Fly Me to the Saitama (Hideki Takeuchi, 2019) – Fantasia International Film Festival

SAITAMA IS WACK!

Municipal rivalries, bedroom community resentments, and capital city snobbery are made fantastically farcical in Hideki Takeuchi’s adaptation of Mineo Maya’s cult manga. In this alternate Japan, Tokyo is a luxurious metropolis surrounded by impoverished prefectures living in near feudal-era conditions. Momomi Dannoura (Fumi Nikaido), son of Tokyo’s governor and possessor of striking feminine beauty, rules a baroquely decorated academy and disdains the presence of any non-Tokyoites, particularly those from the Saitama prefecture. The arrival of the mysterious transfer student Rei Asami (GACKT) sparks an undeniable attraction in Momomi and starts a war of liberation between the disrespected prefectures and the opulent megacity. Can love and regional pride overcome big city corruption?

Fly Me to the Saitama is Japanese lunatic satire at its finest, balancing a storm of local inside jokes with universal tensions between slick urbanites and commuter belt wastelands. In between, the film stuffs wacky battles, gender-bending characters, outlandish wigs and costumes, and plenty of historical anachronisms all delivered with disarmingly earnest performances from a stellar cast. Book your ticket to this award-winning, box office smash and accept your Saitamafication!

Special Edition Contents:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and Uncompressed Stereo PCM
  • Newly translated English subtitles
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Audio commentary with director Hideki Takeuchi, creator Mineo Maya, and crew
  • Audio commentary by Japanese film scholar Mark Shilling
  • Interviews with cast and crew
  • Reverse Country Boasting Japan’s No. 1 Final Battle, a special promotional program for the film
  • Behind-the-scenes footage
  • Deleted scenes
  • Trailers
  • Reversible sleeve featuring two artwork choices

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by manga and cosplay scholar Emerald L. King and a new printing of Mineo Maya’s original 188-page manga

Fly Me to the Saitama sets itself up with a car ride. Ami Sugawara (Haruka Shimazaki) is a young woman being driven to her engagement party by her mother Maki (Kumiko Aso) and father Yoshimi (popular tarento or TV personality Brother Tom) and nerves during the long drive are strained. Ami can’t wait to get married, move to Tokyo, and put life in Saitama prefecture behind her. For her, the landlocked region is a poor cousin to the nearby megacity and it deserves its reputation as a backwater bedroom community with little going for it. After all, Saitama has no sea, no airport, no attractions, has never produced a Prime Minister, and its women have on average the smallest breasts in the country. Ami’s disdain strikes at her father’s civic pride, reflecting the historic prejudice of snobby Tokyoites looking down on stupid, insipid country folk, and so he turns on the radio and discovers a broadcast fantasy of Saitama’s successful resistance against the political and cultural hegemony of Tokyo. What follows is that broadcast’s bizarrely imagined civil war between Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures.

The fantasy within the film presents an alternate reality Japan where Tokyo is a hedonistic, futuristic metropolis barred to outsiders unless they possess an official visa into the city. These geographic class divisions extend into the ostentatiously baroque halls of Hakuhodo Academy, an elite school that observes a comparable hierarchy among its students. At the top is Momomi Dannoura (Fumi Nikaido), the imperious son of Tokyo’s corrupt governor and the Academy’s student council president. At the bottom are the lowly scholarship students from Saitama who live in an off-campus hovel and are denied medical care. Momomi’s authority is threatened by the arrival of 19 year-old transfer student Rei Asami (played by 46 year-old actor and J-rock star GACKT). Rei shares Momomi’s exceptional refinement, each bedecked in neo-Versailles fashion and each able to identify by scent alone the location of air gathered from around Tokyo, however Rei’s compassion toward the Saitama students is confounding and offensive to Momomi. The Dannoura family’s butler, Sho Akutsu (Yusuke Iseya), reveals that Rei is actually from Saitama and is a secret agent of the Saitamese Revolutionary Liberation Front working from within to unshackle his homeland from Tokyo’s autocratic elite. His cover blown, Rei flees back to Saitama and Momomi follows, having discovered his father’s plot to destroy Saitama’s resistance and having fallen in love with this tall, dark stranger after a single, revelatory kiss.

