“Perfect Days”: A Paean to Tokyo’s Toilets That Casts Japanese Architects in a Leading Role

The architecture of THE TOKYO TOILET is foundational to the meaning behind Wim Wenders’ new film, “Perfect Days.”

Pat Finn Pat Finn

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American cities have a problem. More than one, sure, but this particular problem impacts nearly every person who tries to explore New York, Philadelphia or Chicago on foot. I speak, of course, of our great nation’s lack of public restrooms. 

In a 2023 article in Jacobin, Adam Bailey provided some numbers on this issue. Speaking of New York, he wrote that “In a city of 8.3 million residents and over 56 million annual visitors, the city’s current stock of 1,103 public bathrooms is paltry.” Citizens in need of relief are often forced to go into a store or coffee shop and buy something in order to use the facilities. This sends a very American message that public space is not really public at all. It is space for commerce — and people who are not buying or selling something are not really welcome. 

Yoyogi-Fukamachi by Shigeru Ban | Photo by Satoshi Nagare, provided by The Nippon Foundation

In Tokyo, things are not the same. The public restroom facilities there are not only abundant, they are well-maintained. (In New York, I often think twice about using public facilities due to concerns over cleanliness and ventilation). 

Tokyo’s commitment to public restrooms is exemplified in the The Nippon Foundation’s THE TOKYO TOILET, developed in partnership with the toilet manufacturer TOTO. Since 2020, THE TOKYO TOILET has erected 17 public restrooms throughout the dense and busy district of Shibuya, each designed by a famous architect, in a step towards realizing a society that embraces diversity. The project is really a who’s who of groundbreaking Japanese architects, including Tadao Ando, Shigeru Ban, Kengo Kuma, Sou Fujimoto, and Toyo Ito, among other celebrated designers. 

Nishisando by Sou Fujimoto | Photo by Satoshi Nagare, provided by The Nippon Foundation

Each architect has taken a unique approach to the question of public restrooms, contributing facilities that are not only functional, but add to the character of the city. Indeed, as someone who admires public space and public architecture, the project is nothing short of inspiring. It reflects a truly democratic ethos, as Tokyo strives to materially improve the everyday experience of urban dwellers — even when they are not spending any money. 

THE TOKYO TOILET Project has captured the world’s attention this year, as these facilities are featured prominently in Wim Wenders’s newest movie, Perfect Days, which has been racking up awards and nominations around the world. 

Yoyogi Hachiman by Toyo Ito | Photo by Satoshi Nagare, provided by The Nippon Foundation

Wenders’s film is indeed beautiful, a perfect synthesis of form and content. Kōji Yakusho stars as a cleaner for THE TOKYO TOILET named Hirayama, a man in his sixties who brings care, attention and dignity to his work. Hirayama lives alone and leads a humble, quiet existence, spending his free time cycling, visiting bookstores, and listening to cassettes in his van. The structure of the movie is episodic, following Hirayama’s daily routine over several days from morning to night.

Hirayama carries himself with a quiet elegance. His job may be humble, but his inner life is complex.  He enjoys photography, using an old Holga camera to document the canopies of trees in local parks, paying careful attention to changing light and wind conditions. His music taste is impeccable. Like a character in a Haruki Murakami novel, Hirayama prefers American music from the 1960s and 70s. At one point, he introduces a young woman to the song “Redondo Beach” by Patti Smith. She is smitten with the song, as if it opened a new horizon of art and culture for her. This is just one of the meaningful interactions Hirayama has with people whose paths cross with his. While he does not seem to have close relationships with friends or family, his life is not totally bereft of human contact. 

Nabeshima Shoto by Kengo Kuma | Photo by Satoshi Nagare, provided by The Nippon Foundation

Another song that is featured prominently is Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” from which I assume the film derives its title. This decision is worth attending to, as the song is somewhat mischievous and famously misunderstood. Like Green Day’s “Good Riddance,” an unintentionally ironic staple at proms and graduations everywhere, “Perfect Day” is a bitter song that masquerades as a sentimental one.

