88 Roads to Somewhere

Rodo 88, Deai no Michi Shikoku e

Peter Matanle, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield [About | Email]

Volume 5, Issue 2 (Film review 2 in 2005). First published in ejcjs on 31 October 2005.

Rōdo 88: Deai no Michi, Shikoku e
Dir: Nakamura Genji
Cast: Murakawa Eri, Kohtari Yūji, Ogura Hisahiro, Hasegawa Hatsunori, et al.
Distribution: Amuse Soft Entertainment
Colour, Japanese with NO English subtitles, 111 minutes
60 minutes of extra material
DVD Release (Japan): 22 April 2005
ASIN: B0007TIQ96 (Region - NTSC)

Road 88 is firmly rooted in the lengthening list of sentimentalist Japanese road movies made popular throughout Japan, and perhaps beyond, by the eponymous Tora-san series. True to form, this film mixes bathos and pathos, and a certain degree of charm, to draw the viewer into empathising with the protagonists, despite their character (and acting) flaws. The story takes place on the ancient 1400 kilometre round Shikoku 88 temple Buddhist pilgrimage, hence the title, and features three main characters, each with his or her own reason for wanting to make the arduous journey. Having myself so far walked from temple number 1 in northern Tokushima Prefecture, south round Cape Muroto, and on up to number 30 in Kochi City, and seen advertisements for Road 88 along the way this summer, I was curious to see the film.

Directed by Nakamura Genji, the film begins by introducing two of the three characters and by familiarising the viewer with, in somewhat laborious explanatory style, aspects of the pilgrimage such as the tradition of o-settai, or pilgrims being given food, drink, and sometimes shelter by locals wishing to improve their karma. Asuka (played by Murakami Eri of vocal band 'Boystyle' fame), is 16 years old, suffers from leukaemia, and is skateboarding around the island in order to experience the thrill of being alive. Having been abandoned by her mother at the age of 5 she is also suffering the emotional pain of facing her own death without being able to know and to say goodbye to her nearest and dearest. Sato Yuta (Ogura Hisahiro) is a failed television comedian seeking to revive his career through participating in, at first unbeknown to him, a sadistic reality show featuring him cycling around Shikoku on a mamachari (housewife's shopping bike) and having to earn his food and lodging along the way. A little later we are introduced to the third traveller, Banno Ichiro (Hasegawa Hatsunori), a gangster who is travelling by car and whose daughter has recently died of cancer. Predictably, their three stories become entangled along the way. Banno catches sight of Asuka while taking lunch in a small restaurant and, noticing that she bears a striking resemblance to his late daughter, saves her from the amorous and aggressive attentions of a local hooligan. After having met Sato pleading for water in an earlier scene at the main gate of Shosanji, Asuka is staring at the night sky on the beautiful Katsurahama Beach in Kochi when she hears the female gopher of Sato's film crew pleading with him not to hang himself from a nearby tree. From these chance meetings the film unfolds with each person confronting his or her own fears and flaws, culminating in an emotional final scene at, guess what, the 88th temple.

There is much in this film for the critic to criticise, if one were to watch it expecting to be deeply stirred. The film begins a little awkwardly, with most of the characters appearing wooden and somewhat exaggerated. Murakawa is a little ill at ease in the early sequences, and it turns out from watching the DVD's accompanying interviews, that this is not only her first film, but her first time on a skateboard. Moreover, just to make sure that the viewer understands the universality of travelling the route, early on Asuka accepts a lift on the back of an American pilgrim's motorcycle. The American's voice mysteriously changes when he starts to speak flawless Japanese, although the director does a fairly good job at keeping the lip-sync believable. Foreigners can recite sutras too, in case you didn't know! In addition, Sato and his crew are clearly hamming it up and, as such, I initially felt that the film may not be anything more challenging than a stitched together television drama. However, Hasegawa's entry appears to give the film some much needed stability and from here it starts to engage the viewer and to draw one into its admittedly predictable plot.

Seen from the perspective of someone who has so far walked approximately a third of the route, Road 88 presents some of the positive vibe of being a pilgrim, but has a tendency to gloss over some of the hardships, despite the characters' own personal difficulties that are brought to the story. It takes place during the autumn, which is generally regarded as being the most favourable season for travelling the route, being mostly sunny and cool. The scenery is at times breathtaking and the rural atmosphere endearingly bucolic. The characters do indeed occasionally sleep rough and in a variety of different locations; from Asuka's moon-drenched night at Katsurahama and, having missed her train connection, sharing the same railway signal-box with an older, and wiser, pilgrim; to Sato having to kip in the back of a kei-truck for lack of money and then being suddenly woken by the lights of the film crew as they humiliate him in front of the watching nation. Incidentally, the wise pilgrim appears later and we are led to suspect that he may be the kami (spirit) of Kōbō Daishi—the father of the Shingon Buddhist sect in Japan, among other things, and the founder of the 88 temple pilgrimage—within the body of a fellow traveller. However, Asuka especially, despite suffering from leukaemia, does not seem to break a sweat on her skateboard, apparently travelling for long distances over very difficult terrain. On arrival at Shōsanji (temple number 12 at approximately 800m [2,600ft] above sea level) on day two of her journey, a very respectable distance covered in such a short time, she casually saunters up to the main gate, the viewer apparently unaware that one has to walk up and over two mountains and up a third (Shōsan itself) in order to get there! And walk one must, for unless one takes an extremely circuitous route around, there is only one footpath between temples 11 and 12. Moreover, although Sato occasionally makes heavy weather as a chubby 40 year old on his two-wheeler, he too encounters few difficulties in tackling the route.

From my own experience I know that this cannot be the case. The route requires a great deal of that famous Japanese quality, gaman, and every person that attempts it under his or her own steam will encounter much more than simply the odd morning stiffness. This is what makes travelling the route such a cathartic purification of the soul. Now, normally such lapses in a film might be glossed over. However, although Road 88 does try to show us a little of how this catharsis might happen, with Sato breaking down as he pleads with his director to allow him to go on, such a lack of authenticity means that the viewer cannot connect at any appreciable depth with the central meaning of the pilgrimage and, consequently, the underlying message of the film; which is that hard work, persistence, grit, and soul-searching honesty will get you, eventually, to wherever it is you want to go.

This film is neither an intellectual nor an aesthetic challenge but, seen from the perspective of a lazy Sunday evening, it ends up becoming a rather enchanting and enjoyable experience. It will never be held up as being one of the masterpieces of Japanese cinema, but there again I don't believe that the director was intending to achieve such an exalted status for his work. For its entertainment value alone it is worth seeing this film if one has an opportunity. The music is excellent for a Japanese light entertainment film, with contributions from Boystyle and Kose Yoko. As a whole, without being 'difficult', Road 88 is a charming and, very occasionally, emotionally compelling film.

About the Author

Peter Matanle studied for his undergraduate degree in History at St. John's College, University of Cambridge, and completed a Master's degree in Japanese Studies at the Contemporary Japan Centre, University of Essex in Britain. He received his doctorate from the School of East Asian Studies (SEAS), University of Sheffield in 2001. He is now Lecturer in Japanese Studies at SEAS and is currently spending two years (2004-2006) as a JSPS Post-doctoral Fellow at the Faculty of Education and Human Sciences, Niigata University. He is the general editor of the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies and the author of Japanese Capitalism and Modernity in a Global Era: Re-fabricating lifetime employment relations (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).

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