Starring: Kumiko Asô, Gackt, Yûsuke Iseya
Director: Hideki Takeuchi
Running Time: 107 mins
Fly, Saitama is a Japanese film about a world where people are discriminated by their birthplace, one man from the long-suffering Saitama Prefecture sets about sparking a revolution against the Tokyo elites and prefectural rivals Chiba to bring his home back to glory.
Regional rivalries always make for fun and games, whatever the country. Think of the hilarious Italian comedy Welcome To The South, and any other variation of regional divides around the world, and you have the set-up for Fly, Saitama, which takes a focus at the rivalry between prefectures in Japan’s Kanto region.
With a good sense of humour and a pleasantly playful and manic atmosphere throughout, the movie is a fully enjoyable watch, combining on-the-nose regional comedy with a bizarre yet surprisingly appropriate and effective fantasy story. Although Fly, Saitama occasionally does get a little too caught up in its own fantasy world, and misses the mark when delivering that core comedy as the first and foremost, it definitely has the energy and humour to entertain you all the way through.
Let’s start off, though, with how easy it is to understand the more specific cultural references and gags in this film for non-Japanese. If you know absolutely nothing about these regions, then it’s likely a lot of the most specific jokes will go over your head (like people from Chiba Prefecture being obsessed with peanuts, or Gunma being an uncivilised, prehistoric land). However, the rivalry between the elite, big city of Tokyo and what is effectively a grubbier suburb in the shape of Saitama is easy to relate to from the start, so everyone can join in and enjoy even if they don’t have a personal invesment in this regional rivalry.
So, much like the brilliant Welcome To The South, Fly, Saitama is accessible and entertaining to a wider international audience. What’s more is that, even when it’s not poking fun at any one of the prefectures in the region, the film’s manic energy allows it to prove just as enjoyable all the same. Featuring rapid-fire comedy that keeps jokes coming all the way through, you’re bound to find yourself laughing at some point, even if not every joke lands as intended.
Away from the comedy, the most striking thing about Fly, Saitama is its use of an exaggerated fantasy world as an allegory for the various regional disputes and quarrells. While the core ideas of the rivalry are clear from the start, bringing them into the context of a semi-futuristic setting that’s almost totally devoid from reality means that there’s a lot more freedom to play up even the tiniest little things and make fun of them.
So, Tokyo is a glistening metropolis, Chiba is a medieval world by the sea, and Saitama is a devastated wasteland. In that, the film really shows just how much fun it is having by playing with these regional stereotypes and ideas, and through that very style, it allows you to join in and enjoy it to the full, without ever worrying about being seriously offensive or unfair to any one of the various sides.
It’s a fun and unique concept that works really well for the intended effect, but the one reservation that I do have about Fly, Saitama is that it occasionally indulges itself a little too much in that fantasy world, moving focus away from the core sense of humour.
In effect, the film turns out as a sort of fantasy movie with jokes about Saitama, whereas it would have been best if it had stayed as a joke about Saitama peppered with a bit of fantasy. As a result, some parts where the movie goes into full manga mode may turn some viewers off, as the focus unfortunately drifts away from its cleverest and most entertaining premise.
Overall, though, I had a lot of fun with Fly, Saitama. A delightfully ridiculous and energetic take on regional divides and rivalries in Central-East Japan, with good humour and a playful attitude throughout as it takes the premise into a hyper-exaggerated fantasy world. It may get a little over-involved in its own fantasy, and move the focus a bit too much away from the core humour, but on the whole, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and pleasantly manic watch, which is why I’m giving it a 7.5.