Between main character Hirayama’s (Kōji Yakusho) less-than-talkative demeanour, and his obsession with cassette classics, music is clearly foregrounded in Wim Wenders’ latest film, Perfect Days (2023). It serves a crucial element in Hirayama’s characterisation, both as his mouthpiece and as a conduit for his memories and emotions. As something of a hardcore music-lover myself, who cherishes her Spotify playlists just as much as Hirayama does his cassette tapes, both the film and its main character resonated deeply with me.
Hirayama and Niko riding bicycles together
When I was 17, I got into music. Of course, I had been dipping my toes into pop songs for years before that — Avril Lavigne’s Girlfriend is definitely a song I could still belt out a capella in the tone of a squawking chicken — but it was only at 17, when I met my first partner, that I really really got into music. We’d met online, under completely anonymous circumstances, over our common love for a particular Korean Pop band. They were sweet, funny, and patient, but listing adjectives alone is much too empty to capture just how I’d felt about them. We grew close over late-night movie marathons. I watched and enjoyed my very first Marvel movie with them, and they indulged my obsession with the 2003 live action TV Series Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon through all 50 episodes and even the additional one-hour special. They’d influenced me in more ways than I can count on my fingers, but one of the most significant lies in the playlists they’d curated for me over the course of our 2-year-long relationship.
Everything started with a simple collection of 20-or-so song recommendations. It must have been during one of those movie nights when I’d expressed an interest in the music that they liked. In response, they prepared a sampling of their favourite songs from several music artists. This was my first encounter with music that actually made me pause. I closed my eyes, and sat still, motionless, as if frozen in a trance, even my breath started to slow as I listened, no, felt each quiver of the instrumental and every beat of the accompanying bass through the cheap wired earpieces I’d used. “So, this is music,” I had thought. Not simply an erratic expression of some vague idea of desire through ‘exciting’ beats and high notes thrown in for pure entertainment, but a carefully composed auditory theatre. Sometimes, I feel it in the heaviness of the instrumental, the emotional undercurrent behind the vocals, and the way the bass struggles against its melody in a tense battle for control over the song’s dominant mood. Other times, it is like sinking into a lulling bed of clouds, where vocal, melody, bass, indistinguishable, envelop me in their harmonic convergence. It didn’t matter if the song was in Korean or Japanese or Tagalog, it didn’t even matter if it had lyrics or not — music seemed to speak directly to the soul, in a universal language of affect that only asks you to feel.
Later, I realised, as I embarked on the first playlist I’d ever made, how that intimacy between the musical artist and their listener can also surrogate as a connection between playlist creator and its recipient — an outpouring of the rawest form of the strongest emotions words fail to express. Presumably, playlists are easy: find a song on whatever music listening application you like and click ‘Add to Playlist’. From there, most applications would recommend similar songs using their proprietary, intelligent, algorithms. In a matter of minutes, you’d have a decent curation fulfilling whatever ambient criteria you sought out to fulfil, right? As it turns out, it is (unsurprisingly) not that simple. Curating a playlist is perhaps comparable to writing a poem. Sure, any number of words strung together ‘nicely’ can be called a poem, but it takes a lot of work to create a good one. And, just like dedicating a poem to someone, there is also something special about dedicating a playlist and sitting down for 21 minutes and 16 seconds listening to the same songs, at the same time, over 2000 kilometres apart. Even now, nearly half a decade later, I still smile whenever I come across a song from one of those old playlists; they still carry that warm sense of comfort, wrapping me in a tight embrace. Memories of old, and the feelings of love, appreciation, and regret all wash over me, and the songs remain little capsules of the past waiting to be reopened.
But pictures, I hear you refuting, also serve the same purpose. After all, pictures tell a thousand words; we’ve all heard the platitude. Pictures, rather than music, have always been regarded as particularly potent memory capsules, capable of immortalising milestone moments into a rich trove of stories to tell. Precisely because they are wordless, pictures tend to stimulate our brains into connecting the dots. We look at a picture of two kids smiling at some mouse-shaped balloons, amidst crowds and crowds of people populating the backdrop in front of an iconic castle, and we can quite accurately place the image within a narrative context — some family has brought their children to Disneyland, and they’re probably having a lot of fun. Beyond that, pictures also serve as mnemonic triggers. If I were one of the kids in the aforementioned picture, perhaps I’d start talking about the very intense game of ‘chopsticks’ I’d played with my sister in the bus on the way there, about how much we had to plead and beg and grovel at our parents’ feet for them to buy us those overpriced headbands, and about that feeling of awe that sparked within me as I gazed longingly upon the largest bundle of helium balloons, in varying shades of pinks and blues, I’d ever seen in my entire life.
Indeed, Perfect Days, employs to some extent an elliptical storytelling style that plays with this tendency of ours to organise things into neat little packages of stories. I’m referring to the way the film stitches discrete images together with no obvious link or connection, and no expository narration explaining what we as viewers are supposed to see. We must complete the puzzle ourselves. This is most apparent in the glimpses of dappled images we get of Hirayama’s dreams: fuzzy vignettes of some snippets in his life, impenetrably obscure. Some of these images come from scenes we see in the film’s runtime — the game of tic-tac-toe he plays in the toilet, and the trees he snaps multiple pictures of throughout the film — but others come from years and years ago, appearing as distorted images you might see on a near-broken vintage television. This lack of visual acuity begs the question: how stable, really, is this visual-focused narrative mode of recollection? And, more significantly, do we actually need a cohesive storyline to truly get something, be it a film, a person, or ourselves? Or maybe, just maybe, all we need is simply to slow down for a moment and listen.
Eager to embark into the foray of sound? Click here to check out PFF 2023’s playlist specially curated for your listening pleasure!