Some places are considered cool; others uncool and sometimes the two exist in uneasy proximity, like New York City and New Jersey – or Tokyo and Saitama. This prefecture to the north of Tokyo has an image as a land of boring bed towns with no cultural attractions other than shopping malls and franchise restaurants.
All this and more is grist for Fly Me to the Saitama
, a comedy by Takeuchi Hideki that takes this city-suburb clash to absurd and fantastic extremes. Based on a manga by Maya Mineo, the film is packed with in-jokes as well as spot-on observations on how Tokyoites and Saitama-ese see each other, together with 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 crosses cultures successfully, even though his present-day characters spend most of their screen journeying across the less-inspiring bits of the Saitama plain. For one thing, the gags target the sort of snobberies and status anxieties that are hardly limited to Japan. Anyone who has been on one side or the other of the hick-versus-city-slicker divide can relate – and laugh.
The story begins with the Sugawaras – Mom (Aso Kumiko), Dad (Brother Tom) and adult daughter Aimi (Haruka Shimazaki) – driving from the family home in Kumagaya, Saitama – notorious as the hottest town in Japan – to a ceremony celebrating Aimi’s engagement. Dad, a proud Saitama native, becomes offended at his daughter’s eagerness to finally leave Kumagaya for the delights of Tokyo. To calm the troubled familial waters, Mom tunes to a radio play about an “urban legend” rebellion of Saitama-ese against their Tokyo overlords.
Cut to an alternative Tokyo, where Saitama-ese must have a special visa to enter the capitol’s hallowed precincts and are regarded by Tokyoites as the lowest of the low. This attitude is especially apparent at Hakuhodo Academy, a high school for the elite whose student council president is Dannoura Momomi (Nikaido Fumi), the foppish, snobbish son of the Tokyo governor. His primacy is soon threatened by Asami Rei (single-named pop star and actor Gackt), a transfer student from America who melts the hearts of his female classmates with his long-haired beauty and suave sophistication. Enraging Momomi further is Asami’s blatant sympathy for the scholarship students from Saitama, miserable wretches forced live in a shack, apart from the Versailles-like splendors of the Hakuhodo campus.
The governor’s lynx-eyed butler, Akutsu (Iseya Yusuke), suspects that Rei is not all he seems, but when Momomi is suddenly kissed by Rei he falls under his spell and becomes his inseparable companion. Then Momomi learns that Rei (spoiler alert) is the son of the legendary leader of the Saitama Liberation Front. Will he join Rei in the rebellion – or ally himself with his father?
The guy-meets-guy plot, as Minami repeatedly notes, is straight out of a “boys love” (Yaoi) manga, but Takeuchi and scriptwriter Tokunaga Yuichi expand it with not only topical references (some of which may be obscure to non-natives), but also action scenes and attitudes from a big-budget period swashbuckler, complete with feudal-era costumes, if not swords, for the rebels. All this is played with a theatrically straight face – and is funnier for it.
As usual, the stand out is Nikaido Fumi, who plays the sexually conflicted Momomi with a blend of shojo manga (girls’ comic) seriousness and sly meta humor that makes him more than a cartoon, but still hilarious. With her in the lead, Fly Me to the Saitama
spread its wings to the world.