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In search of “Perfect Days”

April 12, 2024

Henry Abbott

Totality. In the small town of Houlton, Maine, we watched with thousands of others as the moon ate away at the sun. It was just as the pamphlets they’d been handing out for the event said: The temperature changed, the darkness intensified, nature stirred.

But the experience of complete totality—appropriately named. After an hour’s wait, as the sky took on a unique darkness that was neither sunrise nor sunset and the moon finally stood in front of the sun, the crowd began to cheer for something completely outside of their control. I howled and yelled at the sight in front of me. The feeling was completely atavistic: To feel something come from within and rouse feelings of wonder, excitement, faith, demise; to witness something on a scale so much larger than oneself; to witness the cosmos at play.

In German director Wim Wenders’ “Perfect Days,” Hirayama works as a public toilet cleaner in Tokyo. The movie follows Hirayama over the course of several days as he goes about his life. There is a routine: putting away his mattress, watering his plants, buying a canned coffee from the vending machine. Then he goes to work. His younger coworker questions the effort Hirayama puts into the job. Hirayama has a van full of his own cleaning equipment, all different kinds of brushes, soaps and towels. He cleans with care. He observes the bathrooms, always looking to maintain their propriety. He notices the little things. During one shift, he spots a folded piece of paper tucked away in a stall. He unfolds it to find the beginning of a tic-tac-toe game. There’s a mark in the center. Hirayama pulls out his pen and marks one of the corners.

Tangibility. It was an early train ride down to New Hampshire. I had never been there before. I had seen this friend a month prior, when we had a little adventure walking around Portland Head Light in the snow. She had to borrow my blue scarf. It was just too cold.

But this trip was to say goodbye. She’d be heading out for Europe in a week’s time, and planned to stay there until … forever. She picked me up in Dover and drove me around to all her favorite places. We are both photographers, so she never questioned my need to take photos of her throughout the day. I’d tell her to stay still, to look my way, or to—no, no, no, it’s actually better if you look at me, look at the camera. I needed to see her in this place and to be able to keep seeing her here after I’d boarded my train and she her plane.

We ate delicious sandwiches and drank decent coffee. We talked about movies we’d seen recently and movies we’d like to make someday. We went to this jetty and jumped on great big rocks. Eventually, the hours caught up to us. On the train platform, I took more photos of her. I hugged her close and began crying, then I boarded the train. I took my seat and watched her waving goodbye. Heading back north now, she became smaller and smaller.

Hirayama brings a small point-and-shoot film camera with him to work every day. He carries it around to take photos of a tree during his lunch break. He sits on the same bench every workday, takes his sandwich and drink out of a convenience store bag and looks up at the tree. He notices the branches and the shadows and the sunlight filtering between everything—Komorebi. He doesn’t look through the viewfinder and never puts his eye up to the camera. He just tries to angle it correctly. He takes one photo and pockets the camera. On the weekend, Hirayama will mail the film out. He then receives the prints, sorting through them one at a time. He tears the mediocre ones in half and tosses them. The ones he likes get stored away with the others, stack upon stack of photos. All of them of a tree, taken during his lunch break.

Temporality. I stayed up until six in the morning. I didn’t get as much done as I wanted to. I was frustrated with myself. Why can’t I get everything done? Every attempt to lock in, every playlist I tried to shuffle through, I just couldn’t. I give up. I head outside to walk to my dorm and the cold air bites at my neck, my wrist, my ankles. There are branches from the recent storms and blocks of ice that have yet to melt away. The sky is pink and purple and orange. The clouds are perfect wisps, some hanging closer to the ground. The rising sun strikes everything with something perfect. I go to bed.

Hirayama will read and then head to sleep. We see his dreams every night. Impressionistic montages of the tree and shadows, faces from the day. A friendly face. A face he hasn’t seen in a while. A new face. There is no attempt to rationalize the dreams. He just gets up and lives his day. A new dawn, a new day, a new life.


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