A surprise entry for this year’s Scotland Loves Anime and soon to be re-released on UK BD and DVD, 1987’s The Wings of Honneamise (aka Royal Space Force) is actually the inaugural feature from studio Gainax, proving their affinity for science-fiction drama just a few short years before that other thing of theirs you might have heard of – what was it called again? Neon Genesis Something or Other?
Set on an alternate, fantasy earth, the film follows Shirotsugh Lhadatt, a shiftless young man employed by his government’s national joke – the space agency. Although the agency dreams of sending a man into orbit, with their expensive, lengthy research amounting to little more than a succession of dead test-pilots, even they see themselves as failures. Following a chance encounter with a young missionary, however, Shiro regains his belief in the agency’s work and swears to become the first man in space. Yet, with crumbling support for the government and a war approaching on the horizon, Shiro begins to crack under the insufferable pressure to become a symbol for his country.
Gainax has long been a name to conjure with in the anime world, the studio ‘founded by fans, for fans’; a result of some very talented fanboys coming together in the right place at the right time and subsequently synonymous with a certain brand of crowd-pleasing entertainment. Thus, it may come as a surprise that Honneamise is a serious, thoughtful drama.
Proving to be the most expensive animated film Japan had ever produced (albeit pipped the following year by Akira), it’s quite remarkable that a film of this sort, with such limited merchandising potential was able to find funding, but also a sign of the immense faith placed in the new studio and its relatively unknown staff. Despite being only 24 at the time, writer/director Hiroyuki Yamaga turns in a dignified, leisurely film unafraid to grapple with philosophical questions about the moral worth of mankind. It is Shiro’s personal journey, an instantly recognisable ‘man in training’ film (yes, occasionally there is a montage), but realised with the sort of art house sensibility more often associated with Mamoru Oshii or Satoshi Kon.
Yet, there is also a feeling that Yamaga has bitten off more than he can chew here. While Honneamise is neither humourless nor remote, it’s hard to really engage with Shiro as a character. He may symbolise both the best (and occasionally worst) aspects of humanity, but he is such an everyman that I found it difficult to care much about his personal plight and would have liked to have seen something a bit stronger at the film’s centre.
As you might expect from such an expensive feature, the visuals, however, are an absolute treat. No doubt seeking to underscore its allegorical nature by being just unreal enough, the film takes great pains to invent its world from the ground up, lavishing weird but logical design flourishes on everything from cars to cutlery. There are elements of interwar Europe about proceedings, but the overall impression is more like a retro-fantasy vision of South America, with strong hints of the late, great Moebius coming from the whimsical mechanical design. There are no aliens in this film, but rarely has a human world looked so convincingly and beautifully alien.
Despite being a hit with the critics, Honneamise was only a modest box-office success on release, and I can’t say I’m entirely surprised – the film simply lacks the easy hook that would have given it mass appeal. Complicating things further is that this version has been restored to its full running time, whereas Manga UK’s original cut was trimmed to remove a brief scene of attempted sexual violence. This scene isn’t offensive in itself, but it is both unpleasant and unnecessary, being quickly glossed over and adding nothing but a lingering dark shadow over the final act of what is otherwise a fairly gentle story.
Ultimately, it’s hard not to declare Wings of Honneamise a classic; it’s a thematically ambitious and unusual feature that has much to enjoy for the serious fans of science-fiction (or possibly steampunk), animation aficionados, and anyone interested in what Gainax did before they got involved with that Ikari lad. The rest of us, however, may find it less rewarding – it just lacks a little heart.