Monday, May 30, 2011

What You’re Missing: Happy Flight Review

Welcome to a new segment where The Angry Otaku features “things Japanese” that aren’t necessarily anime. Way back when I was still a little bitty Otaku, when the internet consisted of BBSs accessed via 2400 baud, and VHS was king, I was in the early stages of anime fandom so to speak. There in those stages, there’s always a period where a fan is in the “if it’s not anime, I don’t care” mode of media consumption. Kaiju, martial arts, chambara, drama, name it, if it was live action, I didn’t care.

Fortunately I was able to grow out of that, and it is in the hopes of widening the range of Japanese popular entertainment consumed by AmerOtakus, that this new monthly segment was created. Look for "What You're Missing" on the last Monday of every month here... at least until I get tired of doing it.

Happy Flight

Whole movie.

A great “gateway” production for anime fans that are not too open to live action, Happy Flight is a 2008 comedy from director Shinobu Yaguchi, known to American Otaku audiences through titles like Water Boys and Swing Girls. The film follows the inner workings of both airplane and airport, revolving around All Nippon Airways flight 1980, a 747 going from Japan to Hawaii.

Opening with quick introductions of the various characters through a montage where we bounce around locations like a ball in a pinball machine, the film quickly sets the overall lighthearted tone through scenes featuring some intra-company rivalry between cabin crew and ground staff, as well as the trepidations our main characters feel as they enter their first day on new assignments for ANA. On board the flight, the film doubles character juxtaposition by pairing the two “fish out of water” main characters off of their supervisors, who have tough reputations and come off as strict, stoic, and humorless. First with the newly promoted pilot Kazuhiro Suzuki (Seiichi Tanabe) being evaluated on his first flight as Captain by the extremely serious and deadpan evaluator Captain Harada (Saburo Tokito), and second with the enthusiastic new flight attendant Etsuko Saito (Haruka Ayase), whose excitement soon fades after a prompt chewing out by her new boss, the notoriously strict Reiko Yamazaki (Shinobu Terajima). However their confidence and ability to work under pressure are soon put to the test, when ANA flight 1980 encounters serious problems after takeoff. Needing to return to Japan, the plane turns around only to face a vicious typhoon which stands between the now crippled plane and the safety of the runway.

Happy Flight dedicates quite a bit of itself to the people of often overlooked airport supporting functions. From trainee mechanics, to air traffic controllers, from the ticket agents, to the guy who keeps birds away from the runway, the film introduces you to each one as their humanity emerges in the course of their stressful jobs. These are that types of characters who often get a one dimensional treatment in other films, but in Happy Flight, the receive a well-deserved second dimension. Although some may argue that doing so creates the unintended consequence of making three-dimensional characters into two-dimensional ones, the film itself is not hurt by this. But unlike other movies featuring airplanes, Happy Flight doesn’t need three-dimensional characters, as it doesn’t take itself too seriously like Flight Plan, nor does it aim to be the campy schlock of Airplane. The film sits in the perfect balance between funny and still believable, and works perfectly with the character depth it reaches, because each group of characters operates within their own bubble. The pilots never interact with the mechanics, who go through a desperate search through the hangar on their own time to ensure that flight 1980 is not suffering from what could be a fatal engine problem. The airport ground staff, led by the "calm under pressure" Masaharu Takahashi (played by veteran actor Ittoku Kishibe), go through the stressful ordeal of guiding a 747 to a safe runway in the middle of a typhoon, but never even see the flight attendants who must keep the passengers safe and calm during the same ordeal. In this way, the film sets up an orbital matrix of character groups, completely separated from each other but all revolving around the same central nucleus, in this case the critically wounded ANA flight 1980.

The Japanese work ethic is very into principles of knowledge-creation management, and in this feel-good film, there are plenty of examples of how the junior staff have their confidence boosted through hands-on experience under the watchful guidance of their more seasoned supervisors. There are a lot of hidden meanings and social constructs present in Happy Flight which are nowhere to be found in American cinema, and the active knowledge creation each character goes through is the perhaps the strongest one of these.

American anime fans will quickly feel right at home watching this movie, as the cast and direction amplify the types of humor and emotional situations often reserved for comedic titles. Love, loss, goofy sidekicks, deadpan personalities in tense situations, and even a few physical gags, are all pleasantly spaced throughout this relatively short (100min) romp thought a day in the life of a Japanese airport in crisis-mode. Anime fans will also recognize some cast members like Seiichi Tanabe who has voiced characters in Tramps Like Us and Twin Spica and has played Issei Tomine in the Drops of God adaptation. Also from Japanese TV, comedian Kami Hiraiwa and actress Tomoko Tabata team up to form the very “Pinky & The Brain” style team of ANA ticket agents.

