Films that purport to go behind the scenes of an industry or institution — with the enthusiastic support of the folks they are supposedly unmasking — are almost by definition PR exercises if not outright recruiting tools.
One of the most notorious was “Top Gun,” the 1986 Tom Cruise movie about U.S. Navy fighter pilots that lengthened lines at recruiting offices.
The past masters of the genre, however, are the Japanese producers who have long enlisted said industries and institutions as not only investors, but promotional partners, while making feature-length celebrations of their corporate underwriters’ trades. An early example was “Chokoso no Akebono” (“Skyscraper”), a 1969 film about the construction of the Kasumigaseki Building in Tokyo, then Japan’s tallest. Builder and film backer Kajima Construction reportedly pushed 1.7 million advance tickets on not only its subcontractors, but the ramen vendors who sold lunch noodles to Kajima employees.
All-Nippon Airways, which extended cooperation to Shinobu Yaguchi’s airline comedy “Happy Flight” is not going that far — it is sponsoring a give-away of Yaguchi DVDs and other goodies to qualifying ANA mileage club members — but the film is a full-throated paean to ANA and its industry, from the cockpit crews to the guys who chase away birds from runways.
In other words, “Happy Flight” is not a successor to “Airplane!,” the classic 1980 sendup of the disaster genre, whose ultimate flight from hell, from wacky passengers to white-knuckle emergency landing, is still both funny and hair-raising. Its basic point of view is not that of the harassed and terrified passengers a la “Airplane!” but the hardworking, lovably human folks serving them or, in some cases, enduring them.
For anyone who feels that flying is a forced march through a modern purgatory, the film will be an eye-opener — if not entirely credible. I learned a lot, but I also felt somewhat like a convict watching a prison film whose heroes are the trustees and guards — and feeling the filmmakers aren’t getting the whole story.
The plot revolves around copilot Suzuki (Seiichi Tanabe) who is trying to qualify as a pilot, and a young cabin attendant Saito (Haruka Ayase), who’s making her first international flight on board Flight 1980, a charter bound for Honolulu.
Both are understandably suffering from nerves, compounded when Suzuki draws fearsomely humorless Capt. Harada (Saburo Tokito) as his evaluator and Saito the notoriously tough Chief Purser Yamazaki (Shinobu Terajima) as her boss.
Meanwhile, ground staffer Kimura (Tomoko Tabata) is undergoing her own trials, from dealing with overbooking on Flight 1980 to chasing down a passenger exiting the airport with the wrong luggage.
We are also introduced to other member’s of the industry’s supporting cast, including a young engineer rushing to complete last-minute maintenance on Flight 1980′s Boeing 747-440 (a loaner from ANA) and a middle-aged operation director (Ittoku Kishibe) struggling to learn a new computer system while longing to sneak a smoke.
Finally the flight takes off, with the usual compliment of nervous and irritable passengers — but a seemingly small mishap at takeoff leads to unpleasant — and hazardous — consequences in the air. Finally the plane is called back into the teeth of an approaching typhoon. Can Suzuki, Saito and the others cope and prove themselves real pros?
Yaguchi, who spent nearly two years researching the airline industry, tells the story with a level of realistic detail that would make portions of the film an excellent training video, from mastering correct takeoff procedures to dealing with an abusive passenger by doubling up as psychologist and servant.
It also admirably gives ample screen time to not only the supposed glamour jobs — pilot and cabin attendant — but the folks on the ground doing the necessary grunt work (though the baggage handlers get a miss).
“Happy Flight,” however, lacks laughs because its jokes are mostly for insiders, not the weary masses enduring the agonies and indignities of modern air travel. Yes, the title is ironic, but only partly. Its heroes, we see, are generally happy with their jobs, despite the stressful and outright dangerous moments. But how happy, really, are the human cattle in economy?