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Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2000


It's the journey, not the destination

January can be a most miserable month. Yes, upsides exist, such as skiable snow within a day's drive of Tokyo, but they are often outweighed by the downsides, such as a bout of flu that leaves you feeling like a fallen snowboard that has been run over by 20 trucks on the Kan-nana. It was with this thought -- and while battling my first cold of the new year -- that I decided to see Katsuyuki Hirano's "Shiro -- The White."

A record of the director's bicycle tour through Tohoku and Hokkaido in the depths of winter, the film struck me as a possible cure for the wintertime blahs. If I was having it bad, Hirano had certainly had it worse and that might well make me feel better. (Or as Duc de la Rochefoucauld observed, "We are all strong enough to bear the misfortunes of others.")

Great adventurers -- Perry, Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen -- were once national heroes whose journeys to the ends of the earth were perceived (or adroitly packaged) as glorious quests to push back the frontiers of knowledge. But the goals of adventurers today are more personal, or even frankly eccentric. Instead of opening new continents to civilization (or exploitation), they often seem engaged in a kind of mad Guinness Book contest to set ever more exotic records. (After the first round-the-world balloon voyage, what next? Richard Branson circling the globe in a paraglider?)

Hirano himself is a thoroughly postmodern type. Instead of a jut-jawed gentleman explorer setting out on a life-or-death mission for queen and country, he is a porno-video director whose motivations are murky, to say the least. (Asked in a program interview why he decided to go it alone, instead of having the usual camera crew tag after him, he says, "I thought it would work out better from a box-office perspective if I did everything myself.")

Also, instead of a manly stoic, he has the look and attitude of a middle-aged class clown who never quite outgrew his early obsession with peeking up girls' knickers. Watching him alone in his tent having conversations with an imaginary female companion and acting her part in a squeaky falsetto, one begins to wonder whether he ever progressed beyond the mental age of 10 -- or is simply missing a few spokes off his wheel.

But for all the evidence of arrested development, there is something admirable about Hirano's stubborn quest and the inventive and occasionally inspired ways he films it. In the opening scenes, he juxtaposes iconographic stills of early Arctic explorers with the humble beginnings of his own journey from his parents' home in Hamamatsu. Also, for a narrator he uses, not a dulcet-toned professional, but his own wife, a former AV actress whose low, sultry voice -- barely audible over the lounge jazz score -- adds to the irony of the whole endeavor.

But though Hirano may take a playful approach to his material, he is deadly serious about reaching his goal -- Japan's northernmost point, on an island off the coast of Hokkaido -- entirely under his own power, while sleeping under the stars (save for two widely spaced nights of R&R in hotels). He plans his trip as carefully as though he were setting out on a Himalayan expedition, not pedaling through the country with the highest concentration of convenience stores and cheap, comfortable accommodations in the world. As it turns out, these preparations are necessary to his very survival, but at the outset one wonders whether Hirano is not simply indulging in that common over-30 male fantasy -- the Last Big Adventure. What happens when reality hits in the form of a big hill, a big storm or hour after hour of eating exhaust fumes?

TV variety shows have filmed similar masochistic journeys, to great ratings success, but fakery is inevitable. We know that, with a camera crew along and the whole nation watching, nothing really bad can happen to the show's bedraggled stars -- that if they go broke, get sick or fight a losing sumo bout with an oncoming truck, someone will be there to bail them out or pay their hospital bills.

Hirano, however, had few such guarantees. When he fell ill with appendicitis in Sendai, his wife came up from Tokyo to nurse him through his convalescence, but otherwise, he was alone, skittering down ice-slicked hills and making emergency repairs in sub-zero temperatures and bone-chilling winds. A bad accident or case of frostbite would have left him at the mercy of passing strangers -- or the local animal life. (In the credits, Hirano lists the various dogs and cats, as well as one fox, who become his boon companions on the trip.)

Instead of buckling under these and other self-imposed hardships, this boho outlaw type, who talked to his black-faced Dakko-chan doll and wore sanitary napkins to deal with the runs, proved to be as gritty as his Pole-seeking senpai. In the depths of a Hokkaido winter, he soldiered on, pushing his machine, its gears frozen solid, down an endless highway, as the wind whipped itself into a fury. The last 30 minutes of the film consist of nothing but scenes like this one: no music, no titles, no narrative, just a snow-spattered camera recording Hirano's stolid struggle against the elements.

Was it worth it? Cinematically, the answer is yes -- with skill, ingenuity and remarkable determination Hirano stretched the limits of what one man can do with a camera. As he himself put it so well, "Shiro -- The White" is not a film about an adventure so much as an adventure in film. It is also an inspiration -- if Hirano could survive a blizzard on a 10-speed, surely I can pedal down to the gas station for that can of kerosene, runny nose or no.

"Shiro -- The White" is playing at Box Higashi Nakano, (03) 5389-6780.

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