The “Anime Club in Futurum” discussion series on /r/TrueAnime recently featured Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise as a group watch, a film which I had nominated.
What follows here are a collected series of comments I made, both edited for flow as a single blog post and expanded upon for both myself and hopefully your own enjoyment. It contains some spoilers, but I do think any anime fan should take the opportunity to watch Gainax’s initial commercial anime venture.
Some Fun Internet Links For Cool Royal Space Force Exploration People:
ANNCast, Feb 21st 2014: Royal Podcast Force: The Carl of Hornneamise (Two hours of Carl Horn, longstanding author and editor on anime topics, convention presenter, and Dark Horse manga editor. Also speaks on The Wind Rises and Miyazaki’s career at the start, since that was topical; jump to 48:25 for the Honneamise / Gainax discussion and commentary, which goes the rest of the episode.)
Anime World Order, June 6th 2010: Remembering When Gainax Was Special (45 minutes, Honneamise specific; this movie is Gerald’s favorite anime film of all time)
Royal Space Force 25th Anniversary Fanzine (Produced by Carl Horn, features pieces by various writers; this is not a paid endorsement)
Manga Video trailer for the western VHS release of Honneamise
Original Japanese film trailer
As plenty of other folks both have today and will continue to do more of the straight up analysis aspect of this feature for years to come, I feel a mixed personal narrative is warranted for my own little post here.
I have enjoyed this movie for years now, but I’m not entirely sure what came first: My awareness of The Wings of Honneamise, or my learning of the Daicon III and IV videos. I want to say it was the latter, as I was already aware of Otaku no Video and its Misty May cover, and the idea the same production studio folks made a similar girl in a bunny suit having lightsaber fights with Darth Vader and punching robots in the face seems like the kind of thing that would have gotten my attention a hell of a lot sooner as a kid. Then one has Haruhara Haruko’s infamous “Daicon V!” bunny girl costume shift a bit later in the second to last episode of FLCL, which when combined with everything else is probably when I started to have a geled idea of “Gainax” as an entity with a staff personality, and giving other studios their own identities as well. I had not really thought about individual anime studios so much as I thought about publishers like Pioneer or ADV, for instance.
And arguably, while I enjoy the movie plenty much as a movie in its own right, I think I end up loving the production narrative just as much. That I end up seeing a lot of Gainax and the wishes and dreams and struggles and fears of the staff in here. Director Hiroyuki Yamaga was twenty four years old at the time, a lot of the crew were young friends without their degrees yet, some of whom at best were part of the collective that were pulled in for the likes of Macross and such for some hands-on training work after the Daicon III video.
So even when the film opens by talking about the not up to snuff grades of our lead and such, I see Gainax in that; Hideaki Anno was expelled from Osaka University, for example. Or the discussions about how much money was going into the fictional space program of the movie, and the “better” things that it could perhaps go to. Certainly, there is the history that this was the most expensive anime movie of the time.
While many of the crew building the eventual shuttle are remarkably unmarketable old men, I don’t think anyone would deny they are all kind of absentminded mechanical otaku. Again, like Gainax themselves in many ways, who prided themselves on both their anime fan knowledge as well as things like model building, which featured prominently during their short lived live action film stints. That the second funeral of the movie, after the engine disaster, focuses several thoughtful camera shots towards who we assume is the wife or other close family of the departed I feel does speak somewhat toward the career risks and potential neglect of such relationships that can occur in such passionate pursuits.
At least, I always had a sense the old scientist, dedicated to his work as he was that he both named and considered his engineering works as his own sons, had not seen his family in some time.
On my own end, I appreciate how much the “space warship” terminology gets thrown around when referring to what we would likely call a space shuttle, from the production folks to the higher ups in the command structure to the media and government. That there is this immense level of conversation and inquisitiveness regarding its suitability as a weapons system or to carry armaments, and how that affects perceptions at all kinds of levels. Even then the notion of “well, why call it a warship” gets into all of these tricky political and budgetary posturing aspects, and in turn using the potential of baiting an international war as a means of shutting down the entire program “respectably.”
I feel Riquinni’s statement about the Royal Space Force / astronauts in that universe being a kind of solider who does not make war is particularly interesting. I went to an International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program, after all.
This is both because they still kind of indirectly do (given the collateral damage and combat sequences surrounding them in the film), but that it is precisely because they are these supposed soldiers of peace to the stars in the name of progress and exploration that they have all the problems they do in building a working rocket on a macro level. That its decades of work are such an intangible waste of money in the eyes of many. Bullets and bombs get very direct and visible results after all, while science or cultural projects get far more nebulous. But this also gets to the ideals that were behind real world government initiatives like the Peace Corps, that volunteer boots on the ground or overseas should be just as useful for bridging cultures as opposed to only blowing up bridges, or by all means the budgetary argument issues groups like NASA face today by those who see little value in their hard to quantify work.
