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Opinion Proletarian tourism at the movies

DANIEL TESTER points out the depoliticisation of labour relations in Wim Wenders’s film about toilet cleaners, Perfect Days

HOW many toilets has the German film director Wim Wenders cleaned in his life? The question hums around the edges of the arthouse stalwart’s new film, Perfect Days, in UK cinemas this week. 

Set in Tokyo, the film follows the daily routines of an ageing toilet cleaner, Hirayama, as he traverses Tokyo’s famed hi-tech toilets, adorned with twee blue overalls and an array of beloved toilet cleaning gadgets. To another director, this premise might have offered scope for a film about the working conditions experienced by some of the most marginalised workers in our modern urban megacities. Not to Wenders. 

Conversely, in Perfect Days, Wenders imagines his protagonist as delighted to be cleaning toilets. Hirayama is played as some kind of modern-day Sisyphus, beating back against the absurdity of cleaning human muck day in, day out with a gentle, accepting smile and a watchful eye for the beauty in the everyday. Later scenes reveal Hirayama’s well-off sister, and hint at a background somewhere in the Tokyo bourgeoisie; Hirayama, it appears, is cleaning toilets by choice. Because he loves to do so, apparently. 

The film has garnered effusive praise: an Oscar nod for Best International Feature, as well as a nomination for the prestigious Palme D’Or at Cannes Film Festival. “It’s mindfulness as a movie,” declared film critic Mark Kermode. Amid the gushing from the cinematic cultural elite, however, questions remain surrounding the depiction of working-class labour that is offered here. 

Are toilet cleaners happy? Do they go home to contentedly read Faulkner by nightfall, as Hirayama does? Toilet cleaners reading this – does your job fill you with as much peace, beauty, and wonder as it does for Hirayama? Do you clean toilets because to do so is, indeed, your passion?  

It might be nice for the Cannes film festival and its arthouse audience to imagine so, as an army of silent, invisible cleaners wipe the toilet seats of cinemas, trains, and bars in the pre-dawn darkness before the City wakes. In Britain, however, the continued strikes by the outsourced toilet cleaners on British railway services, who the RMT have stated suffer poverty wages and limited basic rights, suggests a different reality. As does the Centre for Progressive Change’s landmark report on the cleaning sector, which found, after a year-long investigation, that of the 500 cleaners interviewed, over one-third had worked while ill due to inability to claim sick pay – or failing to meet the £123 per week earnings threshold to do so.

Through this lens, Perfect Days’ toilet-cleaner-as-blissed-out-stoic shtick reads as a perverse middle-class fantasy: soothing, perhaps, to audiences who would like to imagine their cleaners as happy, but far from an honest depiction of working-class realities. Indeed, the film tactfully sidesteps showing us any actual nastiness in the toilet bowls Hirayama tends to, which usually look more-or-less immaculate as he enters. It’s as if Wenders knows that to show any real human faeces would collapse the movie’s central fantasy that cleaning toilets is something to romanticise.

For working-class viewers, Perfect Days’ sentiments read as no less problematic. Systemic change, the movie seems to suggest, is impossible; resistance, therefore, is futile. Instead, the worker is encouraged to know his place and learn to love it – to seek simple pleasures, the beauty in the everyday. Failure to do so, of course, is the responsibility of the individual, not broader social and economic structures. 

Following Jim Jarmusch’s likeminded film Paterson (2016), which follows a similarly zen bus-driver-cum-poet as he drives happily through some kind of utopianised New Jersey, Perfect Days belongs to a growing canon of films in which labour roles endowed by class privileges are depoliticised; cleaned up and sanitised into classless roles, quirky character affectations; different strokes for different folks. These films obfuscate the systems of power which reproduce outcomes that offer some people cushy white-collar jobs — macchiatos in the morning, ski seasons in half-term — and others the role of cleaning their toilets. And while middle-class audiences may fantasise about — even fetishise — the simple life of the working man, ultimately, some people fantasise, others clean toilets. 

Let us call out this glib working-class tourism for what it is. 

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