Into the Faraway Sky

Bottom Line: A lightweight but spirited children's film with the qualities of a Hayao Miyazaki animation.

Pusan International Film Festival

BUSAN, South Korea -- "Into the Faraway Sky" ("Toku no sora kara kieta") by commercial hitmaker Isao Yukisada ("Crying Out Love from the Center of the World," "Spring Snow") is a joyous foray into childhood fantasies and school book ideals. Released in Japan during the summer vacation, the film targets the young and young at heart, and has a certain charm as a flimsy but fanciful fairytale with a soft-sell ecological message and excellent production values. Had the film been made as an anime in the style of Hayao Miyazaki, it would have even greater appeal beyond Asia.

The prelude and epilogue take place in an airport, and use the metaphor of flight to underline the film's theme of how firm belief can create miracles. Tokyo-born Ryonosuke (Ryunosuke Kamiki, "The Great Yokai War") arrives in an unspecified country outpost slated for an airport construction project. That his dad is the state-appointed official assigned to carry out this operation against the inhabitants' wishes doesn't help his popularity rating at school. In spite of that, he befriends milk delivery boy Kohei (Yuuma Sasano), the son of an eccentric biologist who has gone missing for years.

Through the rambunctious Kohei, sensitive Ryonosuke meets a gallery of colorful locals, such as Hiharu (Susuka Onyo), a girl who thinks she can communicate with UFOs; their teacher Sawako, who is engaged to a nerd but secretly in love with a romantic moon-gazer and inventor of a flying contraption (a charismatic cameo by Taiwanese actor Chang Chen); Akahoshi, the village idiot obsessed with pigeons; local roughie Toma; and Michiko, owner of a saloon resembling the set of "Sukiyaki Western Django."

For the greater half of the film, the characters and the plot ramble on in a nonchalant manner. Toilet humor abounds, from gags about stool samples to a rumble in the cesspit to the boys' prank of planting sparklers in cow dung. This could be a test of patience for all but the most juvenile audiences.

Fortunately, the pace picks up when Kohei's dad Shinpei returns from an odyssey of rescuing endangered species to spearhead the village's protest. It turns out that the two boys' dads date way back, clarifying the psychological motives of the two grown-ups' antithetical actions. What appeared initially to be loose vignettes actually fall neatly into place at the surprise ending.

Despite its self-conscious artificiality, Yukisada has evoked the villagers' bucolic existence with considerable panache. This is no Japanese Hicksville of the Nobuhiro Yamashita variety. The locations are a picturesque cross between the Wild West and Provence, while characters seem to jump out of pages from a Peter Mayle or Marcel Pagnol novel. The music, like the costumes and sets, are an eclectic mix of Gipsy, jazz/rag, Celtic windpipe and French harmonica. Together with the theme song by Okinawa group COCCO they give the film much of its magic realist quality and oomph.

Rumble Fish/Second Sight/Gaga Communications
Director-screenwriter: Isao Yukisada
Producers: Shunsuke Kogo, Hilo Iizumi
Executive producer: Yasuhide Uno
Co-executive producer: Yuka Hoshino
Director of photography: Jun Fukumoto
Production designer: Shu Yamaguchi
Music: Meyna
Costume designer: Sachiko Ito
Editor: Tsuyoshi Imai
Ryonosuke Kusunoki: Ryunosuke Kamiki
Kohei Tsuchida: Sasano Yuma
Hiharu: Suzuka Ohgo
Shinpei Tsuchida: Kohinaka Fumio
Sawako: Ayumi Ito

Running time -- 144 minutes
No MPAA rating