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Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2004

A pilgrim's progress on the road

Road 88

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Genji Nakamura
Running time: 110 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Nov. 6
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Makers of road movies are seeking out ever more exotic locales (the Australian Outback in "Rabbit-Proof Fence") and extreme situations (the explicit sex act at the climax of Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny") -- though someone, I'm sure, is writing the next road epic about a violent-but-loving couple on the run from the law.

News photo
Eri Murakawa in "Road 88"

In Japan, the road movie is a popular genre, though local conventions differ from those in Hollywood. A few, such as Ryuichi Hiroki's "Vibrator," have their free-spirited, wind-in-the-hair moments, but the typical Japanese road warrior is a lonely, pathetic type for whom wandering is a punishment for sins karmic and otherwise.

Tora-san, the peddler who traveled to every corner of Japan in 48 films, is perhaps the best known. He enjoyed his adventures well enough, especially the ones with attractive females, but his heart was always in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward -- his beloved furusato (hometown) from which he exiled himself again and again for slights real and imagined.

Genji Nakamura's "Road 88" is in the Japanese road-movie mold -- but with several differences. First, its heroes are not blowing-in-the-wind wanderers, but pilgrims with the specific goal of visiting Shikoku's famous 88 temples. Second, their adventures are not just life-changing, but self-improving, with the good old ganbare seishin (do-or-die spirit) being the answer to nearly any problem.

Third, and most important to the story, though, its central character, 16-year-old Asuka (Eri Murakawa), is battling leukemia as the film begins. Cancer used to be an automatic death sentence in Japanese movies, with the afflicted ones wasting gallantly away as relatives sobbed and violins keened. Asuka, however, is a spunky sort, who is in remission when she starts her 1,400 km journey by skateboard -- though she has no idea how her health will hold up. Whatever, she intends to live every moment to the max.

Another pilgrim is Yuta Sato (Hisahiro Ogura), a once-popular manzai comedian who is trying to make a comeback by starring in an unusually cruel reality show. Though pudgy and past 40, he is forced by his sadistic director (Kanji Tsuda) to make the entire trip on a ma machari -- i.e., the kind of slow, heavy bike that housewives use for shopping. Also, he must earn every yen for food and shelter from street performances, though he misplaced his comic mojo decades ago. The poor mope is soon exhausted, humiliated and starved. Not too many laughs there.

Finally, there is Ichiro Banno (Hatsunori Hasegawa), a gangster who has recently lost his teenage daughter to cancer -- and is undertaking the pilgrimage to assuage his grief (as well as escape a few rivals).

Asuka soon makes the chance acquaintance of both, though it is Banno who saves her from the unwelcome advances of a punk at a restaurant. She reminds him of his daughter, almost uncannily so. Meanwhile, Yuta is too occupied with his own troubles, and simple survival, to be much of a companion initially.

Asuka encounters other pilgrims on the road, including a wisdom-spouting old man and a blonde-haired foreigner who rides a motorbike, speaks fluent Japanese and is a Buddhist priest. But it with Banno and Yuta that her fate is most closely intertwined.

All three are dealing with loss (of health, career, a loved one) and searching for a reason to go on. Will the pilgrimage supply it -- or is it simply a distraction from painful reality?

Asuka, whose mother ran away when she was only 5 and now lives with a new family in Shikoku, faces another question. Can she re-establish a connection with someone who betrayed her so cruelly?

Since the object of "Road 88" is uplift, we have a good idea how these questions will be answered as soon as they are posed. The successful resolution of the various crises are so many stamps for the pilgrim-heroes to collect -- and who would deny one to a gutsy, pure-hearted girl like Asuka?

The film, which unfolds in diary form (Day 1, Day 2, and so on), has the feel of a camera-out-the-window travelogue, complete with place-name captions and occasional glimpses at a map to keep us oriented. Even the pilgrims Asuka and the others encounter seem to be the real things, not extras dressed in white.

For a road movie, though, "Road 88" stays too close to the main route, moving from plot point to plot point like a pilgrim dutifully trudging (or riding the bus, train and Yamaha) from temple to temple. Also, for a 'boarder, Asuka has few, if any, wild hairs. She calls her grandmother nightly on her keitai, but never uses it to gossip or flirt. It can't be just the leukemia, can it?

Genji Nakamura, who spent nearly a decade making porn for Nikkatsu and other companies before moving to straight films in the early '80s, films this material competently enough, but it's still mostly TV melodrama writ large. As Asuka, newcomer Eri Murakawa exudes youthful intensity and charm, but her character seems stuck in a time warp, with only her clothes and skateboard to remind us that her story is unfolding in 2004, not 1974. (Perhaps I should add her medical prognosis, which is considerably better than it would have been a generation ago.)

Anyone who has lived in Japan long enough has probably thought about making the 88-temple pilgrimage. I know I have -- I'd lose weight, if not my bad karma. But "Road 88" has made me reconsider: Instead of embarking on the film's monthlong gaman taikai (endurance contest), I'd rather stay in Tokyo another August, minus the air-conditioner.

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