Fly Me To The Saitama (2019) Review

Introduction

One day after watching Hideki Takeuchi’s Fly Me To The Saitama, two people in my near vicinity happened to mention Saitama. While this seemed like a mere coincidence, my fresh and fond memory of Takeuchi’s adaptation Mineo Maya’s ‘Tonde Saitama’ made me question if there was not a element of truth to the narrative after all.

Review

One day, Yoshiumi Sugawara (Brother Tom) and Maki Sugawara (Kumiko Aso) need to drive their daughter Manami from Saitama to Tokyo for her engagement with her ‘Saitamese’ boyfriend Haruto Igarashi (Haruto Igarashi). Her parents, annoyed that she wants to move to Tokyo, wonder why she doesn’t want to stay in Saitama. Manami immediately responds that Saitama is lame.

Suddenly, while they’re driving, the family happen to hear a special broadcast recounting an urban legend. In the past, there was a time where Saitama people were discriminated by Tokyo people and Tokyo was, even if one had a visa, a place full of impossibilities. But a revolution is brewing. When Asami Rei (Gackt) transfers to Hakuhodo Academy, he has but one goal in mind: to become the next governor of Tokyo, instead of Momomi Dannoura (Fumi Nikaido), the son of the current governor  (Akira Nakao), and liberate Saitama.

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Fly Me To The Saitama consists of two different narratives spaces, the narrative space of the Sugawara family driving to Tokyo and the narrative space as recounted in the special broadcast. The visualization of the latter consists of a crazy mix between Japan’s feudal past, Japan’s contemporary capitalistic society structured around enjoyment and consumption, European renaissance influences (e.g. to visualize the Tokyo elite and Hakuhodo academy), and various futuristic elements, like the special police force tasked to find and extract illegal ‘Saitamese’ people). It is an anachronistic space that’s full of contradictions, but – and this is the surprising part – it works. The spectator is able to accept the ridiculousness of this fictional world and give a place to all the silly things thrown at him.

The semi-futuristic Tokyo, for example, is framed as a place of (erotic) enjoyment, a place marked by debauchery. While the Tokyoites can happily indulge in these erotic pleasures, the ‘Saitamese’, even if they have a visa, are forbidden to enjoy themselves in the same way. The Tokyoites are, in other words, modern consumers and the ‘Saitamese’ feudal peasants. The visualization is, as is as clear as day, a caricatural radicalization of the difference between the city and the countryside (Narra-note 1). This example of caricatural radicalization points to the fact that one needs to read the whole anachronistic space, first and foremost, as a caricatural radicalization of prejudices Japanese people have about certain prefectures (Culture-note 1). Of course, due to this dependence on prejudices, foreign spectators will miss some of the more fine comical references.

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The reason why Tokyo is so desirable for the ‘Saitamese’ living outside Tokyo is function of the deprivation of enjoyment they are subjected to. For these outsiders, Tokyo functions as a fantasy screen where they can project their desires to enjoy on. But Tokyo does not satisfy the ‘Saitamese’ desire to enjoy, far from it. As is made clear at Hakuhodo academy, legal Saitama students face continued discrimination and deprivation of standard school amenities. There is, in other words, a true segregation between Tokyo People and Saitama people. This segregation – and this is important – enables the Tokyo-elite to enjoy the Saitama people as such. The Tokyo-elite can enjoy enforcing the deprivation of Saitama students as such. The possibility of enjoying the very act of depriving someone of something reveals the perverse core that marks any kind of discrimination.

It’s thus not surprising that Asami Rei’s first protest against Momomi’s authority, e.g. his act of making him trip after he denied an ill ‘Saitamese’ student access to the nurse’s room, is a reaction against the perverse way Momomi abuses his power. His act is, far from targeted on aiding the ‘Saitamese’ as such, a refusal to abide to the exploitative enjoyment of those in power. Of course, his subsequent act of visiting the impoverished classroom of the Saitama students and his act of giving medication to the ill girl are radical gestures against the existing segregation (Narra-note 2). These gestures, which confuses the Saitama students at first but ultimately instills them with hope, suggests – something that is confirmed not that much later in the narrative – that Asami’s true purpose is the liberation of Saitama (Narra-note 3).

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Fly Me To The Saitama also touches upon the power of love (Narra-note 4). It is Momomi’s act of falling in love with Rei Asami, a Saitamise, that will show that love, even if its imaginary in nature, has the power to destroy segregation and discrimination. In matters of love, one’s origin is of no importance. This is already hinted at when Momomi in full knowledge of Asami’s Saitamese origins decides, much to the horror of her parents, to follow him on his crazy and unpredictable quest to liberate Saitama (Narra-note 5).

While segregation and the ability of love to radically change society are important themes in Fly Me To The Saitama the main theme of the narrative concerns the ability to be proud on one’s prefectural origin. The narrative exploitation of the rivalry between prefectures (e.g. Saitama, Gunma, Chiba, and Tokyo) in general and the smart utilization of the lack of proudness Saitama people might have about their home prefecture in particular, only serves to evoke the importance to be proud of one’s own prefecture.

