Film / Reviews

'Fly Me to the Saitama': Tokyo takes on its revolting neighbors

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Places considered cool and uncool sometimes exist in uneasy proximity, like New York City and New Jersey — or Tokyo and Saitama. The prefecture adjacent to the Japanese capital has the image of being a land of boring commuter towns with no cultural attractions beyond shopping malls and family restaurants.

All this and more is grist for “Fly Me to the Saitama,” a comedy by Hideki Takeuchi that takes this city-suburb clash to absurd and fantastic extremes. Based on a manga by Mineo Maya, the film is packed with spot-on observations and pointed jabs at the similarly disrespected prefectures of Chiba, Gunma, Tochigi and Ibaraki.

This could have been the definition of an only-for-Japan movie, but Takeuchi, director of the hit time-travel comedy “Thermae Romae” (2012), crosses cultures entertainingly, though his present-day characters journey through the more stupefying bits of the Saitama plain. For this native of Ohio — an American equivalent of Saitama — the gags really hit home. The snobberies and status anxieties behind many of them are hardly limited to Japan.

Fly Me to the Saitama (Tonde Saitama)
Rating
Run Time 107 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens Feb. 22

Also, I live uncomfortably close to that benighted prefecture and am secretly glad I have a Tokyo address, though, as the film cruelly reminds me, I can hardly be considered a “real” Tokyoite.

The story begins with the Sugawaras —Mom (Kumiko Aso), Dad (Brother Tom) and adult daughter Aimi (Haruka Shimazaki) — driving from the family home in Kumagaya, Saitama — notorious for being the hottest place in Japan — to a ceremony celebrating Aimi’s engagement. Dad, a proud son of Saitama, becomes offended at his daughter’s eagerness to leave Kumagaya for Tokyo. To calm troubled waters, Mom tunes to a radio play about the rebellion of Saitama citizens against their Tokyo overlords.

Cut to an alternative Tokyo, where Saitama-ese must have a special visa to enter the capital’s hallowed precincts and are regarded by Tokyoites as the lowest of the low. One is Momomi Dannoura (Fumi Nikaido), the cosseted son of the Tokyo governor and student council president at the elite Hakuhodo Academy. However, his primacy there is soon threatened by Rei Asami (the single-named Gackt), a transfer student from America who melts female hearts with his sophistication and long-haired beauty. Enraging Momomi further is Rei’s sympathy for scholarship students from Saitama, wretches forced to live in misery apart from the Versailles-like splendors of the Hakuhodo campus.

The governor’s butler, Akutsu (Yusuke Iseya), suspects that Rei is not all he seems, but after a sudden kiss, Momomi falls under Rei’s spell and becomes his inseparable companion. Then Momomi learns Rei’s true identity and background, forcing him to choose between his love or his father, soon to become Rei’s sworn enemy?

The guy-meets-guy plot, as Aimi acerbically notes, resembles a “boys love” manga, but Takeuchi and scriptwriter Yuichi Tokunaga expand it with both topical references and action scenes straight from a samurai swashbuckler, complete with feudal-era costumes, if not swords. All this is played with a theatrically straight face — and is funnier for it.

As the sexually conflicted Momomi, Nikaido mixes shōjo manga (girls’ comic) seriousness with sly meta humor to hilarious effect. With her playing the lead, “Fly Me to the Saitama” spreads its wings to the world.