Dean Shimauchi Translation
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Route 20 (Off Highway 20)
Route 20 is a highway that's originated from the imperial palace. It runs across the metro Tokyo westbound. As it leaves Tokyo into the rural country of Yamanashi, the seemingly endless stretch of Tokyo suburb suddenly disappears. Route 20 goes through the hills and mountains and after about 130 kilometers from the origin, there's Kofu, the capital of Yamanashi Prefecture. Kofu has a castle. Hot springs nearby. Nice "Hoto" noodles, the local speciality. These are the tourist's image of Kofu. For those who live in Kofu or its vicinity, or anybody who lives in any other part of rural Japan along some highway for that matter, life presents different measures. That's what Katsuya Tomita's "Route 20" shows us; the dead-end, no-nonsense and non-sugar-coated reality of life in a small town JAPAN, 21st Century style.

I was born in the mid 1960s and so I still tend to cling onto the archaic image of rural Japan which did exist not so long ago. Nice friendly folks, beautiful outdoors and simple lives with lots of good meals to eat. Well, not that they're all gone. Some folks are still nice and friendly. Meals are still nice and some people's lives are still simple but when you drive any given intersection off Route 20, you see the sobering reality. There's something similar to what you see in lots of small towns, USA. You reach a freeway ramps off to a small town and there you see a huge McDonald's sign, Texaco sign, Motel 6 or whatever sign and if you're lucky there's a mini-mall with 7-Eleven or Am/Pm. If you're really lucky, there's a mall and JC Penny and K-Mart and all that. The smaller the population, the less sign of civilization. The loneliness of those signs lit brightly in the night sky...

In the case of Kofu, Japan, it's not that bad. There're so much more than a McDonald's and a Texaco and a Motel 6. The population is pretty big and as I mentioned before it features tourist spots. It's the barrenness of the scenery that resembles the nowhere, USA. It's not exactly the nothingness that signifies Kofu where the film's protagonists Hisashi, his girlfriend Junko, Hisashi's pal Ozawa, Ozawa's boss Tomioka and a Indian-Canadian hostess Shalini inhabit. Kofu's population is 199,375, beating San Dimas, California by 160,000 or so. It has its own industry and landmarks. It's an OK mid-sized city, and this mid-size is precisely the source of the chain reaction of problems, just as in any old small town across the world.

Driving along Route 20 in Kofu City, you'll see the generic scenery that you'll see in any other mid-to-small town Japan. Rice paddies, hills and cherry trees with Mt. Fuji in the backdrop? Forget that. What a small town Japan in the 21st Century presents are these; Karaoke halls (an entire building full of Karaoke quarters), Love Inns (or Love Hotels), discount outlets (huge!), fast-foot joints, convenience stores, discount book wholesale stores, video rental shops and rows and rows of cash dispensers. And those cash dispensers are not bank ATMs but they are operated by loan companies now affiliated to major banks. So with the ease of withdrawing cash from a bank ATM, they let you loan cash from the machines, with interest rate over or close to the maximum legal rate.

The film revolves around Hisashi and Junko, both ex-biker losers. Hisashi is too old to be with the biker gang, but his mental age still too immature to operate as a grown-up, he lives day to day on the money he borrows from those demonic cash dispensers. He hopes one day to make the borrowed money 10 folds by winning big on Pachinko. His live-in girlfriend Junko is a nurse school dropout who seems to be a bigger Pachinko addict than Hisashi. Her current friends are all dead-end losers, one of whom is a speed addict. Junko longs to get her life going by marrying Hisashi because of the illusion she got from her former friends who got married and seemingly left a life of a loser. Junko and Hisashi get up in the morning (if they felt like it) and go to Pachinko parlor before it opens so they can sit at a machine with better odds. They spend all day shooting Pachinko and get some cash if they won. They get some cash anyway from the loan cash dispenser if they lost. Each day is the repetition of yesterday with a minor variation. The film continues to reveal more about the shocking reality of a small town Japan but I'll keep you away from the further details. You're in for a lot of surprises.

It's kind of the shock the depiction of Edinburgh in "Trainspotting" brings to those who were not familiar with the post-Thatcher state of British socio-economy. But "Route 20" doesn't depend on dreadful humor nor the camera tricks like Trainspotting did. It has far more detached view-point to coolly observe the town's folks just minding their business. Route 20 doesn't compromise the local culture for the sake of providing easier comprehension to the audiences either, i.e. it doesn't flatten the local dialect for the big city-folk movie goers like most other bigger budget Japanese movies would. Kind of Fargo-esque love can be felt for the vernacular, As I see all the symbols of this movie (love inns, cash dispensers, etc.), an interesting point raised in "Boyz n the Hood" comes to my mind. Furious Styles asks a question in "Hood", "Why is it that there is a gun shop on almost every corner in this community? I'll tell you why. For the same reason that there is a liquor store on almost every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves."

Karaoke and love inns and discount outlets and loan cash dispensers are probably not installed because someone wanted the residents of Kofu to kill themselves. But the life cycle those things create... The chain reaction of those things kills. It certainly is a trap set to keep you where you are so you won't be escaping this money spending cycle. This is how it goes. You have no ambition to leave to a big city. You don't know who you are. You have too much time on your hand. You don't want to work so you play Pachinko. You win a little so you spend on all you can eat BBQ beef and some silly things you don't need from discount outlet. You go to a love inn which is built in the architectural style of modern art installation for sex. You have no cash left but you don't want to work. You get some cash from the loan cash dispenser and play some more Pachinko. You lose, you lose, you lose and get more from the dispenser. You hit your loan limitation so you hassle your girlfriend for some cash. You win some and pay back some of the debts and play more Pachinko because you need cash. Go to karaoke. Go to snack bars. Do speed or ice or whatever. Inhale paint thinner like our hero, Hisashi. You repeat this over and over and over again. The inept characters of Route 20 resemble that of "Gummo" in the similar kind of nowhere-nothing-totally-lost feeling but Route 20 is far less fragmented. This is the kind of Japan rarely depicted on screen.

Recently with so many movies entitled "Tokyo" something, Route 20 is a welcome change that shows you the reality of the life in a small town as a hideous mutation spawned from the so-called economic miracle. Beyond the bright neon signs along Route 20 is darkness. One step inside this darkness, you may not be able to return alive. Great film. Shown at Nippon Connection in April, so don't miss ait!
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