Interestingly as a cinematic choice, while the religious and dreamer Riquinni see’s a terribleness that can emerge from one of those soldiers directly on a micro level, it is not like her impoverished self ever sees the exact facilities so many other other folks in her universe complain is a waste of money. And I think that helps drive an interesting little shifting duality message during the film. That by the end of it the military saw something from the space project that stood before them and placed them in a state of awe inspiring wonder whereas before they saw a bunch of scrap and political brinksmanship. Meanwhile, Riquinni is put in the position to attempt to move forward after her own ideals, what she may have seen in Shirotsugh and the raw inherent total goodness of the space program, ends up fractured to one extent or another.
If you listen to the ANNCast episode I linked, there’s a point where Carl talks about the idea that this film should have been a starting point.
That The Wings of Honneamise movie and the Daicon IV video of a bunny suit girl punching robots in the face are two sides of a fundamental whole. One being the kind of thing one wants to do as professional media creators and the the other being celebrating their fandoms and what brought them all together in the first place. And in the case of this movie, that they could take their nearly bottomless budget and really push something out there. No preexisting property tie-ins, no real merchandising eyes for much given most of the the character designs and cast, and yet something that really only could have been done via animation. Try making a live action film of this on a similar budget, and it would probably look horrid. It’s not even really a family film, given that the slower pacing would probably bore a lot of kids. Though it is probably the exact kind of anime one would want to show in a middle or high school science class on a movie day, if it was not for the attempted rape scene that would likely cause all kinds of schoolboard problems.
Just make, well, a good standalone adult drama animated film.
And do it big.
That this, much like the space program of the narrative, could be a large step. And arguably, the film ending on a “I hope future generations don’t screw this up” kind of message is interesting in its own right as Gainax never really got back to this kind of maturation point again. Just like the actual moon program after a time. That while they have done good and even great work in places, that truly next level push afterward did not come. And it is such a strange thing, to have achieved the dream, in a sense making them a vanguard of it. Yet being stuck or potentially even held back by forces beyond ones control (actual space programs to government whims, Gainax needs fans to buy stuff to stay in business).
A rather fascinating thing regarding this piece, insofar as viewing it today is concerned, is that its history still lives on. Not merely because Gainax itself as a studio continues to truck along and the various industry waves they have made in the meantime. But rather, that this is a studio facing such difficult times in the present. Hideaki Anno left the company in 2007 to his recently formed Studio Khara, and in 2011 Hiroyuki Imaishi and Masahiko Ohtsuka went to form Studio Trigger. Imaishi in particular was likely one of the closest elements Gainax had towards developing a second generation after their founding. One could say they almost did their parental nurturing too well in that respect. My poing being though, Gainax has been in a stage of restructuring and refocusing themselves after these various exoduses and brain drains they have encountered.
And during this time, they have announced Blue Uru, itself the long delayed sequel project that at varying stages has been planned for The Wings of Honneamise. And the speculative consideration and reasoning for the studio picking up such a work once again, with all the history of its expense and the lavishness granted it as Gainax’s first full bore commercial animated work, then turns to… why.
That is the multimillion dollar issue floating around the room, haha.
The most hopeful view I can consider is that as much as Gainax has been hemorrhaging funds (C3-Bu absolutely bombing in sales last year, they arguably haven’t had an outright smash hit since Gurren Lagann in 2007 prior to the bigger staff exoduses, whatever the hell Magica Wars is doing, etc), they still have been taking a cut off the Rebuild of Evangelion projects. How much that is I have no idea, being around mainly for “Animation Cooperation” and “Copyright Control” purposes as they are while Anno’s Studio Khara handles pretty much everything else. It should be something though, by all means. But I imagine that drip feed has been helping them coast the last few years.
What I can hope is that, while Studio Khara is doing the Evangelion gruntwork while they get stockpiled resources and demonstration footage for whatever they do next, Gainax has been slowly and quietly ramping up work on the Honneamise sequel as they accept some kickbacks and royalties. A sort of “I scratch your back, you scratch mine,” transition despite the studio split. In turn, allowing Gainax that time to make Blue Uru the kind of hail mary pass it would pretty much have to be in order to make a big impact or “second coming” kind of shift. A rebirth of sorts, almost, indicative of a dawn of a new day for the studio. A grant statement of intent and hope. Which could naturally benefit them for acquiring all kinds of future production investment capital or the like, should such a demonstration go well.
