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.

The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (リミット・オブ・スリーピング・ビューティー, Ken Ninomiya, 2017)

the limit of sleeping beauty posterCan you escape the past by evading it? The heroine of Ken Ninomiya’s The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (リミット・オブ・スリーピング・ビューティー) does her best to find out as she approaches the point at which she can no longer bear the weight of all her sorrows. A rising star of the Japanese indie scene, Ken Ninomiya had some minor festival exposure with his first film, post-apocalyptic cyberpunk drama Slum-polis, back in 2015 before making a complete about turn in releasing a terse mockumentary about a resilient actor hammering on the door of Japanese show business. Sleeping Beauty was, apparently, originally conceived as a mid-length picture before producers suggested expanding it into a full length feature and in many ways marries the twin concerns of Ninomiya’s earlier films in its high concept examination of a fracturing psyche unable to let the past go and move on from trauma and disappointment.

At 19, Aki (Yuki Sakurai) ran away from a bad family situation and ended up in Tokyo with the hope of becoming an actress. With nowhere else to go she wandered into a random bar which is where she met the love of her life, Kaito (Issey Takahashi) – a melancholy photographer and owner of cabaret club Aurora. Kaito takes her in and she begins working at Aurora as a magician’s assistant but ten years pass and, as a TV presenter later put it, it’s unheard of for a Japanese actress to make it in her 30s.

Her mind fracturing, Aki is often accompanied by “Butch” (Nino Furuhata), a strange clown with a scary white face who appears alternately supportive and enabling. Complaining that she feels unstuck in time, Butch reminds her that the idea of time as linear flow is a misconception and that all moments are indeed one moment which is one reason Aki never quite knows “when” she is. Accepting this fact she asks to be taken to the time at which she was happiest, only to be told that emotional time is not necessarily in sync with one’s perception of temporality. Nevertheless, her mind flies back to her first meeting with Kaito who we later surmise is no longer in her life but continues to define it all the same.

The picture we get of Aki is of a woman attempting to bury herself and her disappointments by revelling in a pleasant memory and then using it as raw material to read herself into an idealised version of her current life only one which is still marred by the tragedy of losing Kaito. Ninomiya opens with an orgy in dingy sex club where everyone is wearing creepy carnival masks and the older Aki is sporting a nasty bruise on her chin. The bruise, we later discover, was earned in a nasty encounter with a lascivious producer engineered by a soulless manager who promised her a career but in effect sold her to a man who assaulted and humiliated her. This final humiliation is only one of many acts of degradation that Aki suffers in her quest to make it as an actress – one of only two things Kaito urged her to do before disappearing from her life forever.

Unable to cope with the weight of lost love, defeated dreams, and a wasted youth Aki’s mind splinters into fragments, creating the strange entity known as Butch whom she seems to want to get rid of but cannot bear to be without. Aki’s quest is one of reintegration in which she must find the strength to put herself back together again and finally set light to the past, waking up from her self imposed slumber.

Kaito wants her to know the world is still wonderful, but his message seems curiously perverse considering his final course of action and Aki’s continuing descent into a spiral of depression, exploitation, and mental instability. Fantasy and reality remain hopelessly blurred, only gradually separating and becoming distinct as Aki begins to put herself back together. Ninomiya improves on Slum-Polis with similarly detailed production design and world building but occasionally allows his taste for music video aesthetics to slide into the indulgent with the success of such sequences depending on the viewer’s taste for the overused main titles song, Hummingbird by Kyla La Grange. Nevertheless there’s no disputing Ninomiya’s ambition and originality even if there is something unsettling in his urgency to inhabit the world he seems to be critiquing.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Smokin’ on the Moon (ニワトリ★スター, Kanata Wolf, 2017)

Smokin' on the Moon posterSlacker drama has become a mainstay of the Japanese indie scene as aimless young men drift freely in a society which promises them little and threatens to take much. Even so they’ve rarely been quite so genially lost as the pair at the centre of Kanata Wolf’s Smokin’ on the Moon (ニワトリ★スター, Niwatori★Star) whose relatively serene life of stoner bliss is radically derailed after a dramatic encounter with a psychotic yakuza drug dealer. Dreaming of escape, a better life somewhere else, the pair find themselves taking very different paths as they reflect on their familial pasts, broken dreams, and future promises.

34-year-old Sota (Arata Iura) and his younger unofficial roommate and official best friend Rakuto (Ryo Narita) live a “simple” life of casual work which pays for rent and getting stoned if not much else. They are broadly “happy” with their aimless drop out lives and determined not to get involved with the shadier sides of their underworld existence by avoiding the pull of hard drugs and gangster hang outs. All that ends up going by the wayside when their dealer, Jay (Peron Yasu), is offed by sadistic yakuza Hatta (Kanji Tsuda) who makes a point of dropping in on the boys to ask them if they know where Jay might be in order to make sure they don’t. Being directly confronted with gangster violence sparks Sota into a series of epiphanies as he suddenly realises that the stoner life is not a good fit for a man of 34, while Rakuto, who has few other options, considers throwing his lot in with Hatta if only to remain on the sidelines of organised crime.

Sota, son of an Osakan okonomiyaki restaurant owner (Eiji Okuda), left home in flight of family legacy, bored with boring small-town life and resentful of his “destiny” as the heir to a family business. Eight years in Tokyo, however, have been largely wasted, squandered away on constant evasion with nothing more to show for his time than a few crazy stories and a deeply held friendship. Sota does at least have a safety net, he can always go home to a family that will welcome him with open arms. Rakuto is not so lucky. Harbouring deep seated resentment towards his mother who was unable to protect him from a violent step-father, Rakuto fled Okinawa to escape the memory of a traumatic childhood which is perhaps why he finds himself becoming a surrogate father to a little boy whose mother, as it turns out an old friend of his, desperately tries to kick a crack habit given to her by an unforgiving city even as it crushed her dreams of musical success.

