Wim Wenders is making a film about high-end public toilets in Japan that will have what the renowned German director calls “social meaning” about people in modern cities.
My first reaction was, I must admit: What? Toilets? Chotto mattene,” he said, using the Japanese expression for “wait a minute”.
But then he began to see what the story could be about.
“For me, they turned from toilets into restrooms. That’s a very nice word in English, the restroom. When I saw these places the next couple of days, I realised they were restrooms in the true sense of the word,” Wenders told reporters in Tokyo’s fashionable Shibuya district, where the dozen public restrooms are located.
The facilities were designed by leading architects including Kengo Kuma and Tadao Ando, with the idea that a pleasant public toilet could counter the common expectation it had to be filthy, filled with graffiti or associated with crime.
Wenders, the Oscar-nominated director of Wings Of Desire and Buena Vista Social Club, said when he saw the Shibuya toilets, he was moved.
“This is a truly precious place,” Wenders said.
And so his film’s hero will be a sanitation worker who cleans the toilets, seeing his job as a craft and a service for the people.
Details of the script are still being worked out.
Koji Yakusho, known for playing the Japanese everyman in works such as Shall We Dance and Babel, said he accepted the role as soon as it was offered because he wanted to work with Wenders.
“I have a feeling it’s going to be a beautiful story. And I feel a story that has the toilet as the setting, with the person who works there and the people who use it, will help lead to an understanding of Japan,” said Yakusho.
The Tokyo Toilet project was initially conceived to impress foreign visitors expected for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, before the coronavirus pandemic forced the events to take place without spectators in the stands.
The public toilet designed by Ando is round with frames for the exterior walls, to allow air to circulate.
In real life it gets cleaned without water to avoid mould or decay by men in blue jumpsuits by Japanese fashion designer Nigo.
The project, including Wenders’ film, has the backing of Fast Retailing, the company behind the Uniqlo clothing chain, and The Nippon Foundation, which carries out humanitarian projects using revenue from boat racing.
Wenders said his film, despite its humble setting, will explore a profound concept.
“I almost think it’s a utopian idea because the toilet is a place where everybody is the same. There is no rich or poor, old or young. Everyone is part of humanity,” he said.