On the surface, Reed’s “Perfect Day” seems like an ode to simple pleasures: “Just a perfect day / Feed animals in the zoo / And then maybe, a movie too / And then home.”  Listen more closely, though, and a melancholy, even threatening undercurrent emerges. The refrain goes like this: “It’s such a perfect day / I’m glad I spent it with you / Oh such a perfect day / You just keep me hanging on / You just keep me hanging on.” Many have speculated that the “you” here refers to heroin, which Reed was addicted to at the time. The outro is simply chilling, as Reed croons “You’re going to reap just what you sow” four times over soaring strings and a twinkling piano. 

As with the song “Perfect Day,” the film Perfect Days ends quite differently than it begins. In the final scene, Hirayama drives to work in his van while listening to music, in this case Nina Simone’s song “Feeling Good.” The camera focuses on Hirayama’s face, bathed in the delicate orange light of sunrise, as a glimmer of a smile gives way to tears. Cue credits. 

Jingu-Dori by Tadao Ando | Photo by Satoshi Nagare, provided by The Nippon Foundation

The preceding scene, which takes place the evening before, is where the cracks in the façade begin to show. Up until this point, there are only slight glimpses that Hirayama’s days aren’t “perfect.” Indeed, for most of the movie, he really does seem to be content with his simple life of cleaning, photographing, cycling and listening to music. When his teenage niece runs away from her wealthy family, she spends a day with Hirayama and is able to find peace in his routine and his outlook on life. To her, Hirayama seems like someone who has found wisdom, who has discovered how to live. Now, though, after she has left, things seem different. I will not spoil it, but I will say that he buys a pack of canned cocktails at a convenience store and downs them next to the river in order to suppress his emotions. 

So Hirayama’s life isn’t perfect. Whose life is? The old cocktail by the river trick is something I have tried, and I’m sure you have too. The real question is whether Hirayama’s life is the best he could manage in this imperfect world, filled with stress, disappointment and loss.

Ebisu by Masamichi Katayama Photo by Satoshi Nagare, provided by The Nippon Foundation

Hirayama’s sister doesn’t think so. When she visits his apartment to pick up her daughter, she asks incredulously if he was “really cleaning toilets,” implying that this job is menial. But why should we accept this characterization? As THE TOKYO TOILET shows, public toilets are an important part of civic infrastructure. They are something that people use every day, and by making them beautiful, the project brings great architecture down to a human level. These structures impact more people, more often, than museums, concert halls, and the other kinds of “prestige” buildings that are usually designed by famous architects. Hirayama, by taking his role as a cleaner seriously, reflects the values of THE TOKYO TOILET, doing his part to improve the city every single day. This is more than can be said for many people with high paying, prestigious jobs. 

Whatever else one might say about him, Hirayama is deeply ethical, and the way he lives his life challenges the capitalist worldview that disparages certain forms of necessary labor like cleaning and care work. He is a humble man, and as I said, he might not be happy. But there is something radical about him. 

This brings me back to architecture. Like daily routines, buildings are the frames in which we live. What happens inside the frame, however, is subject to factors outside our control. Nobody has really figured out how to live. Still, the effort to build the lives we want, and the cities we want, is something that must be undertaken with care and sensitivity. This is what Hirayama does, and it is also exemplified in THE TOKYO TOILET’s commitment to making life a little bit easier and more beautiful for the millions people who navigate the city every day. While “perfect days” may be an illusion, better days are possible.

Architizer's new image-heavy daily newsletter, The Plug, is easy on the eyes, giving readers a quick jolt of inspiration to supercharge their days. Plug in to the latest design discussions by subscribing. 

Pat Finn Author: Pat Finn
Pat Finn is a high school English teacher and a freelance writer on art, architecture, and film. He believes, with Orwell, that "good prose is like a windowpane," but his study of architecture has shown him that a window is only as good as the landscape it looks out on. Pat is based in the New York metro area.
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