Discovering an old report card on which he’d written that his greatest ambition was to work hard for his family, Rakuto decides he needs to buck up and become a responsible husband and father who can provide a stable home for a woman and a child. There are, however, few opportunities for middle-school dropouts and even those there are Rakuto has already disqualified himself from thanks to his stoner looks which include fiery red hair and several prominent tattoos (prohibited in almost every conceivable “decent” job in Japan). Thus he feels his only option is to become a kind of errand boy for Hatta, naively believing he will allow him to remain in the shallower end of the gangster pool just dealing weed and making deliveries rather than pushing hard drugs or getting involved in violence. While Sota finds peace in the country, Rakuto begins to build the family life he’d always dreamed of while trying to cope with the constant anxieties of being an underling to a bunch of unhinged crooks.

Wolf shifts registers throughout – starting off in stoner comedy where our heroes inhabit a bohemian world of gay bars and randy landladies, shifting into crime thriller as the nasty gangsters rear their heads, and then finally ending up in masculine melodrama as Sota recounts the sad story of his friend who, despite his good heart, finds himself a victim of fate rather than of himself or even of his society. Mixing strange animation and surrealist diversions with an affecting tale of friendship, Smokin’ on the Moon is another sad story of those unable to find their place in the world taking refuge in each other only to find a melancholy compromise even as fate threatens to rob them of the little joys they’ve found.


Smokin’ on the Moon screens at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 10th July at 9.15 pm plus Q&A with director Kanata Wolf

(Kanata Wolf (かなた狼) previously known as Yuichiro Tanaka (たなか雄一狼). Surname is Wolf as per official website).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Your Name (君の名は, Makoto Shinkai, 2016)

your-nameIndie animation talent Makoto Shinkai has been making an impact with his beautifully drawn tales of heartbreaking, unresolvable romance for well over a decade and now with Your Name (君の名は, Kimi no Na wa) he’s finally hit the mainstream with an increased budget and distribution from major Japanese studio Toho. Noticeably more upbeat than his previous work, Your Name takes on the star-crossed lovers motif as two teenagers from different worlds come to know each other intimately without ever meeting only to find their youthful romance frustrated by the vagaries of time and fate.

Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) is a typical country girl and daughter of a Shinto temple family who dreams of the urban sophistication of the big city. Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki), by contrast, is a typical city boy living in Tokyo and taking full advantage of its cafes and mass transportation systems. One fateful day, each wakes up in the body of the other and must quickly adjust to living in someone else’s skin. Though each originally believes the events to have been merely a dream, friends and family members are quick to point out the strange behaviour of the two teenagers. Neither Mitsuha nor Taki maintains a clear memory of their time in the other’s world though they are able to keep in a kind of contact through their respective diaries (his on a smartphone, hers in a more traditional notebook). Beginning to develop a degree of mutual affection through their strangely acquired intimacy, Mitsuha and Taki each have a profound effect on the other’s life but fate seems content to keep them apart.

Body swap comedy is not an unusual genre in Japan (Obayashi’s similarly themed I Are You, You Am Me being a notable example which was even remade by the director himself thirty years later as Switching, Goodbye Me), nevertheless Shinkai mines the situation for all of its awkward comedy as Mitsuha and Taki get used to living as the opposite gender. Beginning with the obvious repeated joke of Taki waking up and squeezing “his” breasts, there are other issues to contend with from which pronoun to use to remembering to avoid slipping into a rural dialect. Taki, obviously at sea with how to get on as a girl, causes consternation by turning up late for school with messy hair and subsequently behaving in an unacceptably masculine way. Conversely when Mitsuha is playing Taki, she helps him sort out various things in his life through her feminine influence including getting him a date with his workplace crush.

The pair are indeed “star-crossed” as their romance is heralded by the arrival of a rare comet, watched by both at the same time, as it splits in two. The comet strike turns out to have a much more pressing importance than simply as a symbol of romantic destiny but neatly represents the central dynamic of Mitsuha and Taki as two halves of the same soul. The two are connected by the “red string of fate” visualised through Mitsuha’s long red hair ribbon which later makes a reappearance in Taki’s sake based dream sequence and serves to bind the two together. Mitsuha’s family also make traditional braided bracelets which, as her grandmother tells us, represent the flow of time itself, weaving narrative into dramatic knots.

The knot, in this case, is the comet strike which later threatens to keep the tragic lovers apart rather than bring them together. Recalling the devastating earthquake of 2011, the destruction wrought by such a catastrophic event does not stop at loss of life but becomes a great ongoing loss – things left unsaid, opportunities missed, lives unlived. If it were only possible to turn back time and somehow save all those people from harm. Mitsuha and Taki have been given just such an opportunity thanks to their usual connection.

Like many Shinkai heroes, Taki and Mitsuha later find themselves burdened with a sense of incompleteness, as if they’re continually searching, trying to regain something they’ve lost but are unable to put a name to. The memories of their shared past fade, dissipating like a dream upon waking leaving a only faint trace behind them, just enough to know that something is missing. Yet, journeys end in lovers meeting, and even in a metropolis as vast as Tokyo recognition is powerful force.

Shinkai takes his trademark aesthetic beauty to all new heights with his idyllic country landscapes, realistic cities, and the visually striking (if potentially deadly) fracturing of a comet. Much less deliberately downbeat than Shinkai’s previous work which often emphasised the impossibility of true love satisfied, Your Name is no less emotionally affecting even if its melancholy sense of longing persists until the very last frame.


Reveiwed at the BFI London Film Festival 2016

Original trailer (English subtitles)