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Friday, March 31, 2006

We're off to see the wizard

Route 225

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura
Running time: 101 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Lewis Carroll first sent Alice down the rabbit hole with "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" in 1865, but today it is the Japanese who are most fond of stories about plucky females in fantasy lands or parallel worlds. Anime master Hayao Miyazaki has made a thriving career from this sort of story, from his classic "Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro)" in 1988 to the megahit "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)" in 2001.

News photo
Chikara Iwata (left) and Mikako Tabe in "Route 225"

Many recent live-action Japanese films also take up variations of this theme, from Hideyuki Hirayama's "Turn," about a young woman who is hit by a truck and finds herself alone in another dimension, to Kaze Shindo's "Korogare! Tamako (Tumble! Tamako)," whose flaky, steel-helmeted heroine is almost as fantastic as her brightly colored, severely circumscribed world.

In his new film, "Route 225," Yoshihiro Nakamura takes an approach somewhere between stranger-in-a-strange-land fantasy and coming-of-age parable. His 14-year-old heroine and her pudgy younger brother may make a wrong turn into an alternative reality, but instead of plunging into Miyazakian adventures with strange creatures, they find themselves trying to unravel a maddening puzzle, with no logical clues to its solution, somewhat like Alice trying to decipher the nonsensical commands of the Queen of Hearts.

More than its plot machinery, however, "Route 225" is concerned with the primal fears that grip us all at one time or another, from kindergarteners separated from Mom in a busy department store to adolescents grappling with the scary business of growing up. At the same time, its heroine is a normal-enough kid, if one with more sang-froid than usual. As played by newcomer Mikako Tabe ("Riyu," 2004, "Hinokio," 2005), she is bracingly, and touchingly, within the realm of the believable.

If anything, the film stays too close to the reassuringly everyday to deliver more than an existential tingle, instead of a chilling plunge into the void. Also, its occasional attempts to squeeze tears feel forced, because the world the two children have lost verges on the absurd. But its unexpected ending is exactly right -- and heartening. You may not always get what you want, it says, but you can usually cope.

Eriko (Tabe) is a second-year student in an average junior high school who leads an average middle-class existence with her housewife Mom (Eri Ishida), salaryman Dad (Kyusaku Shimada) and younger brother, Daigo (Chikara Iwata). Ever-busy, ever-chirpy Mom, who turns out cutesy flower arrangements and glops milk into the dinner stew to make it "richer" (that is, inedible) is a bit too much for the down-to-earth Eriko. Dad is nice, but is rarely home long enough to make more than a fleeting impression.

Then, one day, Mom asks Eriko to fetch Daigo from a nearby park. She finds him sitting on a swing, in his undershirt, looking disconsolate. A fun-loving classmate scribbled something insulting with a magic marker on his white uniform shirt -- and Daigo knows that Mom is going to kill him when she sees it. Eriko gets him moving homeward, while teasing him for being such a loser. So far, so typical. Then they turn a corner and see the sea, which is odd because they live nowhere near it.

Global warming in action? No, it's weirder. Leaving the beach-that-shouldn't be, they wander down suddenly unfamiliar streets, unable to find their way home. Then they come across one of Daigo's classmates, a girl named Kumanoi -- and Eriko asks her the way, while Daigo hangs back, looking confused -- and horrified.

It turns out that Kumanoi shouldn't be there either, for a reason best left unexplained. Eriko and Daigo finally make it home, but find their parents missing, though the stew is on the stove.

Somehow, they have stumbled into another dimension that is the same as their own save for a few critical differences, the biggest being the absence of Mom and Dad.

How to get back? Eriko and Daigo struggle to find a key that will unlock the dimensional door, somewhat like Bill Murray's desperate reporter in "Groundhog Day." Unlike Murray, however, they have a link to their old world -- a phone card with agonizingly little time left on it.

Nakamura, who has written scripts for films by directors Yoichi Sai ("Keimusho no Naka," "Quill") and Hideo Nakata ("Hono Gurai Mizu no Soko"), has obviously studied Danny Rubin's masterpiece, which has been called both a flawless piece of comic writing and a profoundly religious statement about the meaning of salvation. Nakamura's script for "Route 225" is seemingly simpler, closer to a children's story than the New Testament. I kept waiting for Eriko and Daigo to discover the magic formula, say the magic words.

But Nakamura turns out to be deeper -- and wiser -- than I'd suspected. He does not, however, exploit an unsettling fact about the folks who inhabit the children's new dimension -- all of them are utter strangers. The Kumanoi that Eriko and Daigo meet on an unfamiliar street is not the same Kumanoi who was once in Daigo's class. They are actually all alone, like two space explorers stranded on an alien planet, surrounded by doppelgangers of people they once knew. It's enough to drive you mad -- or make you stronger. Which is it going to be?

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