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While the visual anachronistic flamboyance is already a powerful source of silliness and comedy, there is also comedy to be found at the level how the father, the mother and the daughter react to the fantastical past introduced by the radio broadcast. The father, being entirely captivated by the story, takes it for real, while the daughter, dismissing it as fictional boys-love story, keeps indulging in formulating complaints about (Da)Saitama (e.g. Saitama has never delivered the prime minister, Saitama’s girls have the smallest cup size, …etc. ) (Narra-note 6).

The main element that marks the cinematography of Fly Me To The Saitama is movement. Takeuchi’s blend, despite resorting to fixity at various points in the narrative, is a composition that never rests. Luckily, Takeuchi adds enough variety in cinematographical movement, e.g. slow fluid following movements, subtle floating spatial movement, shaky movement, … etc., into his mix to make sure that the composition, instead of being exhausting, keeps impelling the spectator’s interest. There is, in other words, no craziness present at the level of the cinematography.

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But while Takeuchi’s mix is able to entice the spectator to keep on watching, the lack of cinematographical ridiculousness ultimately hurts the narrative. Takeuchi’s failure to support the theatrical silliness at the level of the visuals by some extravagance at the level of the cinematography ultimately robs the finale, which is full of suprises, from its ability to fully satisfy the spectator.

While the extravagant visual nature of Fly Me To The Saitama is not empowered by the cinematography, the performances do successfully support the visual silliness and comedic nature of the narrative. There are three interactions that really stand-out. First, the interaction between Haruka Shimazaki and Brother Tom. Secondly, the interaction between Brother Tom and Kumiko Aso and thirdly, the interaction between Gackt and Fumi Nikaido. While the two first interactions provide some truly funny comedy, it is nevertheless the interaction between Fumi Nikaido and Gackt that drives and carries the narrative (Cine-note 1). It is the chemistry they have on the screen, a chemistry making their rivalry and mutual attraction towards each other a joy to watch, that helps keeping the spectator engaged as the narrative of Saitama’s liberation unfolds.

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As a matter of fact, it is only due to Gackt’s and Fumi Nikaido’s performances, performances theatrical in speech as well as in comportment, that the absurd theatre Fly Me To The Saitama is able to become a narrative with high stakes. The theatricality of speech and behaviour does not only give every speech-act and comportment of Momomi and Rei a certain heroic importance, but also turns their rivalry into a thrilling confrontation and their attraction towards each other into an exciting dramatic romance (Music-note 1).

Fly Me To The Saitama is, without a doubt, one of the most crazy visual spectacles to have been made in 2019. But far from being just silly, Takeuchi and Tokunaga have succeeded in turning the contradictions, anachronisms, and the visually radicalized prejudices into a hilarious, witty adventure that touches upon the importance of being proud of one’s home prefecture. But the narrative would’ve been even better if Takeuchi had dared to mirror the visual silliness in his cinematographical style. Nevertheless, we duly recommend this high-school boys-love romance adventure to any Japanese cinema lover.

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Notes

Narra-note 1: This caricatural divide echoes how the daughter thinks about the difference between Saitama and Tokyo.

Culture-note 1: Let us note that the trail Rei is faced with in order to prove he’s not from Saitama – i.e. standing on a senbei (Rice Wafer), is a clear reference to the similar trick used in Japan under Hideyoshi’s reign to identify Christians. In the case of Christians, one was, of course, not asked to stand on a senbei, but on a painting of Holy Virgin Maria.

Let us also note the costumes of the girls flanking the Chiba-born Sho Akutsu (Yusuke Iseya) refer to the Ama, i.e. the traditional pearl-fishing girls of Japan. And the costume of the Duke of Saitama (Masaki Kyomoto) is a direct reference to Kabuki.

The mysterious illness Saitamalaria, the existence of the Saitama Trap, i.e. a trap exploiting the nautical desire of the ‘Saitamese’, and the birthplace duel adds more explicit silliness in the narrative. And let us not to forget to mention that Fly Me To The Saitama implies, at first glance, that dinosaurs and cannibals are still living in the jungle that Gunma prefecture is.

Narra-note 2: The reason why the Saitama students study at Hakuhodo academy and put up with the discrimination they are subjected to is because graduating from Hakuhodo makes them qualified to life in Tokyo.

Narra-note 3: That Asami’s ultimate goal is the liberation of Saitama is made explicit when his father,  Akaji Maro (Sojyuro Saionji) reminds him of his mission to become the new governor of Tokyo and to abolish the visa-system.

Narra-note 4: Let us also note that while the attraction appears to be heterosexual, the mutual attraction is, as Rei and Momomi are both men, homosexual in nature.

Narra-note 5:  While Momomi says he doesn’t care about Asami’s origins, his body, unable to move, underlines that he needs to overcome a certain deep-rooted ‘disgust’.

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