For anime fans of a certain generation, some movies are inarguable classics - films that everyone with even the slightest passing interest in the medium should experience at least once. Like Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Ninja Scroll, My Neighbour Totoro... all hand-drawn masterpieces of their genres, made by visionary directors in the 1980s or 90s, long before the advent of entirely digital productions. Royal Space Force (renamed The Wings of Honnêamise by the production company against the director’s wishes) deserves to be included among these lofty works due to the quality of the film itself, and also for its role in the history of Japanese animation.
Look at the roll-call of contributors: Hideaki Anno, animation director who subsequently made Gunbuster, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, character designer, who also worked on all three of Anno’s above projects, plus more recently multiple Mamoru Hosoda films. Hiroyuki Yamaga, writer and director whose later work includes Mahoromatic, Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Ryuichi Sakamoto who provided the musical score also won the Academy Award for best original score for The Last Emperor. These four men were central figures in the early days of the legendary animation studio GAINAX. Royal Space Force was their first movie - and almost their very last production.
Royal Space Force was the first film funded by Bandai Entertainment, and quite why they gave so much money to an essentially untested group of hustlers I’ll never understand. Prior to this production, Yamaga et al had made only two animation shorts for the large Japanese animation conventions Daicon III and IV. With the promise of investment from a major corporation, they threw together a loose “pilot” for the film that illustrated the broad concepts the movie would explore, while introducing prototype versions of the at-the-time unnamed main characters. In between producing the pilot and the finished movie, almost every detail changed, so it is interesting to watch the earlier short (included on the blu-ray).
GAINAX has been plagued by well-publicised money problems since the company’s inception, and Royal Space Force almost bankrupted them. Despite its original cinematic release in 1987, it did not earn money for Bandai until 1994, with income from home video sales bolstered by positive word of mouth and the industry’s gradual recognition of it as a film-making achievement. Initial reviews were mixed - it seemed to be a film without an obvious target audience. In a way, this seems almost deliberate. GAINAX felt that anime in the 1980s was too insular and pandered to otakus’ obsessive interests - either filled with cute girls or cool technology. GAINAX wanted to make something that would push sci-fi/anime nerds to look beyond their Gunpla models and Cream Lemon fantasies.
As a result, Royal Space Force looks very different to the average mid-80s anime production. The alternate world setting is incredibly intricate - familiar yet uncanny - and looks thoroughly lived-in, with meticulous attention paid to even the tiniest of details such as the strange shape of money and eating utensils. Character designs are realistic with little exaggeration. Mecha designs are exotic yet mundanely functional in this 1960s-equivalent period. This isn’t a version of our world - the geography is completely different, with the majority of the action occurring in a northern hemispheric kingdom, while a few scenes feature the politicians of an opposing republic in the southern hemisphere.
SIGNIFICANT PLOT SPOILERS WILL BE DISCUSSED FROM HERE ONWARDS
Main character Shirotsugh Lhadatt is a young man whose boyhood dreams of joining the Air Force as a pilot were dashed by his own mediocrity. Instead he has fallen into a position in the Royal Space Force, a tiny military agency and something of a laughingstock, or irrelevance to the rest of society. He begins the film aimless and unmotivated, but through a chance encounter with the devoutly religious young woman Riquinni Nonderaiko he is inspired to volunteer to become the world’s first astronaut. We then follow his progress from directionless dreamer to purposeful, driven adult. With backroom dealings courtesy of their commanding officer and the aid of a group of geriatric engineers, the Royal Space Force requisition enough resources to build a rocketship. Shiro becomes an unwitting celebrity and when faced with the poverty of those in his country deprived of homes and food perhaps indirectly due to the vast sums required to build his rocket, his conviction falters.
It’s at Shiro’s lowest point that the single most controversial scene in the movie occurs. When I first saw this on PAL VHS way back in the mid 1990s, I was unaware it had been cut and I thought the storytelling towards the end had become vague, as seemed par for the course for many anime videos at the time. I didn’t let it spoil my enjoyment. Now, with the release of this complete, uncut edition, I now understand why that single scene was cut to give this otherwise family-friendly film a commercially important BBFC-PG certificate rather than the uncut version’s BBFC-15 - though at the cost of plot coherence.
Shiro’s relationship with Riquinni is odd. It seems they are never quite able to effectively communicate with one another, and it certainly doesn’t qualify as a typical romance. Riquinni clearly likes having Shiro around, and seeks him out to help her in a crisis. Shiro clearly sees her as a potential romantic interest, but she bats away his hand when he tries to touch her and gives every possible message that she is not interested in him in that way. She gives him a copy of her holy book, but he chances his luck telling her he’d rather she read it to him - cue her disgust. I imagine she might only have become interested in him if he had joined her religion and reflected her beliefs.
Riqiunni herself is a frustratingly passive character. She views prayer as the only way to solve her problems - except of course those times she calls on Shiro. This passivity causes her to lose her house to the electricity company and she ends up shacking up with Manna (the seemingly unrelated young girl she looks after) in a disused church. In addition to handing out religious tracts in the city she works in the fields. No-one except Shiro is ever interested in her leaflets - in fact Shiro’s interest is really only in her. I wonder what she expected to come from those tracts? She shows that she has no agency, no answers of her own, she only warns others of the sinful state of society without offering any solution.