That is the only way recent events regarding Gainax’s more dreadful output really make sense to me as a positive, I suppose. That things kind of suck now for the studio so as to allow for everything they may have lying around to be poured into another grand “We may not get to do this again” style production. In the style of which they were founded, the way they once were.
Then again, Hiroyuki Yamaga directed Honneamise, then would not direct again until 2001. So that’s the kind of thing that builds a lot of weight and hope and expectations… Resulting in adapting Mahoromatic. Which, I mean, I am sure is fine for a battle robot maid romantic comedy show. I have not seen it, but, that is what I have heard over the years.
But it is not exactly “From The Director of Royal Space Force” kind of material for a box tag after a decade and a half wait, you know?
The idea of what a sequel would even look like is also kind of my biggest back of the head concern, especially if Gainax are either metaphorically or literally betting the farm on the operation.
They have seen firsthand how things like a Rei Ayanami, designed to not to be an ideal and yet also still with the big eyes and plug suits and all the rest and turning out to be immensely marketable anyway to the point of pretty much saving an entire company, operate. The entire otaku marketing and merchanising arena of today is vastly different than the heyday of The Wings of Honneamise. One can get Evangelion pilots in santa costumes and as soap dishes now. While few new productions would reach that kind of merchandising, it is really hard to imagine how they make Blue Uru when one of the fundamental strengths of the original is how hellbent lacking it is in strings for extended marketability. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto may have designed the characters in both Honneamise and Evangelion, but one set sure as heck is a lot more glossy and for lack of a better word “anime” than the other.
Which is fine and dandy when you have more money than even the anime gods of the time to make your pie in the sky space science movie full of old men, a square-headed lunk of a lead, and a very conservatively fashioned religious fundamentalist with camera angles to match. But when it is your own company on the line, perhaps even in more ways than one, I am certain the judgement calls have to be so many leagues harder.
But the Gainax of old also was able to crank out Otaku no Video, which is equal parts Anime Fandom Is Awesome, a self aware Names Changed To Protect The Innocent company documentary of their own up and down studio history, and Otaku Are Hurt And Damaged People.
But that was also pre-Evangelion too, now that I think about it.
The idealist in me wants everything to turn out all right. As fun as it can be to shoot up Magica Wars, it’s not like I want Gainax to fail. Because they really used to do daring work I looked forward to purchasing sight unseen. I want to like Gainax more than I have been in recent years.
But, if Blue Uru turns out to be akin to a kind of nail in the coffin, be it through lack of resources or a creative well having run dry or anything in a number of potential landmines it could run into before it is done, well, maybe that would be kind of fitting as the best possible way for them to go out in its own right.
Even with my aforementioned best possible situation spin on the Gainax of the present, there is still a “Ok, and so let’s say they make this movie, and… then what?” kind of situation. Because even if the final movie is super stupendous and worth all the waiting in the style of which this kind of film would need, it would still be more of a temporary box office injection without much down the road merchandising for a longer Gainax health situation. Maybe it could do some film festival rounds or get some awards, but that would be about it. Which goes back to the fundamental issue that makes me wonder why they are even seemingly doing it when I can not imagine they’re in a position to not worry about where their company resources are going.
I want to like the project, whatever it turns out to be. Its apparent existence just does not seem to jive with one would think Gainax should be up to at the moment as a means of big haul future cash injections after recent sales numbers and series performances.
I mean it is fine if one is Mamoru Oshii attached to a player like Production I.G. and rolls out a movie every few years that is nice as a critical prestige or film community piece for instance. But it is not like that studio needs the guy to also keep all the lights on and the doors open at this point either.
To elaborate further on the prestige issue as a general point, this is the kind of thing I think the industry as a whole has sort of struggled with for a long time.
I mean I like this movie a heck of a lot, and yet I could not convince a group of my own film buff friends to watch it, which I will get to by the end of this article.
What I think one may well hit at certain points is that productions like Royal Space Force may not be very “anime” for those who are looking for those elements on a surface level. It is a very expressive work, but it is not visually exaggerated, if you follow my meaning. It is a very lived in world, a place with many stories and we are seeing a particular series of moments. It is also, well, not a very good family film or the like, but more of a piece one watches alone and perhaps at least as a teenager if not adult. At the same time, the animation aspects can throw other crowds for a complete loop. A newspaper review I read of Perfect Blue years ago used to infuriate me for a time, because the reviewer’s core problem with the movie boiled down to that it was not a very funny cartoon. Which, well, it isn’t, so they are technically right. But the point being there is still a very real animation wall regarding how seriously it is taken by even the highest level film professionals.
