My Review of Royal Space force: Wings of Honneamise!

Honneamise is a country at war. It’s conflict with a neighboring country has been going on for longer than anyone can remember, and the ongoing battle has shaped it’s society as well as it’s economy. Many lives have been affected by this war, but a certain unit called the Royal space Force likes to think of themselves as above the conflict… So above it, in fact, that their lifelong mission is to break through the sky and take mankind to the stars! And they’re so enthusiastic about that… Well, that they have no drive whatsoever. It’s unclear why they joined the royal space force… Perhaps they wanted a taste of military pay checks without having to actually fight… But the general attitude among the base is one of blasé apathy, as the entire squadron would rather meander around the red light district than attempt to make any progress towards the heavens, to the great chagrin of their often disrespected superiors, who want nothing more than to kick their butts into shape. For a while, it looked like there was no hope for the program. Enter Shirotsugh “Shino” Lhadatt, a cadet who grew up with dreams of soaring above the clouds, and eventually, the atmosphere.

That starry-eyed boy has grown up into a literal and figurative space cadet, plagued with ennui and depression at his lack of direction and overall dissatisfaction with his life. Even the death of a comrade fails to affect him, much as he pretends otherwise. This all changes when he meets a pretty young woman handing out religious pamphlets in what can only be described as a more modern version of Sodom or Gomorra, and the idea of acquiring God in his life does pique his interests, if only a bit. They hit it off, and her amazement at his profession inspires him to volunteer to be the first man in the history of the world to enter orbit! That’s all well and good, but surprise surprise, space training is no walk in the park. There are several road blocks standing in his way, from harsh physical conditioning to the hassles of team work, to shadowy figures on both sides of the ongoing war who are trying to sabotage or straight up assassinate him for his efforts. For that small step for a man, they’ll have to take a giant leap of faith if they’re ever going to have a chance of reaching the heavens.

It should go without saying that not all Gainax anime look like masterpieces. That’s not to say any of them have necessarily looked bad, at least not so far from what I’ve seen, but several of them have looked a bit on the mediocre side. Wings of Honneamise is NOT one of them. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 1980’s era anime that looked as good as this one does. The animation is smooth and consistent, peoples’ movements are graceful and almost feel natural, even if certain shots do feel like you’re watching an animation flip book. The level of detail in the visuals is insane, from the elaborate backgrounds to the well-thought-out lighting and shading techniques, even all the way down to the gravity of a person plopping down on a bench, which bends ever so slightly from the impact. Facial expressions are also on point, highly expressive while never going off model. There are no short-cuts taken, at least not from what I can tell, and there was clearly a very high budget that went into it.

The artwork carries a very retro style… Once again, this is the eighties… And character designs skew more towards realism than exaggeration. While the color palette wasn’t really bright or lively, it still worked very well as a complement to the film’s gritty, down to earth tone. A lot of imagination went into the little details of this world that’s intended to be alternate to our own, from fashion and the technology of the times to architecture, and even the way the lines are painted on the road. This all speaks to the show’s highly distinctive design, which is consistent all the way through, and just feels right, like yeah, this is how an alternate version of Earth who’s culture revolves around war would look, with nothing… And I mean nothing… Feeling anachronistic or out of place. Studio Gainax obviously put a lot of effort into creating this world, and I have no doubt that their brainstorming sessions went way beyond what ultimately wound up making it to the screen. This would prove to be a double edged sword, as it does make the story’s landscape feel more immersive, but it also leaves out a lot of details, and makes me feel like there’s a lot of necessary world-building that got dropped.

Having said that, it still looks beautiful, in it’s muted, downtrodden and poverty-stricken kind of way, carrying a bittersweet taste alongside the stunning visual quality. You get the sense that the people are making due with little resources and money, and that’s not just true of the many civilians that show up and move fluidly in the background of certain scenes, but also surprisingly of the Space force’s uniforms, which look goofy and low budget yet still more than prideful. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that it’s dripping with layers of atmosphere like Diebuster was, but it comes pretty close without going over the top, and there are a few certain scenes that are simply amazing in their presentation… Particularly, there’s the scene midway through with Shino flying a plane for the first time, soaring through the air above the clouds in such a way that could almost be considered to reach Miyazaki levels of quality. It does occasionally feel like they were a little lacking on the inbetweening, as some shots do feel a little choppy, but that’s an easy enough problem to ignore, especially with the rest of the product looking so beautiful.

