One-line review: Work is worship.

Watching Wim Wenders’s new film is like listening to a song you know you will return to many times, sometimes just to listen to a snatch or a melody. But what’s remarkable is that the film has repeat value despite no plot twists or high drama. In fact, the lead, Hirayama (Koji Yakusho), barely speaks. The film is profound yet has a light touch, making it accessible yet unforgettable. I have seen it twice and will return and own a copy as soon as it is available. 

The film began as part of Fast Retailing’s (best known for its Uniqlo brand) efforts to showcase Tokyo’s designer public toilets built for the Tokyo Olympics. These toilets went unnoticed because the Games were held behind closed doors due to the pandemic. Although other big names like Scorsese and Tarantino were also considered to make short films on these toilets,  thankfully, Wenders, well known for his affinity for Japan, got the job. Wenders felt that the toilets would be more memorable if they were part of a story rather than the focus of short films and wrote a script with Takuma Takasaki about a toilet cleaner, Hirayama, with Koji Yakusho in mind.

Wenders and Yakusho charmingly introduce the film in select theaters by emphasizing the film’s theme as sunlight streaming through the leaves, which, like snowflakes, is never the same after the moment. We get the idea it’s about living in the present and finding joy in little things. Wenders also proudly states that Yakusho is in almost every frame. 

We first see Hirayama waking up at dawn to the sound of a person sweeping the street, going through his routine of brushing, neatly folding his bedding, trimming his mustache, lovingly watering his plants by holding them, putting on his Tokyo Toilets uniform, and heading out the door. There, he pauses to look up at the sky, smiles (Wenders says this is his favorite scene to shoot), and heads to work in his company van (well stocked with cleaning supplies), sipping cold coffee from the vending machine and listening to his well-curated cassette collection.      

Hirayama then cleans the designer public toilets in parks all over Tokyo with zen-like focus and precision (he even carries a mirror to see beneath the toilets). Most people using the toilets barely acknowledge him, but a kid does, most movingly. He takes a break for lunch under the trees and often takes a few pictures of the sun streaming down the trees with his Minolta camera. After work, he has leisurely baths in the public baths followed by a dip in the whirlpool, and then he visits his regular dinner spot, where the waiter courteously serves him, saying, “for your hard work. 

Hirayama spends his weekends doing laundry, cleaning his apartment, buying books on sale from a knowledgeable owner, and having dinner at a local bar run by a woman who seems to have a crush on him since he is different and more cultured than her other clients. He also develops the pictures and meticulously stores them. We also see Hirayama’s dreams, nothing scary, just some connection of dots in black and white. During his workdays, Hirayama often sees a homeless man, Min Tanaka, dancing in the parks and the streets, but is he real?  

Wim Wenders and co-writer Takuma Takasaki skillfully introduce many counterpoints to Hirayama’s silent and predictable days to keep the story moving. One is his coworker, the younger, boisterous, and distracted Takashi (a superb Tokio Emoto), whose attitude is, “Why clean the toilets so diligently when they are going to get dirty anyway.” Takashi’s crush, too, appears briefly and is more enamored by Hirayama’s music collection than Takashi. We see flashes of Hirayama’s soft side when he lends Takashi money for his date and his mortification at a young girl’s interest in him. But lest we write off Takashi as one of those shallow youths, Wenders introduces his tender friendship with a boy; even Hirayama is astounded. These little details raise the film from great to sublime.   

We get a glimpse of Hirayama’s past when his niece unexpectedly visits him (she’s run away from home) and gets drawn into her uncle’s stoic and peaceful life. His affluent and probably painful past is revealed when his sister arrives in a Lexus to collect her daughter. We also see Hirayama’s playful side in his encounter with the bar owner’s dying ex-husband. It is a bittersweet scene that reveals many truths, like how so much remains undiscovered when we die. This scene is the perfect setup for the unforgettable final shot of Hirayama driving with Nina Simone’s It’s Another Day playing in his van. He looks directly at the camera, and his face expresses an entire gamut of emotions, ending in a big smile. This scene could have become comical in a lesser actor’s hands, but Koji Yakusho is masterful. Wenders also brilliantly gives us glimpses of Hirayama’s emotions throughout the film, so the final scene plays like a medley.  

Franz Lustig’s handheld camerawork makes you feel like you are shadowing Hirayama; the director and camera were in the car with him while he was driving through Tokyo. The film was shot quickly, with Wender’s wife, Donata, shooting the dream scenes concurrently. Editor Toni Froschhammer successfully treads the fine line between meditative and boring. Music is the film’s heartbeat, with Wenders’s well-curated collection (he didn’t want to use anything Hirayama would not listen to). Wenders remembers being apprehensive about cultural appropriation by having an English soundtrack, but co-writer Takasaki assured him that the Japanese listen to plenty of English music. 

But the film rests on Koji Yakusho’s shoulders or his remarkable face. You can’t get enough of him, although he’s in every frame, such is his skill and precision. He’s physically and mentally fit like a reed, yet his energy is monkish (Wenders says Leonard Cohen was his inspiration when writing Hirayama). Yakusho agrees with the criticism that Hirayama is a Utopian character but argues that he is aspirational. 

Like the film’s characters, we, too, feel a little more grounded and plugged into the world after spending a couple of hours with Hirayama, which is why we can’t wait to see him again.      

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