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March 12, 2019

Fly Me to the Saitama

fly me to the saitama.jpg

Tonde Saitama
Hideki Takeuchi - 2019
Toie Company

Totally unfamiliar to me until recently is the existence of Asian Pop-up Cinema, a festival of Asian films held in Chicago. The selection of films might best be described as eclectic. Of note is that several members of the Advisory Board are also connected with the internationally respected Far East Film Festival held in Udine, Italy. Mark Schilling, who covers Japanese cinema for the English language Japan Times, and also advises on Japanese films for the Far East Film Festival, will be on hand for what will be the North American premiere in Chicago. Director Hideki Takeuchi will also be in attendance for this opening night screening.

My own interest in seeing Fly Me to the Saitama comes from seeing Takeuchi's previous two features, Thermae Romae and Thermae Romae Ii. Like the new film, these films also originated as manga, the Japanese comic books. The Thermae Romae films are about a Second Century Roman architect who enters a Roman bath with an underwater connection that takes him to a contemporary Japanese bath house. The first of the two films is quite funny, and understandably the second most popular Japanese film of 2012. The new film, released in Japan just a month ago, has also proven to be a popular hit.

The 1983 source manga by Mineo Maya does not seem to be available online. I was able to find a couple of pages reproduced on an Italian site. Maya's inspiration was his own living in Saitama Prefecture, considered part of greater Tokyo, although it is something of the equivalent to the distant suburbs of major metropolitan cities. What may get in the way for some western viewers is that parts of the story are very culturally specific to Japan, enough so that I am certain I missed certain jokes.

The film is bookended by a Saitama family, the parents and their daughter, going to a the engagement ceremony for the daughter, Aimi. The father is unhappy about how far he has to drive, while Aimi dreams of getting out of Saitama and moving to Tokyo. The comic bickering between the parents and the daughter is funny enough that I had wished the whole film was about them. While driving, they listen to an "urban legend" about Saitama that took place in the past. The legend makes about the bulk of the film - about a time when people from Saitama were not allowed to enter Tokyo, with some exceptions. The two main characters of legend are the son of a rebel leader, Rei, and the son of a Tokyo government leader, Momomi.

Stories about class prejudice, or big city folks versus people from the "boonies" aren't unusual. What happens here is that first scenes take place in some kind of school where the top tier female students are all in the same color 19th Century style dresses. Rei, the only top tier male student, with his very long hair, might be described as a fop. Momomi has a blond page boy hair style, and is always referred to as being male, and yet . . . the role is performed by a female, the two characters kiss and are referred to at one point as being like Romeo and Juliet, with any homoerotic implications totally ignored. In the mix is a bit of science fiction, a few sight gags, and Japanese pop culture references. Whatever one may make of Fly Me to the Saitama, it's never visually dull.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 12, 2019 08:36 AM