Film News: Japan’s Hot Film ‘Fly Me to Saitama’ Opens 8th Asian Pop-up Cinema, Mar. 12, 2019

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CHICAGO – Right out of the gate, the Asian Pop-Up Cinema (APUC) of Chicago proves they are one of the top cultural connections in the city. Season Eight opens on Tuesday, March 12th with “Fly Me to Saitama,” one of the hottest films in Japan, with three consecutive weeks as a top box office draw. The film is an uproarious comedy satire – adapted from a Manga comic book series – about the prefecture identities of Japan, warring around the notion that Toyko is the center of the Japanese universe. Director Hideki Takeuchi will appear on behalf of the film, for more details and tickets, click here.

“Fly Me to Saitama” refers to the land-locked Japanese prefecture (like our states) of Saitama, where many people come from but no one likes to claim (“I’m from Toyko”). The film works on two levels, as a radio story that a family is listening to on the way to their daughter’s engagement party, and that story coming to life. Framed like a Japanese/samurai epic, a mysterious stranger named Rei infiltrates a prestigious boarding school where Momoni is being groomed to be the next governor of Toyko. Rei is a double agent from Saitama (which has their own “Wakanda Forever” type arm salute) and his charisma could change everything. When a story counts the making of rice crackers as a point of pride, the laughs are assured.

APUC Opening Night Film for Season Eight is ‘Fly Me to the Saitama’
Photo credit:

This North American Premiere is part of the program-packed Season Eight of APUC, as their new format (multiple films per week) will spotlight a different Asian country every week. APUC is facilitated by founder and veteran film programmer Sophia Wong Bocchio, and Season Eight has an amazing line-up of films from Japan, Mongolia, Singapore, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Indonesia and South Korea. Films mainly screen at Chicago’s AMC River East 21, with various other locations throughout the season (click link below at the end of the article for more details).

The director of “Fly Me to Saitama,” Hidecki Takeuchi, has had a long career directing Japanese television, while occasionally also making feature films. He talked to (through a translator) about his hilarious take on cultural and territorial identity, and the reaction from Japan. Your film makes fun of social class, urban snobs and the strange pride of identity with a place, which you don’t really pick at birth. Besides the comedy of Saitama, what do you want non-Japanese audiences to get out of the film?

Hidecki Takeuchi: To be honest with you, I didn’t think the film had a life outside of Japan. I really had no intention of showing it to a non-Japanese audience. I just thought, because of the purely Japanese topic, that it was niche film. Now I’m in Chicago, and then I’m going to Shanghai and Italy with the film. I’m actually perplexed by the phenomenon that has developed. [laughs]

The Struggle is Real: A Scene from ‘Fly Me to the Saitama’
Photo credit: Since the story was adapted from a Manga series, what direction did you take it from the original source series, either to make it funnier or even more of a satire of Japanese war and clan films?

Takeuchi: There are two stories in the film … the present-day family listening to the ‘urban legend’ and the story of that legend itself. I brought the modern family in. Also the original Manga series had three stories, which are depleted around the middle of the film. Everything from that point on I added.

In the original story, it was only Toyko vs. Saitama, but I also brought in Chiba [another nearby prefecture], because I’m from Chiba. I brought the extra identity based on the old Japanese saying, “The nose booger is laughing at the eye booger,” meaning the lower is laughing at the other lower. [laughs] The film also makes fun of familiar Japanese war and samurai epics like Kurosawa’s ‘Ran.’ What kind of tribute did you want to do to those types of films?

Takeuchi: I created rivalries that don’t exist, and accentuated it with the air of superiority that are prevalent in those spectacles, and used the samurai war accent as an analogy. I took the tiny air of superiority and blew it up into a huge issue. I asked the actors to take it really seriously, as if they were in one of those films. The soon-to-be-engaged girl in the backseat of the family van seemed to be the only character plugged into the reality of the “urban legend,’ as they listen to it. Who does she represent in modern Japanese society, and is her attitude healthy or hindering for Japan’s respect of their past culture?

Takeuchi: She represents the reality of what Saitama residents really think, which is not to think of any rivalries at all. [laughs] Well, also the fact that the story was “boy love” seemed only apparent to the soon-to-be-engaged girl. What is the Japanese attitude toward the gay community there, and is it more out in the open in younger people?

Takeuchi: This is more my opinion, but from what I observed the younger generation has opened up the acceptance of the community, especially in the last five years.

Saitama Forever! Hideki Takeuchi of ‘Fly Me to Saitama’ and APUC Founder Sophia Wong Boccio
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for You cast a female actor [Fumi Nikaido] as Momomi, the boy who would be governor. What did she like about portraying a man, in the sense of knowing that it was part of a joke that a man looked like a woman?

Takeuchi: She a great actor, and plays many diverse roles. When she heard about this one, she wanted the challenge. There a tradition of women portraying men in a Japanese musical theater group called the Takarazuka Revue, and that influenced the idea and her portrayal of the character. How are Japanese audiences enjoying the film? As a culture, do the Japanese not mind being made fun of, or do they not like it?

Takeuchi: I’m very pleased about the reaction in Japan, it’s been one of the top three films at the box office since it opened three weeks ago. There has never been a spotlight on Saitama, so even if it makes fun of them a bit they are enjoying this moment in that spotlight. What does your work in television teach you about making movies, and what have you learned about storytelling in both media?

Takeuchi: What I’ve learned about doing TV dramas is that if the audience doesn’t like it, they will change channels. You have to be constantly attracting attention in those stories. In general, I think Japanese films are generally slow in telling their stories. So using what I learned from television, I like to bring in a faster paced type of entertainment. Well, ‘Fly Me to Saitama’ certainly fulfills that part of your skill set, it is very funny, and very entertaining.

Season Eight of the Asian Pop-Up Cinema opens with “Fly Me to the Saitama.” TODAY, March 12th, 2019 (7pm), at the AMC River East 21, 322 East Illinois Street, Chicago. Director Hideki Takeuchi will make an appearance on behalf of the film. For a complete overview on Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season Eight, click here. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

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© 2019 Patrick McDonald,

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