After a particularly dreadful experience with reporters who question Shiro’s purpose, he runs away to Riquinni’s church/squat. He sulks after watching her stumble, spilling the money she’d hidden in her boot, resulting in him refusing to eat her food or talk to her. (I wonder if this is a subtle hint that she has turned to prostitution to earn cash? She certainly appears ashamed, and this would add to his irritation perhaps about her double standards.) He stares at her legs under the table, from his position lying on the floor. When she goes to wash, removing the top half of her clothes, Shiro pushes her to the floor, his apparent intent to sexually assault her. He stops himself just before she quite understandably clobbers him over the head, knocking him out. Note that this happens while Manna is asleep on her mattress - the commotion in full view wakes her up.
This scene does seem to come out of nowhere, and I have nothing but questions regarding what the hell they were thinking by including it. Elsewhere in the film, Shiro’s commander, who is a history buff, states that “Civilisation did not create violence - but violence created civilisation.” I take that to mean that civilisation is a way to mitigate the violent urges endemic to all men, and that those urges in themselves, when channeled, lead to advancement... I guess? I wonder if this is Yamaga showing that Shiro is no better than any other man, he still has primal urges he must control. All it did for me was to reduce my sympathy for the film’s main character - he’s an asshole. Cutting this out meant that when I watched it in the mid 90s, the film left a much less bitter aftertaste in my mouth. But, if that bitter aftertaste was the director’s intention, then who am I to complain?
But I do complain, because in the next scene, Shiro attempts to apologise for his behaviour and Riquinni refuses to let him - instead insisting she is the one at fault for hitting him on the head! I let out an audible groan at this part. Is this meant to show that Riquinni is 1) clueless, 2) self-hating to a fault, or 3) the director is a woman-hating moron? I find it difficult to believe number 3, Riquinni is portrayed otherwise quite sympathetically. It could just be that she is a flawed human being. Plenty of real-life women blame themselves after sexual assault, but I don’t feel this was sensitively or skillfully handled here at all. It feels completely out of place and more like it was a scheme to “shock” the viewer. (GAINAX went on to make a career of this. Google the term “Gainax Ending” and you’ll see what I mean.) Later when Shiro goes to seek Riquinni at her home, he narrowly misses her and glimpses her from the door of his departing train as they share only a couple of words together. I wonder if this shows that they are always destined to drift apart - if they were ever truly together in the first place. They never interact again by the end credits.
Ignoring the difficult aborted rape scene, the rest of the film is an entertaining, if slow watch. If anything, it’s like a slice of life show about astronaut training, with multiple humorous interludes and character moments. It picks up in the final third, with a madcap chase sequence that blundered in from another film entirely, and with the gradually rising tensions between Shiro’s country and the enemy republic to the south. Shiro’s government cares nothing for the Royal Space Force’s aims and uses their extremely expensive rocket as a political football, moving the launch site to the demilitarised zone at the border - basically waving a red flag at a bull, as they insisted on fitting this rocket with a bunch of unnecessary weaponry.
This final, climactic sequence as the men of the Royal Space Force scramble to ready the rocket for an early launch is mesmerising. Intercut with aerial dogfights as the enemy attacks the launch site, Shiro makes an impassioned speech to his comrades not to give up in the face of political manipulation, death and hopelessness. The rocket blasts into orbit, bringing the intense armed conflict to a standstill as soldiers on both sides stop and stare in wonder. Those super-detailed explosions and particles of ice falling from the rocket were all hand-drawn by Hideaki Anno himself - the director refers to it as “Anno Shrapnel”. No wonder this guy needed to exorcise his demons and regain his sanity by filling Neon Genesis Evangelion with his multiple neuroses. Anyone would be driven nuts by this - but it looks incredible considering it was all hand-drawn without CG.
Alone in his cockpit, Shiro broadcasts to the world below a prayer of peace, of hope that man won’t also spoil this new frontier with their sin. This is more of a thematic conclusion than a proper end to the story. We don’t learn if he ever resolves his relationship with Riquinni, nor do we learn the outcome of the Repbulic’s failed attempt to capture the rocket. A montage of seemingly random images plays that eventually becomes clear is a history of his world’s struggle to raise itself from war and barbarism to reach this point. It’s ok as an ending, but I found it pretentious and vague.
Anime Limited’s Blu-ray/DVD combi collector’s edition is a typically high quality release. The picture quality is a quantum leap beyond my old VHS copy, though flaws in the original film are more obvious now, with some dodgy compositing and juddering objects. On-disc extras are minimal, with the aforementioned pilot film and some trailers. It does come with a nice booklet with an interview of director Yamaga and a super-detailed examination of Anno’s incredible special effects animation. I enjoyed Royal Space Force from a nostalgia and history lesson point of view - I appreciated it more as a technical showpiece than as a good story. For those reasons alone, I’d still rate it as a worthwhile purchase and essential to anyone curious about the beginning of GAINAX or the careers of any of the associated creators. They all went on to better things, but this was an amazing first professional effort.
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise Blu-ray/DVD Combi Collector’s Edition
Writer and Director: Hiroyuki Yamaga
Animation Director: Hideaki Anno
Character Design: Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Production Studio: GAINAX
Original Japanese Cinematic Release: 1987
Original UK Home VHS Release: 1995 (Manga Entertainment)
UK Blu-ray/DVD release: 27th April 2015 (Anime Limited)
Runtime: 120 minutes
BBFC Rating: 15
You’re reading AniTAY, the anime-focused portion of Kotaku’s community-run blog, Talk Amongst Yourselves. AniTAY is a non-professional blog whose writers love everything anime related. To join in on the fun, check out our website, visit our official subreddit, follow us on Twitter, or give us a like on our Facebook page.