The music was okay, but aside from a few standout tracks, it was pretty generic. I also don’t want to spend too much time on the English Dub, as the Japanese track is vastly superior and will obviously get my recommendation, but still, if it’s English you’re looking for, the dub is okay. There certainly nothing overtly bad about it. There are a ton of appearance by well known voice actors in it, including over a half a dozen minor roles played by Steve Blum, and they even have Bryan Cranston playing Shino’s best friend, Matti. You know, the slightly taller and slightly rougher looking guy who… Does stuff? Arnie Hanks has also had a relatively long career, although most of it has been live action TV work. Wendee Lee shows up in a brief cameo before taking on the role of Manna, an orphaned girl who barely talks throughout the story, but she still plays her like someone who doesn’t talk often and isn’t fully comfortable in their own voice. They all take part, they all put in their work, and they do a fairly good job, for what’s often considered to be the Dark Days of anime dubbing.

But the two actors who get the most screentime are the ones playing the lead roles. Robbie Matthews, or more accurately, David Allen Thomas, has done barely any anime work, as the majority of his output has been video game roles. He’s playing a very subtle character, and thus is putting forth a very subtle performance, hitting all the necessary points of his character’s development. He obviously used a fake name, which was common practice at the time for union reasons, but the reveal of his actual identity didn’t shock me nearly as much as the church girl Riquinna’s voice actor did. Melody Lee, when I did a little digging, turned out to be Patricia Ja Lee, a former Pink Power Ranger. I’ve heard good work from her… Most notably in an episode of Cowboy Bebop… And she’s also done a lot of cringey roles, like in Lucky Star and the live action Haruhi skits. Her work as Riquinni blows even Bebop out of the water, as she dances on the line of an incredibly nuanced character, one who preaches and tries to save people, even when her own struggle for survival has led her down some dark paths.

The acting in this dub is great, and it would be even better with the help of good writing, but alas, that was apparently a bridge too far. Well, maybe that’s not fair. The writing isn’t really bad, per se, and you won’t have many complaints with it if you’re just watching it on it’s own with the subtitles off… Except for one little part that I’ll get to in a minute… But if you actually know what the original dialogue was, you may feel cheated over the lack of subtlety and constant unnecessary changes. For example, right before attempting to go into space, Shino gives Manna a message for Riquinni, and it gets changed from “Tell her I’m leaving, and can I bring you back anything” to “Tell her she changed me, and I want to repay her.” Either way, Manna asks for him to bring back a star, either for her or for Riquinni. But the worst part is the ending, which takes a more or less okay monologue about not corrupting our home to speech about how hey, once we get into space, there’ll be no reason to fight anymore!” Which has to be the most pretentious explanation of war that I’ve heard since Aldnoah Zero. The dub’s fine, but I highly recommend the sub.

So, there’s a certain comparison I’ve been making about Studio Gainax for a few years now, and even though I’ve been doing four years of a theme month in it’s honor, I haven’t found the perfect opportunity to talk about it until now, as I believe it to be the crux of this movie’s problems. In my opinion, if Studio Gainax were an American director, it wouldn’t be Michael Bay… It wouldn’t be be Quentin Tarrantino… It would be Zack Snyder, the man who rose to fame with Watchmen and then proved to us all what a joke he was by making Sucker Punch, but he firmly cemented what kind of filmmaker he was with last year’s Batman vs. Superman. Like Gainax, Zack Snyder is someone who you can call many things, but lazy and uninspired are not among them. He believes in his projects, he pours effort into them, and he really, really wants them to be good, but he just isn’t as talented as he would have to be to pull off the scope of his ambitions. He respects great writing and profound ideas, but he doesn’t understand them.

I feel that this is the best way to describe Studio Gainax, a production company that’s all heart and little brain, who dreams of creating awe inspiring, emotionally impactful anime, but often bites off more than they can chew and winds up losing focus on the story they’re telling. A good example of this would be the religious symbolism in Evangelion, which shouldn’t be that difficult to use, I mean hell, Death Note used it well by complete accident, but no, it just winds up leading to a confused and muddled mess of an ending that only really kind of stands up under a literal interpretation of the events. Even their attempts at tackling depression and existentialism digs them into a hole so deep that they have to pull an emotional deus ex machina out of their asses just to reach a satisfying conclusion. That’s not to say they can’t put out great work… With shows like FLCL and Gurren Lagann, simple ideas and elements were pulled off so well that the products didn’t even NEED good writing to support them… But from what I’ve seen, it’s been the problem for most of their work. They know the what, they know the how, but they never truly manage to grasp the why.

