Japan’s feel-good maestro Shinobu Yaguchi aims high and comes in for a safe landing with “Happy Flight,” a succulently played ensembler centered on an accident-prone journey from Tokyo to Honolulu. Neither “Airport” nor “Airplane!,” though marbled with drama and comedy, pic navigates a huge cast and multiple subplots with consummate ease and not a second of downtime, prior to a very Japanese, we’re-all-one-big-family finale. Good-looking crowdpleaser should clock up plenty of air miles on local release Nov. 15, plus warm biz in territories where Yaguchi’s “Waterboys” and “Swing Girls” scored.
In basic structure, pic is similar to other airline disaster movies (from Hollywood blockbusters to China’s “Crash Landing”), as it crosscuts among a large number of characters prepping for a flight. This time, there’s eager-beaver, klutzy stewardess Etsuko (Haruka Ayase) and her colleague Mari (Kazue Fukiishi), both playing in light pratfall style; dragon-lady chief purser Reiko Yamazaki (Shinobu Terajima); tough, experienced pilot Noriyoshi Harada (Saburo Tokito); and his novice co-pilot, Kazuhiro Suzuki (Seiichi Tanabe).
Passengers include a bullying businessman (Daikichi Sugawara) and a nervous type (Takashi Sasano) with a toupee, while ground staff, led by a martinet manager (Ryosei Tayama) and vet weather guru (Ittoku Kishibe), also include perky Natsumi (Tomoko Tabata, delightful).
Shinobu’s tight screenplay — the result of two years of on-the-ground research — intros the vast array of characters with such swift brushstrokes that by the time the plane takes off for Hawaii at the 40-minute mark, the viewer already feels part of the extended airline family. It’s a measure of the precision with which it’s crafted that even seemingly peripheral characters (such as members of a bird-protection club patrolling the perimeter) become a cog in the subsequent drama.
When the on-board computer malfunctions a couple hours into the flight, and a typhoon threatens Tokyo after the plane turns back, Shinobu concocts a neat blend of comedy and tension which is as much down to the aud’s familiarity with the characters as it is to editing, music and f/x.
With his commanding presence and dry delivery, Tokito anchors the movie as the pilot, as well as forging some nice chemistry with Terajima in his put-downs of the female purser. TV thesp Ayase is just fine as the gee-whizz Etsuko, almost unrecognizable from her turn as the expressionless robot in “Cyborg She.” Only Tanabe seems out-of-kilter as the doofus co-pilot, in a role that, even on this level, seems unbelievable.
Tech package, strangely not in widescreen, is immaculate. Frank Sinatra singing “Come Fly With Me” over the end credits sends auds home with a warm glow.