The world outside Tokyo’s sci-fi futurism and rococo-infused grandiloquence is shabby and impoverished, resembling the hardscrabble peasant communities of Japan’s feudal eras. Rei’s intended war with Governor Dannoura and Tokyo is hindered by regional rivalries with the Chiba Liberation Front and those of other prefectures like Kanagawa, Tochigi, and Ibaraki, an expansion from the original manga that reflects the director’s own Chiba origins and which serves as an additional hurdle before Rei and Momomi can lead the non-Tokyo hinterland to a final confrontation against Saitama’s big city oppressors. With Fly Me to the Saitama being so heavily entrenched in local grudges and stereotypes, it very easily could have been an impenetrable accumulation of inside jokes lost to non-Japanese viewers, and there is a lot of such content packed into the film. Rei’s claim of not being from Saitama is tested by a demand that he stand on a senbei or rice wafer carrying the image of a collared dove, as the modern version of the wafer was popularized in Sōka, Saitama, as the collared dove is the official bird of Saitama prefecture, and as standing on the image of a Christian icon was a traditional means of exposing hidden Christians when the religion was suppressed in the early 17th-century. Female members of the CLF are costumed as Ama, traditional pearl-fishing girls associated with Chiba’s Bōsō Peninsula. The mountainous Gunma prefecture is depicted as a lost jungle of dinosaurs and cannibals and a confrontation between Saitama and Chiba include unfurling competing banners of local celebrities like the rock bands The Alfee and X Japan.

The inherent wackiness of these in-jokes alone is enough to make them entertaining, but Takeuchi’s film is rooted in a tension between urban and suburban that is readily recognizable to anyone, Japanese or not. The conflict of Fly Me to the Saitama most frequently draws comparison to New York City and the unremarkable bedroom communities in New Jersey where many of those employed in the Big Apple actually reside. Still, the film’s situation is common all over, as there is a Stevenage for every London, a Hull for every Ottawa, a New Lenox for every Chicago. Civic pride is hardly a sexy topic for the big screen or otherwise, especially when it is for a comfortably middling, generally boring hometown, and so it is to its credit that Fly Me to the Saitama takes its tale of two cities and dramatizes it with the most flamboyant litany of Dickensian contrivances – a picaresque hero, fierce satirizing of class divisions, secret parentages, sentimental melodrama, and threatening illnesses (Saitamalaria!). And in case the evocation of A Tale of Two Cities wasn’t clear enough, the film’s poster even parodies Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People

Mineo Maya’s manga was a boys’ love series, a homoerotic subgenre of shōjo or girls’ comics featuring male/male romance for a primarily female readership. The original printed version of Tonde Saitama was published in 1983 for Hana to yume (Flowers and Dreams) magazine, although, like many manga, it was dropped before it could finish (requiring Takeuchi and screenwriter Yuichi Tokunaga to create three-quarter’s of the film’s plot). In keeping with BL manga and its preference for “beautiful boys” or bishōnen (young men of androgynous beauty), Tonde Saitama reflected Maya’s view that the most wonderful combination was found between “a beautiful youth and a handsome young man.” It’s easy to watch the film and fail to catch that Fumi Nikaido’s Momomi is a male character given his feminine beauty and girl’s name. Frankly, it’s easy to look at pages from Maya’s manga and make the same error. When asked if the fluidity of Momomi’s gender in look, role, and casting acknowledged LGBT movements, director Takeuchi expressed practical considerations:

All works of the original manga artist are themes of boys’ love, so I had no choice. But boys’ love has not widely accepted in Japan, so I brought Ms. Nikaido as a boy; otherwise the film couldn’t make a box-office revenue of 21 billion yen (about $188 million).

For his part, Maya claims no particular interest in gender and suggests that the role of Momomi may have been too difficult for a male actor. Fly Me to the Saitama’s creators specifically disclaim any political and cultural interest in the Blur-like conundrum of casting a girl to play a boy who looks like a girl and falls in love with a boy. To find resonance with the film’s interest with appearance over identity, one must turn to a modern Japanese cultural practice: cosplay.

