The recent hit film "Perfect Days" has made it onto the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars 2024! Interestingly, although shot in Japan, it was directed by a German maestro named Wim Wenders. Alongside other names that sound like bands to me, such as Schlöndorff, Herzog, and Fassbinder, he is known as one of the four masters of New German Cinema.
Wim Wenders usually creates works as tenebrous as "Paris, Texas" but he has also won Oscars for some more audience-friendly ones like "Wings of Desire" and "Buena Vista Social Club." So, why did he decide to make a film about Japanese toilets this time? Well, it all started when the Tokyo municipal government approached him with a task—to create a short film showcasing Tokyo's public toilet system. Surprisingly, Wenders was moved by Japan's toilet culture and expanded the project into a feature film, hence the now-popular "Perfect Days." While praising Tokyo's public toilets in the film, he also pays homage to his idol, Yasujirō Ozu. The protagonist's surname, Hirayama, comes from Ozu's final film, "An Autumn Afternoon." The Tokyo depicted in the film is like a dream version of Ozu's city, filtered to evoke nostalgia, tranquility, and order.
The story is super simple; it's about the daily routine of Hirayama, a Japanese sanitation worker cleaning public toilets in Tokyo. Everyday Hirayama (played by Hiroshi Mikami) goes to work with a smile, with classic rock playing in his old-fashioned truck, like those by Patti Smith and The Rolling Stones. He meticulously cleans the toilets, with a calm demeanor, and politely steps back and smiles should a stall be occupied. His days are filled with regular lunches, visits to the public bath, and stops at ramen shops. After a day's work, he carries Faulkner’s ideas into his slumber, his face as peaceful and serene as that during the day.
Magically, I could actually feel the beauty in such an ordinary lifestyle through the representation of the repetition of the cleaner's daily life. To most people, Hirayama's job may not seem decent enough and might even be considered dull, but you will find your own tranquility as long as you can approach it with the same dedication as Hirayama. Now we see how great and interesting Wenders is, who created such a spectacle from a public toilet system. It's truly mind-boggling and applause-worthy.
Let's take a closer look at the world's greatest toilet culture crafted by the Japanese! The film presents toilets in the most exquisite way imaginable.
Firstly, each toilet has a different exterior design. The toilets in the film are not just public facilities but also architectural wonders, with glass walls that transition from transparent to opaque, intricate wooden decorations, and white domes resembling spaceships. They are actually outcomes of a real-life project guided by renowned Japanese architects. The project aimed to renovate 17 public toilets in Shibuya, Tokyo, which showcases Japan's unique toilet culture.
Secondly, the film also highlights the meticulousness of the cleaning process. Hirayama carefully wipes and polishes every corner of the restroom, even kneeling down sometimes and using a small mirror to observe hard-to-see spots. He feels the water flow from the smart toilet with his hands to check its functionality. If the toilet is made of glass, he will even polish the exterior to make it as clean as to shine. These details truly amazed me because when I visited Japan, I did find their toilets to be exceptionally clean, but I never imagined the cleaning standards were that high. I daresay their toilets are even cleaner than my own bathroom.
After watching the film, I decided to do more search and became increasingly impressed by Japan's toilet culture. For example, Tokyo has far more public toilets than London. Statistics show that there are 53 toilets for every 100,000 residents in Tokyo, while in London, there are only 14.
What's even more fascinating is that these Japanese toilets are more than just ordinary public facilities. Despite other high-tech gadgets, the Washlet, a simple bidet with seat heating, water spray, and drying functions is even more advanced than the appliances in my homes. And when someone is doing their business, you can even hear a "princess voice" playing in the background. It's a creative sound system designed to mask the awkward sound of urination.
You know what? The Japanese absolutely love their "toilet culture." For them, it's not just a place for taking a leak; it's a symbol of uniqueness and hospitality. Can you imagine that a long time ago, European travelers were amazed by the Japanese people's ability to turn their waste into fertilizer? In the early 20th century, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki's essay collection "In Praise of Shadows" already claimed that toilets were "places of spiritual rest" and even believed that great poets found inspiration there. And that's not all; they also incorporate toilet culture into education. In Japanese elementary schools, although there are janitors, every student is provided with a white cloth, and they are required to clean the toilets every day.
While Japan has been following Western culture and technology, when it comes to toilet culture, they stubbornly stick to their own ways. The government not only sets extremely high hygiene standards but also introduces waste treatment technologies from countries like the United States, resulting in a series of high-tech toilets. It seems that toilets will always remain a special and intriguing place for the Japanese people.