Media. Films reviewed: Late Night, Fly Me to the Saitama

Posted in comedy, Japan, LGBT, Manga, TV, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 14, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Spring film festival season continues in Toronto. The Japanese film fest is showing great movies at the JCCC (Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre), and the ICFF (Italian Contemporary Film Fest) which started just last night is showing films in Toronto and across Canada.

This week I’m talking about two new comedies, one that closed Inside Out, and another that’s opening at Toronto Japanese Film Fest. There’s a talk show host in New York who might lose her job, and a suburban freedom fighter in Tokyo who might lose his life.

Late Night

Dir: NIsha Ganatra

Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is a late night talk show host on Network TV. She’s known for her erudite interviews, highbrow topics and funny monologues. She sticks to the tried and true, steering clear of gossip, pop culture and social networks. She’s a highly respected host and the only woman on late night TV.

She’s also tired, boring and tanking in the ratings. So much so, the network chief gives her an ultimatum: get with times or we’ll replace you. An offensive fratboy standup is already being groomed to take her place. What can she do?

In walks Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), fresh from a chemical plant in Pennsylvania. She has no experience as a writer, but happens to be in the right place at the right time, and is hired to add some spark to a moribund, all-male writers’ room. But she faces a wall of sexist, priveleged white guys, who resent her intrusion. This has been a bastion of male writers for so long they have even co-opted women’s washroom!

And their boss, Katherine – the show’s host – is a petty dictator, who never talks to her writers but demands long hours and absolute obedience. Only the newly-hired Molly is naïve enough to flout the rules. Can Molly fit into an all-male workplace? And can she change Katherine’s mindset enough to set theshow on a new course… before she gets gets fired or the show gets canned?

Late Night is a clever look at late-night TV. While not a slapstick comedy, it does have a enough character jokes, awkward situations and one-liners (some work, some don’t) which keep you smiling if not always rolling on the floor. It follows the dynamics of a cruel but insecure boss trying to change, and the newby who keeps getting herself in trouble.

It also follows the two main characters’ lovelifes. Katherine has a faithful but reclusive husband (John Lithgow). Molly is initially hit on by writers from the show: the womanizer Charlie (Hugh Dancy) and the snobbish Tom (Reid Scott) who both think a woman writer is there to date, but not to take seriously.

Emma Thompson is believable as the talk show host and Mindy Kaling (she’s also the movie’s writer) is fun as the small-town, fish out of water.

I liked this movie.

Fly me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉)

Dir: Hideki Takeuchi

It’s present-day Tokyo (sort of). It’s actually a feudal version dressed in modern garb, patrolled by violent Robocop storm troopers dressed in clingy, white bodysuits who capture and expell any “outsiders” from beyond the city’s borders. The most reviled place of all is Saitama, a suburban prefecture just to the city’s north. It’s known as Dasai-tama, Urusai-tama, Mendokusai-tama, Ahokusai-tama (meaning out of fashion, inconvenient, noisy… and worse.) Your status is determined by your Urban Index Rating.

Momomi (Nikaido Fumi) is the Student Council President at the prestigious Hakuhodo Academy. He’s an arrogant snob who dresses like Little Lord Fauntleroy with a blonde pageboy haircut. He is the son of the deeply corrupt, hereditary governor of Metropolitan Tokyo and next in line to take the throne. And he is served by his mysterious butler Akutsu (Iseya Yusuke) who anticipates his every move.

But order is threatened by the arrival of an unknown wealthy aristocrat named Rei (Gackt). Rei spent many years in America and can distinguish the various neighbourhoods of Tokyo merely by sense of smell. And his urban rating is higher even than Momomi’s. Momomi is furious and wants to have him killed… until their first kiss. Momomi is swept away in his arms. But Rei has a secret…

He’s actually from Saitama! If the secret is revealed he will be humiliated, expelled from Tokyo, or maybe even killed. Can Momomi accept Rei’s true identity? And can Rei overthrow the powers that be and free the people of Saitama forever?

That’s a very quick and simple sketch of this movie, but it’s actually about so much more. Fly Me to the Saitama is an absolutely bizarre, over-the-top satire of urban culture, based on a gag-style manga from the 1980s. The characters all wear elaborate rococo costumes and multi-coloured, enormous hairstyles. Like in many girls comics (aka shojo manga) both of the main romantic characters are boys, in this one Momomi is played by a woman. And the whole movie is loaded with plays on words, and references to old Japan. Still, with a bit of suspension of disbelief, I think it’s totally understandable.

It’s directed by Takeuchi Hideki, who brought us Thermae Romae, about a Roman centurian who is magically transported through time from a Roman bath to a Japanese sento. This movie is also fantastical and bizarre, and will keep you shaking your head in bewildered wonder. Fly Me to the Saitama is already smash hit in Japan, one of the few local film successes so far this year, grossing over a billion yen. If you’re into Japanese pop culture, this movie is a must-see.

Late Night opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Fly me to the Saitama is playing at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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