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Tokyo, Texas 

by Stoker

 


The editorial command* is that we must cheer our readers up this month.  Crikey, as a much missed politician used to say: “Steady on, these are not cheerful times”.  But there are reasons to be cheerful; allow us to bring you one, easily accessible and a deep joy. We begin though with a little diversion; to Paris, Texas, in the august company of Wim Wenders.

 

Some years ago I suffered repeated nights of bad dreams and eventually consulted a Jungian dream psychologist. Delving about in the dark pit of my mind, she asked me to write an essay about my five favourite films and to rank them in order of enjoyment.  I did: The Third Man, Get Carter; Once Upon A Time In The West; Paris, Texas; A Handful of Dust, but was utterly unable to give an order of preference.  She had never watched any of them (what a wonderfully sheltered life), but I lent her my DvD’s;. Two weeks later we discussed what she had learnt.  “You do realise” she kicked off, “they are all basically the same story?” 

 

They aren’t, but I understood what she meant.  They are all about individualistic men behaving badly, and even when they seem to be goodies they are just more subtle baddies.  Even now I cannot rank them, though Paris, Texas is always in the top three.  And in Texas we must begin.

 

Wim Wenders directed that astonishing movie forty years ago.  He was in his late thirties, a gifted photographer, German but resident in the USA, already thrice married, and with ambitions to deliver searing insights in movie form.  He had so far failed to make much of a mark, but had a small and enthusiastic following.  He knew that from a financing perspective his film making career had only one more chance.  He had a story, in embryo anyway; and he knew who were to be his lead actors; all he needed was a location.  He set off south from California with a car and a camera to find one.  In the Badlands of Texas he found the perfect place.  After five weeks filming – five weeks – the movie was complete. Travis, a missing man, walked out of the Texas desert and into cinematographic history.  Accompanied by one of the most powerful film scores ever composed, by Ry Cooder. 

 

What is it about?  At one level it is a sort of modern western, with a solitary cowboy trying to put right a terrible wrong (cf The Searchers). At another it is a study of a man who just does not fit into society.  And it is a sort of road movie.  It has been posited as a Greek tragedy; a German Greek tragedy set in West Texas.  It is certainly a rather admiring, almost wistful, look at modern (mid-1980’s) America. Most of all, it is about an outsider trying to find a way of living. The ending is rather enigmatic (Wenders admitted later to filming several treatments) but most film buffs think it right. The absolute kingpin of the film is that fine actor Harry Dean Stanton, himself an enigmatic outsider. His co-star is Natassja Kinski, famously a protégée of Roman Polanski. She and Stanton were perfect for the film, and perhaps it could not have been made without them.  But it has to be said that all the casting is perfect.  It won many prizes, and is a true cult movie.

 

Paris, Texas is one of those films that cause you to look at life in a rather different way; and to evaluate what you are doing and consider whether it might be better to… well, walk off into the desert for a while.  It rather had that effect on the movie industry for a while, though not for long; money and multiplexes overcame that.  Wenders found it difficult to follow up; one suspects that he found nothing else he wanted to say, at least for a while.

 

Forty years later Wenders has become a very highly regarded figure in the film industry, mainly in Europe and particularly in Germany, perhaps little known to the general public but much admired by his peers.  Most of what he has done since Paris, Texas have been documentaries rather than fiction, generally not drawing big numbers at the box office.  He is keenly interested not just in film, but in art, still photography, travel, and modern architecture.  He greatly admires much about Japan, and has become moderately famous there.  As a result he has made documentary films about the Japanese way of life; in 2022, he was asked to make a documentary about five new, architect-designed public toilets in Shibuya, Tokyo.

 

Japanese architects are becoming major stars in the architectural firmament; indeed Rikin Yamamoto, the veteran modernist Japanese architect, has just won this year’s Pritzker Architecture prize. Modern Japanese architecture focuses on buildings that respect local architectural heritage and encourage social integration.  So we may giggle at architect-designed public toilets, but in Japan these essential utilities are to be taken very seriously; to misquote William Morris a little, to be both beautiful and useful. They are not hidden away, but are little temples of convenience in easily visible and accessible spaces.

 

Wenders went out to Shibuya, and loved what he saw.  He suggested that instead of a documentary, he featured the toilets in a fictionalised movie, Perfect Days, a singularly apt title as becomes apparent. His sponsors agreed, and Wenders was able to secure as lead a great Japanese actor, Koji Yakusho. He plays Hirayama, whose job and joy it is to clean the toilets.  Filming was complete in 17 days.

To begin with, you may think this movie is a Japanese remake of Groundhog Day.  Hirayama, a 60-plus year old, wakes up in his simple flat in a poor district, puts on his uniform, gets a coffee from a vending machine, starts his van, selects a cassette tape with his chosen music, and goes off to work, the endless round of toil.  Or toilets.  In the evening he goes for a shower in a bathhouse, eats in the same modest restaurant, goes home, reads a book from his extensive paperback collection of serious literature, and sleeps.

 

This structure repeats throughout the film.  His routine does not vary, though occasional events mildly disrupt it – his assistant wants to sell his tapes, the assistant’s girlfriend steals a tape and then returns it with a kiss, the assistant quits, Hirayama’s niece turns up for two days so Hirayama has to sleep on the kitchen floor, his rich sister arrives to retrieve the niece, he meets the dying ex-husband of the owner of his diner and they talk and play shadow games.

 

But in this simple structure, through these minor events, we get to know Hirayama and we glimpse a former life which he left.  His family seem rich; his father was perhaps a bully; he is intelligent and well-educated.  His aesthetic tastes were formed in that former life and do not appear to have changed.  In his reading, his music (all western, mostly Lou Reed, another glimpse into what went before), his hard work, meticulous standards, settled routine, he has achieved a sort of nirvana.  He is alone, other than those he knows at work and in his daily habits.  He is gentle but not weak. More than anything he is happy.  Simple tastes and a simple lifestyle give him all he needs.  Wenders (and Takuma Takasaki, who co-wrote the film) do not suggest that his life is perfect, that all is happiness, but that it is good enough. 

 

One more thing.  Hirayama is alone. He is as alone as Travis was, walking out of the desert.  In a way Hirayama is Travis, in an intensely urban location, it is true.  What we are watching is a remake of Paris, Texas, and perhaps a bookend to it.  Travis was searching for redemption and happiness. Hirayama has achieved it. Which is a lesson to us all indeed, though perhaps a lesson most of us will ignore. 

 

Perhaps this beautiful, happy movie also gives an insight into the mind of Wim Wenders, of a journey that has embraced solitude (part of any creative life) but has harnessed it to come to cheerfulness.  And even to prizes.


Perfect Days is out now, at a number of cinemas across the UK, and has won many nominations and prizes to date. 


*Thank you, sir. I have also seen this film. For me a mix of nostalgia (I lived in Tokyo in the early 1990s and visited three or four times a year for more than a decade afterwards) and joy. You want "mindfulness"? Go see this film. Ed.



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