Pinky, are you pondering what I'm pondering?
I think so Brain, but last time we ran out of baggage claim stickers and dolphin tranquilizers way too early.

Happy Flight has been accused of being corporate propaganda since it’s about an ANA flight and ANA staff who do ANA things in a movie made by ANA (did I mention ANA?). But for an American this just isn’t as true as it seems. Yes, the airline and all the characters come in a positive light, but it is still a very imperfect human one. The trappings, foibles, and emotional nuances that make us all real and all different are not hidden from the audience for fear of “hurting the brand.” Rather, they are shown directly to the audience as a vital part of each and every character, adding a very high degree of believability to the film. The fact that such a movie would never ever be made by the likes of guitar-breaking United, dog-killing Delta, or suck in your gut Southwest, is not lost on American audiences in the least. The genuine way that ANA portrays a much higher work ethic among its staff is a great and refreshing reminder to Americans that at one time, that kind of thing was possible and just might be possible again, and leave you with a smile on your face (at least until the next time the functionally retarded high school drop out from the TSA confiscates your diet Dr. Pepper and steals your watch, while fondling your balls).

Finally, because of recent events involving US Air 1545 (The Hudson River bird-strike landing) and the unfortunate fate of Air France 447 (freezing of the pitot tubes), this film will actually be easier to follow and better appreciated, as now most audiences will be familiar with the perils that the characters in the film face, from hearing about real life examples.

Happy Flight does a great job in porting over the type of theatrical mechanics present in most anime, to a live action medium without the need for heavy visual effects a-la Cutie Honey or Scott Pilgrim. Anime Conventions: this one should be on your video schedule if it isn't already.

You can find a subtitled copy of Happy Flight on, although I have no idea how legit that copy is (might be the Hong Kong release). The region 2 Japanese copies tend to be very pricey, with the Blue Ray special edition topping out at 72,000 yen which at today’s crappy exchange rate is about a million dollars US. This is a movie that you don’t need on Blue Ray though (there aren't any major effects which would benefit from it). The regular region-2 editions are (somewhat) cheaper, but it should be noted that some of them do not include English Subtitles. Give Bookoff a try if you are near one of their locations and bring your “must have” list, because they will probably have other things you want as well.

Oh, and of course you can always watch it at your seat if you’re on an ANA flight.

Helpful hints: What to look for on Japanese DVD labeling:
(Now this applies to anime as well) When shopping for Japanese market DVDs, most of the time it’s on the internet, where the various subtitle info and other specs are listed in a language that you can read. However, in the event you are browsing at a store in person (Kinokunia or Book Off for example), and you turn over the DVD case only to be met with a whole bunch of Kanji you can’t read, here is what to look for: The word is “Jimaku” 字幕 (じまく)“subtitles.” Now that’s half what you need to know, with the other half being “Eigo” 英語 which is (say it with me now) “English.” The reason this is important, is that often Japanese DVDs will have Japanese subtitles only, so just looking for字幕 without determining the language, can get you a DVD with nice crisp Japanese or Chinese subtitles and a look of confused disappointment across the faces of your friends. Let’s look at some examples:

Here’s the back of the Japanese release of Kill Bill (why the Japanese version? Because it’s not censored by the MPAA like the American release is). As you can see, there’s a pictogram that indicates 2 tracks of available subtitles. Let’s have a closer look:

Ok that top line is 日本語字幕; which is “Japanese Subtitles”, and I’ll bet you can guess what that second one is; 英語字幕 “English Subtitles” indeed. This doesn’t seem weird until you realize that the movie itself is in English and so they’re subtitling what the actors are already saying.

But moving on, just remember when buying Japanese DVDs, you want to look for “英語字幕” on the back, if you want to be sure you will be enjoying English subs. As for linguistic accuracy, some releases are better than others, with bigger budget larger releases more likely to offer this feature over smaller releases. Additionally, if you're looking at the back info and notice that the word "English" and "Subtitles" are spelled out just like that in Roman lettering, then there are significant chances are you are looking at a Hong Kong release.

Finally, a word on Region Coding. If you don't have a region-free player, then none of this matters to you anyway. I've owned one for so long, that when I bring DVDs to other people's houses I completely forget that they may not be able to play them. Buying a region free player is totally worth it, I have a Pioneer DV444 from, and it still works great after 10 years. The ability to watch any DVD I want, skipping the retarded FBI warning and being able to go straight to the menu without having to endure trailer after trailer is something I enjoy taking for granted, and so will you. You don't have to go for expensive options either. Chinese manufactures often spit out some no-name brands that aren't region locked and don't button-disable. Monitor some tech forums for when these hit your local Best Buy and you can pick one up for $40 or so.

Happy hunting.


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