simple life that values fleeting moments. Like the ineffable, fleeting beauty of a photograph. Drawing attention to this ‘komorebi’, the shimmering light between leaves and sky in the treetops, Wenders has really captured something here.

First published in the Canberra Times on 27 March 2024.  Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes