Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Hideki Takeuchi, 2019)

Fly Me to the Saitama posterThe suburbia vs metropolis divide can be a difficult one to parse though there’s rarely a culture that hasn’t indulged in it. In England, for example, suburbia is to some a byword for quiet respectability, an aspirational sort of village green utopianism built on middle-class success as opposed to frivolous urban sophistication. Then again, city dwellers often look down on those from the surrounding towns as “provincial” or even dare we say it “common”. Saitama, a suburban area close enough to Tokyo to operate as a part of the commuter belt, has long been the butt of many a joke thanks to a quip from an ‘80s comedian which labeled it “Dasaitama” in an amusing bit of wordplay which forever linked it with the word “dasai” which means “naff”.

“Dasaitama” is a label which seems to haunt the protagonists of Hideki Takeuchi’s adaptation of the popular ’80s manga by Mineo Maya. Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Tonde Saitama) opens in the present day with an ordinary family who are accompanying social climber daughter Aimi (Haruka Shimazaki) to Tokyo for her engagement party. While dad is quietly seething over this perceived slight to his beloved homeland, someone turns on the local radio station which is currently running an item on an “urban legend” about a long ago (well, in the ‘80s) period of oppression in which residents of Saitama (and other neighbouring “uncool” towns) had to get a visa to travel to Tokyo where they were treated as second-class citizens fit only for the jobs regular Tokyoites didn’t want to do and forced to live in hovels (which the snobbish city dwellers somehow thought made them feel more at home). The legend recounts the tale of a brave revolutionary who convinced the Saitamans to rise up, shake off their internalised feelings of inferiority, and reclaim their Saitama pride!

Shifting into an imagined fantasy of 20th century Japan which is in part inspired by warring states factionalism, Fly Me to the Saitama is, in the words of Aimi, a kind of “boys love” pastiche which riffs off everything from The Rose of Versailles to Star Wars while indulging in the (happily) never really forbidden love of mayor’s son Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) who has a girl’s name and feminine appearance but is actually a guy, and the dashing would-be-revolutionary Rei (Gackt) who has just returned from studying abroad in America and inevitably brought back some original ideas about individual freedom and a classless society. Having been born and raised in Tokyo, Momomi has a fully integrated superiority complex which encourages him to look down on Saitamans as lesser humans, almost untouchables, whose very existence is somewhat embarrassing. Only after being humbled, and then kissed, by Rei are his eyes opened to the evils of inequality and the ongoing corruption within his own household.

It goes without saying that much of Fly Me to the Saitama’s humour is extremely local and likely to prove mystifying to those with only rudimentary knowledge of daily life in Japan at least as far as it extends to regional stereotypes and ambivalent feelings towards hometown pride in a nation in which many still find themselves taking care not to let their accent slip after having moved to the capital lest they out themselves as an unsophisticated bumpkin. Yet there is perhaps something universal in its fierce opposition towards ingrained snobberies and petty class hierarchies which pokes fun both at the social climbing small-towners like Aimi desperate to escape the “dasai” countryside for the bright lights of Tokyo, and her proudly “dasai” dad, while asking the hoity-toity Tokyoites to get over themselves, and making a quiet plea for a little peace, love, and understanding along the way.

Then again, the Saitamans may have had a little more than freedom on their minds. If the “Saitamafication” of the world resulted in an expansion of mid-range shopping malls and chain restaurants filled with peaceful, happy people would that really be such a bad thing? Saitama might not be as “exciting” or as “cool” as Tokyo but it’s a nice enough place to live when all’s said and done. Perhaps that’s a frightening thought, but if the Saitama revolution ushers in a brave new world of freedom and equality then who really could argue with that?


Fly Me to the Saitama is screening as the opening night movie of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 12 at AMC River East 21, 7pm where director Hideki Takeuchi will be present in person for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nazeka Saitama – a novelty record released in 1981 and somewhat appropriately recorded in a style popular 15 years earlier.

24 Hour Playboy (愛と平成の色男, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1989)

24-hour-playboyYoshimitsu Morita is an enigma. While directing some of the most acclaimed Japanese films of the 80s including The Family Game or the Soseki adaptation Sorekara, his primary dedication was to the “popular” which meant he did his share of more commercial projects such as the Kadokawa idol movie Main Theme or Banana Yoshimoto adaption Kitchen. As might be discerned from the title, 24 Hour Playboy (愛と平成の色男, Ai to Heisei no Irootoko) is among his more populist efforts and is most concerned with capturing the unique quality of its time as mid-bubble Japan said goodbye to the traumatic Showa era for the (hopefully) more prosperous Heisei.

After opening with a series of scenes of the luxury to be found in the modern era from expensive rolexes to elegant yachts, the film zooms in on its hero, Nagashima (Junichi Ishida), as he receives a call from his girlfriend to the effect that she will be visiting him shortly. However, Nagashima’s first action is to leap over his balcony and run down the hill below to hide out in his car and play his saxophone before taking refuge at his younger sister’s place. Nagashima has a serious problem in that he finds himself unable to sleep and is longing for a woman who can really tire him out. Consequently he’s become the “24 hour playboy” of the title, flirting with women here there and everywhere all day long hoping to find the one who can send him straight to bed.

Unusually for a film set in the age of consumerism, Nagashima is not a high powered executive or something more glamorous like an actor or a singer, he is, in fact, a dentist. When not inappropriately flirting with the young women who end up in his dentist’s chair, Nagashima also has a sideline as a jazz saxophonist which seems to be what he’d really like to do with his life but presumably is not as lucrative as the unexpectedly elite world of dentistry.

The consumerist society runs as background throughout the film as Nagashima enjoys a fairly upscale lifestyle perfect for a playboy with visits to trendy nightclubs and late night driving ranges, but the film also gets a lot of milage out of the literal change in era occurring just at the time the film was made. The traditional Japanese dating system takes its name from the emperor – the Showa era began in 1926 and was witness to both Japan’s tragic affair with militarism and expansionist warfare and the beginnings of its return to prosperity in the now nostalgic ‘70s and ‘80s. With the death of Hirohito in January 1989, his son Akihito assumed the throne and began the “Heisei” era. The film was released in 1989 but “Heisei” is referenced several times throughout both as a joke on the fact that “Heisei” means “peace everywhere” and in Nagashima’s comments that some things have already improved in the extremely young new regime.

In keeping with Morita’s determination to stay up to the minute, the film is very much of its time but paints its transitional moment as one of excitement and possibility but also of confusion and inertia. When Nagashima tells a late night barman that he doesn’t know what he wants, he’s talking about more than drinks though he seems happy enough with the gimlet the bar tender picks out for him. Nagashima’s insomnia is apparently caused by not having a good woman to share his bed, but he spends the film playing four women off against each other without ever being really serious about any of them.

After his sometime girlfriend whom he ran out on in the beginning starts talking marriage, Nagashima hatches a plan to get his sister to pretend to be a religious nutcase to put her off. Later he gets another girlfriend to pretend to be his wife and mother of his three children to rid himself of one of the others, gets rid of another by telling her he’s off to “dentists without borders”, and even ends up treating two of his simultaneous girlfriends at the same time in adjacent dental surgeries. Nagashima’s behaviour is caddish in the extreme, thinking only of himself and never really seeing the women in front of him as entities separate from their relationship with him.

A throwback to feckless ‘60s male heroes whose casual womanising represented aspirational male fantasy, Nagashima’s exploits are depicted in a light hearted and humorous way eased by the fact that the women don’t seem to mind very much even after they discover that they aren’t Nagashima’s one and only. Eventually outed as a love rat in the papers, Nagashima’s accidental fame, far from causing outcry and condemnation, attracts a vast crowd of ladies wanting in on the action for themselves.

Oddly the one woman Nagashima does seem to be able to connect with is his sister whom he ironically describes as the one woman he doesn’t understand. Frequently staying over at her apartment, Nagashima often remarks that he wishes all women like her or that all women were his sister, which is an extremely odd thing to say in the circumstances but she is the one woman he seems to have a fully realised conception of and is able to relate to on a human level.

Necessarily very much of its time – the Heisei era is even referenced in the slightly ironic title, 24hr Playboy is one of Morita’s most disposable efforts but is also a perfect reflection of contemporary society in its increasingly consumerist fervour where dentists can live like playboy millionaires and the sheer abundance of choice leaves young men paralysed with indecision. Nagashima’s playboy lifestyle is mined for comic value as he plays the melancholic hero who doesn’t know what he wants and and so has a massive fear of (and yet intense desire for) commitment, but Morita is always careful to point out his essential ridiculousness as Nagashima’s “Heisei” lifestyle becomes less “peaceful” with each additional girlfriend and the increasingly elaborate excuses needed to jilt them.