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Fly Me to the Saitama
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by Jay Seaver

"Weird, highly specific, and often hilarious."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: This may not be the most shojo movie possible, assuming I'm not being my manga categories mixed up, but even if I am, it's right up there in terms of just being absurdly, specifically Japanese, and regionally so at that. It shouldn't travel at all, even to a festival audience of people who love Japanese pop culture, and yet it got the biggest laughs of any film there, because for all that the jokes are specific, the spirit is not, and the way they're told is something anyone can laugh at.

The Saitama is a Tokyo suburb, described as the bits that were left over when Tokyo and Yokohama separated, and apparently not well-regarded by its neighbors. Teenage Manami Sugawara (Haruka Shimazaki) is embarrassed to be from there, something of great consternation to father Yoshiumi (Brother Tom) and mother Maki (Kumiko Aso) as they take a road trip. Frustrated, Yoshiumi turns on a radio drama, set in a heightened Tokyo where Class President Momomi Hakuhodo (Fumi Nikaido), a stiletto-heeled monster from the very best family, rules her high school with an iron fist with the Saitamese basically servants living in hovels, though she is as immediately smitten with new transfer student Rei Asami (Gackt) as anyone - "you can still smell the America on him!" What she doesn't know is that before he went abroad, he lived in the Saitama, and has been sent to infiltrate high society and destroy it from within.

Though I can't recall ever seeing any of the manga Mineo Maya specifically, original series Tonde Saitama was published in a girls' manga magazine and director Hideki Takeuchi is clearly channeling the general style, with its elaborate hair and fashion, lean and androgynously handsome men, and generally exaggerated visuals represented and amplified on-screen. It's a somewhat garish style that often works better on the page than screen, but this is a story that lets the filmmakers lean into it; between the contrast with the modern simplicity of the car and the satirical intent, it's no leap for the style to be self-parodying. After a while, becoming more ridiculous is a big part of how Takeuchi and screenwriter Yuichi Tokunaga keep it light rather than mean.

Or maybe it is mean already and my Japanophilia is just not quite strong enough to recognize just how hard the movie is coming for what seems like any city or region anywhere near Tokyo. It's a non-stop barrage of jokes that seem like they should by and large be too specific to translate, but the filmmakers are good at doing the thing where such extreme specificity can get twisted into absurdity, even though the core gag of people from a working-class town being disrespected by their neighbors works just about everywhere. I may not recognize the source of a particular gag, but I can certainly see how broad it is, how completely everybody involved has committed to the bit, and how well executed.

And since these gags come roughly every fifteen seconds, there's a good chance that enough will land and make sense that most in the audience will laugh out loud, and a lot. The cast and crew are great at putting a kernel of humanity into their live-action cartoon characters, especially Fumi Nikaido as Momomi, whose decency surprises herself as much as anyone even as she swings from one extreme of being over-the-top to another. Idol Kamui "Gackt" Gakuto is a great foil for her, never really losing how Rei is cool, suave, and dangerous but able to do a bit of a double-take when Nikaido really starts chewing the scenery. There are seemingly a couple dozen supporting characters who are just as funny, while the regular jumps back to Haruka Shimazaki, Brother Tom, and Kumiko Aso are good for both heightening the rest and showing how this mania isn't that far removed from reality.

At the climax, such an all-out assault is mounted that is hard not to laugh at something; the filmmakers have pushed every gag and broadened their targets further over the previous hour and a half until it's possible to smash them all together in a big mockery of the blockbuster finale where half the characters face off on a giant field of battle while others sneak around on bigger missions. They've got enough momentum to keep introducing new bits without it seeming like too much while paying off other bits that have been going all along, making sure not to stretch things past the point of exhaustion, so long as the brain doesn't just shut down from overload.

Overload can be a problem, and I suspect that there's a certain amount you need to know even with how many jokes work regardless ("the name is written in hiragana!" not only doesn't translate at all, it's probably actively off-putting if you don't get it). But if you've swallowed enough Japanese pop culture, this is a real kick. If you haven't, you'll still laugh, and maybe recognize the thing being parodied later.

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originally posted: 03/29/20 14:38:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Hideki Takeuchi

Written by
  Yuichi Tokunaga

  Fumi Nikaidô
  Yusuke Iseya
  Masaki Kyomoto

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