When the Music Cuts Off on ‘Perfect Days’

Komorebi and how absence shapes presence

Counter Arts
6 min readFeb 27, 2024


A poster from Perfect Days via Wenders Images/Spoon./Master Mind

A film about a janitor living his daily life doesn’t sound as exciting as it actually is in practice. Cleaning a public toilet isn’t generally considered something to aspire to, but by being framed through the lens of film, it is automatically turned into something worth watching. Wim Wenders and Koji Yakusho’s collaboration deftly explores the life of an everyday human being and injects it with poetic significance. Anyone’s life projected on widescreen becomes a life worth seeing, every little idiosyncrasy and personal object, the simple act of shaving or putting on a uniform, when framed becomes an inextricable part of a larger story. A janitor’s life, a life that few would consider to be a worthwhile subject to portray, put into film is infused with intent and meaning.

Throughout the entire runtime of Perfect Days, we see Hirayama (Koji Yakusho), a middle-aged man who cleans toilets for a living, go through his structured routine. From the moment he wakes up and begins his day until he dozes off reading a book before bed, we see his every act and interaction. We even get to see his dreams, abstract and poignant in monochrome. The film is a specific character study of a universal human condition. The conflict of this film is what many face, between how someone lives their life and how people think it should be lived.

An important part of the movie is its use of music. Hirayama is a purveyor of analog music, possessing plenty of classic cassette tapes in his collection. He often plays them when driving to work. What differentiates this movie from others is the fact that the songs mostly play when he’s in his van listening to them. After he gets out, it cuts off, and he goes to do his job. Here, music isn’t a background instrument that serenades an action on screen, it is an event in and of itself. The few times it is played outside of the van, it signals an important change in Hirayama’s emotional state, such as when he hears the titular song Perfect Day by Lou Reed.

Apart from music, Hirayama is also a man of few words, so how he expresses himself is usually reserved through actions or physical movements alone. The dialogue is often a one-sided effort, coming from the people he meets in his daily life, from his colleagues, his colleague’s crush, or his niece. Through this sparseness of music and sound, the film is almost like a poem, where the white spaces of a page give way to the ink that shapes it. In Glyn Maxwell’s book On Poetry, it’s stated that the negative space and line breaks in poems should be given as much importance, if not more so, than the text itself.

A poem is not only given breadth and depth through spacing, it is also given breath, as the poem’s pulse is predicated on the pauses and rhythm of the people reading it (Maxwell, 2016). When the reader catches their breath after every verse, it underlines the significance of each word that comes before and after it. On film, these spaces are conveyed primarily through time, through the pauses of Hirayama’s own words, or the scarcity of his music. But in Perfect Days, space is also literal, as the film is in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which means that it is square-shaped as opposed to most films’ rectangular approach. This method makes characters’ faces larger in close-ups and allows them to take more prominent space on-screen. Apart from that, it makes anything important the focal point; nothing extra is included inside the frame, there is no peripheral, and everything shown is essential.

In The Art of Looking Sideways, the Japanese word Ma is explained as the interval that gives form to the whole of something (Fletcher, 2001). Actors use it for pauses that hold the audience’s attention. Musicians use it to build anticipation. And Perfect Days uses negative space for contrast and impact, to make the conventionally dull appear special, and the routinely rote magical. Absence highlights presence. Quiet moments of solitude make each social interaction that much more meaningful. And a chance encounter can shake up an organized life to an almost spiritual degree.

Another Japanese word that has no Western equivalent is told explicitly to the audience at the end of the film, which is Komorebi. The word means a phenomenon where sunlight pierces through the leaves of trees and creates patterned light rays. It is sometimes used in haiku or Japanese poems. In Perfect Days, the word perfectly captures Hirayama’s love of nature and the simplicity of his joy, as he often looks up at walls in his day job and smiles at the mosaic of shadows these light rays leave behind. Komorebi also reflects how light enters the lens of a camera, and creates a pattern of its own, the film.

A picture of Komorebi from Unsplash by Syuhei Inoue

Wim Wenders is no stranger to directing quiet characters, as seen in his earlier work Paris, Texas. He understands the impact that omission has on an audience. As silence defines sound, the recent overabundance of raucous movies with heavy special effects does the opposite effect. When overused, like an overexposed camera, the image becomes muddled, and what’s on-screen is taken for granted. Cinema is supposed to make the dull magical, not the reverse. Like color in Wings of Desire or the protagonist’s words in Paris, Texas, Perfect Days adds to Wim Wenders’s oeuvre of films that ably use absence to heighten the impact of presence.

The film is an exercise in minimalism, contentedness in the beauty of simplicity. Hirayama gleefully looks at nature, and the people around him; he photographs them. By framing daily dull things, the mundanity of swaying trees becomes art, just as his life becomes art through Wenders’s direction. It is a lesson in restraint. By reducing things to a single frame, it becomes more than the sum of its parts. In Perfect Days, every encounter Hirayama has with people, every time he listens to music, is infused with profound significance. His joy is tangible in the way Koji acts through his facial expressions and his subtle movements shying away from other people.

Wim Wenders co-wrote a book titled Inventing Peace: A Dialogue on Perception, and he advocates for what he calls peace cinema. He said in an interview that peace presupposes contentedness, but the conditions of the world are designed to vilify satisfaction, as the economy benefits from continuous growth. His movies try to be the antithesis of that misguided way of living, to show that being content with what you have, with what you do, is enough.

There’s always struggle as long as we’re alive, even a struggle in being content, and accepting that contentedness, especially in a world that doesn’t seem to reward that philosophy. That struggle is written on Koji’s face at the end of the movie. When asked about the ending, Koji Yakusho replied that there’s a Japanese saying regarding being content, that to live a full life is to make the best out of the circumstances that you’re in and to feel grateful for every second of it.

The struggle Hirayama faces is that the world wishes to intrude on his peace. He is content but sometimes the way of the world tells him that that’s wrong, that he shouldn’t be. His struggle is one that almost everyone faces, between their internal life and beliefs, and the outside world that always finds a way to challenge them, the pressure that comes from living. In the end, light leaks through Koji Yakusho’s face, and his performance passes through us like preternatural light. For a moment, we too are part of his mosaic of shadows, feeling what he feels, our own daily dull lives shining with sublime significance.


Fletcher, A. (2001). The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon.

Maxwell, G. (2016). On Poetry. Harvard University Press.



Counter Arts

Chronic dreamer. Self-proclaimed poet, writer, and artist. Lover of art in all its myriad forms.