So how does this relate to Wings of Honneamise? Well, if there’s one thing people like to trumpet about this movie, and I will give them this, it’s that they did a really great job writing the main character. Shino has a complete character arc, and I’m sorry, but talking about it is going to go into some spoilers. At the beginning of the movie, he’s depressed, he feels empty and unmotivated, and he knows he shouldn’t feel that way. He meets a religious girl in the middle of a street of utter depravity… Which is a little touch I’ll also admit I really like… And he begins to find a renewed purpose through religion. Faith in something greater gives him faith in himself and his mission, and when his faith in the former is challenged, the latter pulls him right back up before long. He grows as a person, from a deadbeat louse to a model soldier and pilot, and in the end, when he reaches space, he realizes(in the sub, at least) that mankind can’t run from it’s problems, or it’ll just keep on making the same mistakes, spreading it’s sin wherever it goes. Change comes from within.

On the surface, this seems like a great message, and it even ties into his arc. It’s a great resolution to his conflict. The problem? Well, once all that’s said and done, the only thing I have left to say is… So what? It’s great for the character, and it teaches something to the audience, but consider this: He’ll have to come down eventually, or he’s going to die, whether from starvation, suffocation, or hypothermia. While the movie went into great, and hell, almost too much detail on how the spaceship was being built and how it was going to fly, I don’t recall anything being said about the return trip, which has to happen. And even if he does manage to get back safely, it’s still not going to satisfy the people who criticized the royal space Force for wasting potential war and/or food money on a pointless endeavor. In fact, they’ll probably be even more pissed off, since they’re likely going to need even MORE money for their next trip to the stars. I’m also having a hard time believing that their accomplishment will end war, because even though the rocket blasting off was shown to shock fighting soldiers into freezing in their paths, what does reaching space have to do with poor foreign relationships?

If anything, their enemies will be either jealous of them, want to fight them even harder to obtain their technology, or they’ll become afraid of what an enemy with space travel possibilities can do to them, forcing them into action. I also don’t see what good Shino’s speech is going to accomplish, because while I don’t THINK it’s ever explained what the two countries are fighting for, but there’s usually some kind of reason for fighting to take place, and whatever it is, no logic is going to cause warring powers to lay down their guns and start getting along. Yeah, Shino went into space, and gave everyone a lecture, but once he comes down, everything’s going to go back to the way it was, both for him and for his country. He hated being a celebrity before the flight, now it’s just going to be worse. He’s going to become the most famous man on the planet. I don’t see his flight changing Riquinna’s life, unless he marries her and shares his wealth with her, and the odds that being back on Earth with his space faring days behind him will drive him back down into a brand new cycle of depression are disturbingly high.

And that’s where Gainax’s true failure lies. They were so focused on writing out Shino’s character arc that they didn’t stop to think about the bigger picture, and the effect that his accomplishment would have on the world they built. It’s fine if you don’t think about it, but when you do, Shino’s big moment just feels like an empty, pointless blip in a long timeline of life just generally being shit. I legitimately can’t see a sequel to this movie feeling realistic without him coming back to Earth, and eventually committing suicide over the fact that his life dream has already ended, and his life’s purpose has already peaked. For a story that strives towards one goal, one symbol of impossible hope that’s meant to inspire it’s audience, nothing is really accomplished, which just ends up making the overall experience feel empty and bleak. Would it be like this if there was a tighter focus on the main character, and the war was left out of the story completely? No, I don’t think it would be. But on that note, there’s a lot of stuff in this movie that should have been cut out.

For starters, while Shino and Riquinni are pretty well written, everybody else… Literally everybody else… Gets the shaft. Shino has a lot of friends… The big doofus, the long haired short dude, the best friend who does stuff, and while I promise you they all have names, you won’t know them, and if they even say them… I can’t remember… You won’t remember them. They might as well not even be in the movie. That would at least make the training montages(yes, plural,) a little shorter. There’s also a character named Doc, who only has three scenes, is actually kind of likeable in two of them, but then he dies offscreen leaving no impact whatsoever. That’s a named character dying. There’s a lot more pointless characters, but what’s even more damning is the pointless world-building, as the ongoing war does nothing other than to add some tension to the launch, and the attempts at assassinating Shino and Matti are nothing more than filler. With so much going on, and so many problems happening with this fictitious world, the stakes for Shino’s space trip feel a lot more paltry than they would if all that material were just left by the wayside in the first place. At two hours long, this movie didn’t need to be more than forty-five minutes.

