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FLY ME TO THE SAITAMA (2019) review

March 12, 2019

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written by: Tomokazu Tokunaga (screenplay) and Mineo Maya (manga)
directed by: Hideki Takeuchi
rated: unrated
runtime: 107 min.
U.S. release date: March 12, 2019 (Asian Pop-Up Film Festival)

 

Some movies trigger me back to those middle school days when I was hanging out with some buddies after school and trying really hard to follow what they were saying and laugh along with whatever they found funny. Sometimes I got it, while other times I just stood there and nodded my head. Other times, one I got it, well I was right there with them, having a good old time. That’s how I felt while watching most of Hideki Takeuchi’s latest movie “Fly Me to the Saitama”. I got the gist of the story, but it definitely was clear I would’ve benefited from knowing more about Japanese class culture than I did going into it (which was very little). For the most part, I was able to follow this imaginative comedy with its social commentary and eccentric characters and there’s much to appreciate here. But overall, I was left feeling like I was still a little left out of the conversation. And that’s okay.

I went in cold to this movie, like subzero level cold. Not only did I not know what the movie was about, I also had no clue who was starring in it or who directed it. I definitely did not know what, who or where is “Saitama”. The first thing I thought of was meat substitute, but that’s not right since that’s spelled “saitan”. It turns out, Saitama is a place – well, actually a prefecture.

 

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Those who have lived in Japan or are more well-versed in the history or current events of Japan may know that Tokyo is made up of forty-seven prefectures, which is a district (property) under the government of a prefect (a chief office, a magistrate, or a governor) and one of those prefectures is called Saitama. Other prefectures are Ibaraki, Chiba, and Kanagawa, all three that are near Saitama and are mentioned in Takeuchi’s movie. It should be noted that those who were born and bred in their respective prefectures typically have an immense amount of pride for where they’re from, sometimes to the point of arrogance and prejudice towards people from other prefectures and much of that factors in to the story here. Thankfully, within the first ten minutes of the movie, there are geographic maps that identity locations and borders as a narrator (Mineo Maya, author of the 1980s Manga screenwriter Tomokazu Tokunaga is adapting here) catches us up on the past and present of Saitama and the outlying area.

From there the story focuses on Aimi Sugawara (Haruka Shimazaki), a young woman who is being driven by her mother, Maki (Kumiko Asô) and father, Yoshimi (Brother Tom) to her engagement party. They are in a hurry, talking over each other and arguing over petty things as they make their way to their destination in Tokyo. While in the car the radio is tuned to a station that is recounting in detail a time when residents of Saitama (and other prefectures that were looked down upon) were oppressed and had to get a visa if they wanted to travel to Tokyo where they were treated like lower-class plebeians who were forced to live in shacks and work menial jobs no one else wanted. At the same time, the comfortable citizens of the city felt like this provided them with sustainable living.

As the story set in 20th Century Japan (the 80s, basically) is being told, we learn that Takeuchi is about to tell what this family is listening to with an alternate universe approach, where we’re placed in a historical fantasy environment. Herein lies much of the confusing part of the story. Following along with who’s who and deciphering motivations felt like chasing my own tail.

 

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If I recount this correctly, what occurs is as follows…

A mysterious male student named Rei Asami (Gackt) transfers to Hakuhodo Academy, a prestigious high school in Tokyo. He is tall with long purple hair and sculpted cheekbones, which leads to swooning girls everywhere he walks. It is said he had spent some time studying abroad in America, which would attribute to his High Index (Don’t ask. It was lost on me). He attracts the attention and adoration (love that seems like it comes from nowhere)from the mayor’s grandson, Momomi (Fumi Nikaido), who looks like a girl (and is portrayed by an actress) and is being described as effiminate – yet I wasn’t buying it and the whole concept becomes quite distracing, pulling me out of the film as every other character refers to Momomi as “he/him/his”. I understand we live in a time where self-proclaiming pronouns are a thing, but this was hard to buy.

As it becomes clear that Rei has some revolutionary ideas about individualism, freedom and a society free of class restrictions, it also is revealed that he himself was born in Saitama Prefecture, a region everyone has looked down upon. This is shocking to Momomi, but since Rei made such an impact on him (offering a new outlook on life after being humbled and kissed by Rei) apparently, he decides to flee with this inspiring figure as he rounds up an army of fellow revolutionaries to fight (physically and figuratively) for Saitama’s rights to coincide equally with Tokyo and the other prefectures.

Most of “Fly Me to the Saitama” takes place in this historical fantasy world and when it checks in with the Sugawara family it’s kind of like when Peter Falk was reading to a young Fred Savage, with Aimi second-guessing the story and mostly brushing it off as a “boys love” story and what she’s saying isn’t too far removed from what Takeuchi is doing with this adaptation. Most of the movie feels like its paying homage to something else. Which is quite obvious at times, like in the last twenty minutes when a riff on John Williams’ “The Throne Room and End Title” is used.

Overall, “Fly Me to the Saitama” is broadly entertaining with some fun, playing-to-the rafters performances, as well as great productions values. While there are some interesting themes of discrimation and individualism, the story never really elevates to captivate beyond these themes. Most of the time it feels entirely too busy and all over the place to really make it anything more than that. But hey,  at least I learned a thing or two about Saitama. Currently, this movie is killing it at the box office in Japan (so is “Green Book”), so what do I know?

 

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RATING: **

 

“Fly Me to the Saitama” opened the 8th Season of Sophie’s Choice Asian Pop-Up Cinema at AMC River East and you can found out more about the festival here.

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Timmaah! permalink
    July 21, 2019 12:26 pm

    > Tokyo is made up of forty-seven prefectures, which is a district (property) under the government of a prefect (a chief office, a magistrate, or a governor) and one of those prefectures is called Saitama

    This is completely wrong. Please do some more research on Japan. Saitama, China, and Ibaraki are separate prefectures to Tokyo – they are all part of the Kanto region, but not part of Tokyo!

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      July 23, 2019 2:43 pm

      Thanks for reading and the enlightenment!

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