The pangs of unrequited love are a familiar staple in high-school movies, but it’s not often that they involve an altercation with a flying saucer. In his lopsided debut feature, “Saimon & Tada Takashi,” writer-director Manabu Oda mixes sensitive teen drama with surreal humor and low-budget sci-fi schlock. By the end of the film’s 83-minute runtime, the fact that it revolves around a gay romance feels almost incidental.
Saimon (newcomer Itsuki Sakamoto) is in his final year at high school, and still figuring out how to tell best friend Takashi (Kenta Suga) that he’s in love with him. Takashi, for his part, just wants to get a girlfriend before he graduates and then has to work at his father’s auto repair shop.
“This is my last chance!” he wails. Too bad that the school they attend only has a handful of female students, none of whom seem to share Saimon’s appreciation for his friend’s garrulous charms and acoustic guitar playing.
After getting rebuffed by one of his schoolmates, Takashi resorts to calling a telephone number scrawled on the wall of a public toilet, and unexpectedly lands himself a date with an older woman named Maiko. He embarks on a bus trip to meet her, with Saimon tagging along, uncertain whether to help or hinder his pal’s romantic escapades.
From the outset, it’s clear that Oda isn’t going to tell his story in a conventional fashion. As Saimon recalls the first time he met his friend, the film switches into hand-drawn animation, with Takashi depicted as a muscular centaur. A similar sequence later on envisages Maiko as a buxom giant in a tight-fitting T-shirt, beheading every man who comes her way.
However, the movie’s opening stretch mostly stays grounded in reality. Takashi’s relationship with his depressed father (Daikichi Sugawara) is depicted with real poignancy, and there’s a lovely scene in which Saimon all but confesses his predicament to a cram-school classmate after she asks him out.
Once the duo hit the road, however, the film veers into goofier terrain. On their way to liaising with the mysterious Maiko (Yuki Mamiya), Saimon and Takashi have a run-in with a bōsōzoku biker gang who’ve been reduced to riding around on bicycles. The gang’s pompadoured leader (Kai Inowaki) has women problems of his own: Shortly after proposing to his fiery girlfriend, she gets abducted by a UFO.
These seemingly random tangents converge during an explosive climax that’s staged with genuine brio. Without spoiling the surprise, let’s just say that Oda finds an inventive way to circumvent the film’s budgetary constraints.
While it’s hard not to admire the chutzpah of “Saimon & Tada Takashi,” the movie ends up feeling like less than the sum of its parts. There are moments where the fantasy elements accentuate the emotional drama, but more often it feels like Oda is indulging in quirkiness for the sake of it, and neglecting his protagonist in the process.
The movie’s publicity makes much of the fact that it was produced through the Pia Film Festival Scholarship program, which launched the careers of directors including Sion Sono, Ryosuke Hashiguchi and Yuya Ishii. On this evidence, it’s hard to say if Oda will go that far himself. “Saimon & Tada Takashi” is the work of a filmmaker keen to demonstrate his originality, even if he’s not quite sure what he wants to say.