There’s also a controversial scene where Shino tries to rape Riquinni, and while a lot of people think of it as the single blemish that keeps this movie from becoming a masterpiece, I honestly don’t mind it so much. I mean, it bothered me the first time, but… We’ll get to that. People tend to think that it comes out of nowhere, that it makes a good person character look like a misogynist asshole, it’s sexist, it seriously undermines the religious aspect of the story… I disagree on all counts. That’s not to say it was important, or that what it accomplished couldn’t have been achieved better through other means, but it’s really not as bad as everyone says. First of all, and I’d never try to make excuses for a sexual assailant, this didn’t come out of nowhere… The catalyst was just way too subtle. See, Shino has tried to become more than friends with Riquinni, but was rejected, and he took it like a champ, respecting her and continuing to come to her for religion and deeper meaning. But then he finds out something about her that flies under the radar of a lot of viewers, including myself on my first viewing… She’s a prostitute.

Now, obviously this is a situational thing, as she’s just selling her body to put food on the table for herself and Manna, but in Shino’s disenfranchised mind, the same religion that’s keeping him away from her hasn’t been keeping her away from other men, so for that one brief moment, he becomes beset by jealousy and entitlement, and sees her as less than a person. I know rape is a thing that deserves to be demonized, but it’s important to remember that while it’s definitely a bad thing, good people do it, too. No matter who you are, you can make a mistake that will affect you and another person for the rest of your lives, because even good people can succumb to poor judgement. Now, don’t get me wrong, humanizing rape does NOT excuse it or defend it, it just teaches you that yes, even YOU could rationalize yourself into performing terrible acts, so don’t ever think of yourself as above them, or you’re more likely to wind up doing the same thing Shino does. Thankfully, he stops himself.

Riquinni also defends herself, justifiably so, which is where I really don’t get the sexism criticism. She doesn’t just blush, turn her head and ask him to be gentle, as a FUCKING TON of anime would have her do, she clocks him for it. If anything her apology for using violence to defend herself says a lot more about the effect religion can have on people than it does about gender politics. In any case, like I said earlier, this is the event that challenges his faith in a higher power, which he recovers from thanks to his faith in himself and his mission, and this could have been achieved in a number of ways that DIDN’T involve rape, but the reason I think it doesn’t work, and the reason I think it makes people so damned uncomfortable, is because, as I said, the reveal of her turning to prostitution is way too subtle. the visual of her pouring money out of her boot just isn’t clear enough to explain what’s going on, so yeah, that is a huge problem, but is it the single blemish on an otherwise masterpiece? No. Not even close.

Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise is available stateside on many different DVD releases, including a Pioneer release, a Manga Video release, a couple of imported versions, and most recently, a Maiden Japan release, and chances are you can find it online for cheap. A four minute pilot to the movie, commissioned by Gainax two years prior, has not been released stateside, at least as far as I know. You can also view the film on Hulu.

Wings of Honneamise is considered by many to be a Gainax classic, an untouchable masterpiece with a very important place in anime history. I don’t disagree with that last part, as pretty much all of Gainax’s early work has been highly influential on the medium, but I kinda feel like squeezing the brakes on calling it a masterpiece. Yeah, the animation is almost unrealistically great, and Shino’s character arc does offer a compelling character study, but aside from the few things that I do agree are noteworthy about it, I just don’t think it’s a very good movie. The pacing is garbage, the scenes feel like they could have been shuffled out of order without losing very much impact, and there’s almost no attempt at foreshadowing a lot of what should have been important events. I do respect Gainax for it’s ambition and creativity… Well, back then, at least… But as writers, this movie carries a lot of the issues that have always plagued them. Their work may be important, it may be influential, but it benefits heavily from peoples’ nostalgia. Case in point, this movie may have looked beautiful, but it was so full of pulp and badly focused that I could barely manage to stay awake. I give Royal Space Force; Wings of Honneamise a 4/10.

 

Now, I’ve been doing Studio Gainax Month for four years, and right from the start, there’s one title I’ve always resisted reviewing.  It’s one very important Gainax title that I’ve been hesitating to touch on, not only because it felt like it was out of my depth, but because other reviewers have done a much better job on it than I can ever hope to achieve.  But that’s no way to live my life, right?  And that’s why next week, I’m finally going to tackle it.

I just need to remember this; I mustn’t run away.  I mustn’t run away.  i mustn’t run away.

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