A Japanese portmanteaux of “costume” and “play” or “role-play,” cosplay refers to the dressing and acting as a character from popular culture, particularly those of Japanese origin, and it has particular relevance in relation to Takeuchi’s film. Much the film’s heavy-lifting is undoubtedly achieved by the resplendent costumes of designer Isao Tsuge and by Takeuchi’s emphasis on governing his filmic choices on artistic factors first, remarking that “[it all] must be beautiful.” Nikaido’s elaborate wigs and costumes required to assume the role of Momomi recalls the normalized practice of dansō or female-to-male cosplay and it wavers been competing ideals of authenticity to the original character on the one hand and realizing in something transformative on the other by engaging in a fluid, idealized, and androgynous masculinity through a female frame. In a sense, the casting of GACKT as Rei confirms the cosplay foundation of Fly Me to the Saitama not by Nikaido/Momomi’s crossplay of gender but for GACKT/Rei’s crossplay of age. For Takeuchi, the actor is perfectly cast as a character nearly 30 years younger as the GACKT persona (a stage name for Gakuto Oshiro) is a much a fiction itself as the fantasy of Fly Me to the Saitama. In a sense, the movie is cosplay. We watch the film and are conscious of its performance at the same time. We are absorbed in its story while being aware of its staging, relishing in the details of Victorian brocades and fey admiralty pomp and fascinated by the hidden and unhidden anachronisms of its casting and its world. Ultimately, the line between the three-minute skits of a cosplay competition and the 107-minute runtime of Fly Me to the Saitama is only marked by quantity and not quality, by scale and not sensibility, and the joy of Takeuchi’s film is that it embraces the fluidity and playfulness inherent to cosplay on so many levels.

Being so absolutely loopy and campy in concept while being so ardent in its expression, Fly Me to the Saitama feels like a cult object and therefore a suitable title for the Arrow Video label, however the movie was no such niche object in its domestic market. This is a major film production with three thousand extras utilized during the Chiba-Saitama battle and being the first film to obtain a road closure from the Tokyo government for shooting. The result was such a commercial and critical smash in Japan that I’d like to imagine it has the pedigree of a Criterion Collection title. Fly Me to the Saitama won Best Film at Japan’s Blue Ribbon Awards, placing it alongside films by Criterion darlings like Akira Kurosawa, Mikio Naruse, Keisuke Kinoshita, Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, and others. Further, it received 12 Japan Academy Film Prize nominations, winning for Director, Screenplay, and Film Editing. Notwithstanding MMC! dreams of Criterion and Arrow Video treatments, the most likely home for Fly Me to the Saitama is probably Third Window Films, an excellent UK label devoted to Asian cinema. No physical release of the film is currently available for English language audiences and so MMC! would happily see any of these labels get properly Saitamafied. Saitamafication is, after all, all about managed expectations.

Credits: A couple special editions of Fly Me to the Saitama have been released in Japan and so most of the extras of this imagined edition have been ported over, including the audio commentary, interviews, special program, and deleted scenes. Japanese scholar and award-winning cosplayer Emerald L. King was selected to provide a booklet essay given her discussion of the film at Sydney’s Japanese Film Festival and Mark Shilling was selected to provide an audio commentary given his extensive work as a Japanese film programmer and his positive assessment of the film.

One last word of thanks to the Fantasia International Film Festival which screened Fly Me to the Saitama at both its 2019 and 2020 editions. Huge thanks should also be given to Professor Emerald King who was very generous in sharing with me her discussion at the Sydney’s Japanese Film Festival. This post was also informed by Professor King’s essay “Girls Who are Boys Who Like Girls to be Boys: BL and the Australian Cosplay Community,” Lucy Glasspool’s presentation “Gender/Sexual Ambiguity in Cosplay: Japanese Youth Culture in Asian Community,” Mark Shilling’s review for The Japan Times, P-J Van Haecke’s essay at psycho-cinematography, Matthew David Surridge’s review at Black Gate, Ed Sum’s review at Otaku no Culture, Hayley Scanlon’s review at Windows on WorldsChicago Shinpo’s interview of Hideki Takeuchi, Alexander Knoth’s interview of Takeuchi for Asian Movie Pulse, and GACKT ITALIA’s interview of Maya Mineo.

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