The Wings of Honneamise came out only a few years prior to Beauty and the Beast after all, which incited waves of spit take rage that an animated film had received a Best Picture nomination for the Academy Awards.
Incidentally and topical enough, Time Out just a few weeks ago just did / re-did their Top 100 Animated Films Of All Time list, which invites all kinds of professionals and historians from all kinds of animation backgrounds.
Guess where Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise places, assuming you may believe it to potentially or conceivably warrant being on a top 100 animated films list.
Answer: it does not make the list.
Now, this is obviously kind of loaded territory, but keep in mind the South Park film hits 26 in that lineup. And I like South Park well enough as much as the next person. But if one looks that whole chart over, there are very particular kinds of productions that are considered “best animation films” in large categorical swaths. Be they family movies, funny movies, some surrealist explorations (but without being too surreal).
And what Honneamise is, well, does not really fit into too many of those categories. Nor does it have the name backing of the likes of the Studio Ghibli collection / Satoshi Kon / Mamoru Oshii / etc. If Watership Down had people instead of cute animals in a terrible situation (which yes, would radically rewrite the whole narrative, but work with me here), I doubt it would have made the list, for instance.
I am not even necessarily trying to argue Honneamise should be on the top 100. But that films of its kind of delivery and operational space occupy such a small portion of that list, one of the most film community respected ones of its kind generated, I think perhaps gets to at least some issues regarding animation perception and how even the industry decides to put its foot forwards before the other cinema folks. Which in turn can play into how different or similar productions are green-lit going forwards.
While we are past the days of offering bottomless budgets to animation teams, there should be more films like Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise to keep pushing industry standards and perspectives. That there should be more films like it each year, as a continual series of attempts to launch a proverbial rocket. And we do, arguably, get those in various ways. And we should champion them, as for someone they will have never seen anything quite like it in animation. It is up to all of us to be eternally vigilant as well, to help in the process of showing those spectacles to others in our own ways.
To tie things back to the central film of this post, for all of its potential face value grandness of scope, I appreciate how small and modest the narrative of the movie really is. That for all of its bigness, or visual grandeur or anything else, the actual plot progression is not exactly a big soaring operatic piece or the like. We have pretty much the exact number of characters we need, so nobody really feels like a tacked on bit or that they never really served a clear purpose. Which is nice, when the characters themselves get to talking about the idea that everyone is useful somewhere.
And as much as the plot revolves around discussing the merits of this space program, it is not handled the same as, say, Ghost In The Shell talks at length about agency or artificial intelligence. The characters here by and large have very modest colloquial conversations, with these pauses and sighs and stutters that occasionally maybe touch on something more profound or meaningful. But only if the other party to the conversation actually catches it or wants to engage with it. And I think that is neat because it allows the movie to feel, perhaps, like it is talking with the viewer I guess? Which I feel can be important as a delivery mechanism, especially for something like space exploration that can be hard for folks to wrap their heads around or see the immediate benefit of even in real life.
So I think this makes it a really swell movie to share with a lot of people in that respect, because it has this mix of being such a large work and yet being able to speak to such a wide number of audiences.
And yet, certainly, I think it is kind of a crime that for such a big work by what is today such a widely celebrated fan studio, that it isn’t shared even more often and has at many points been at risk of being unaccessible.
Some time ago, I was brought on for a potential film commentary website project by a few friends of mine. We are talking the sort of thing where everyone in the room has at minimum one university degree if not more, there are scheduled meetings to discuss content and scope and how we view cinema, domain names and server space is purchased, and so on. Everyone essentially had their own specialties so as to allow for a good mix, and I was the anime / animation person. And during the first meeting, and without prior prompting to think it over in advance, we each had to pick an example movie on the spot to represent our area and make a pitch to convince others to watch it. It did not necessarily have to be the “best” in its given area / genre / medium, but certainly many classics and legends of filmmaking production narratives went around the room.
Extemporaneously, when it came time for me to talk and they wanted to hear about an anime, the movie I picked was Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise. And just as the others splurged on their narratives, I told them so much about what I would eventually spill into my own little history article on the Daicon III and IV videos and a combination of the thoughts and dreams and ideas I have already written here now in this comment today. That Honneamise could be a representative film for my area not just for the film content itself but everything surrounding it, and how there just had not been a project of such a scale and especially not by folks so young.
Notably, while folks watched different combinations of the other movies talked about so that they could be discussed at the next meeting to get a handle on where we would take that film website, nobody actually went on to watch Royal Space Force.
I eventually withdrew from the project after a few months, as little actual actual written website content was being created and it was just sort of sitting around in bureaucratic channels with an occasional sputter.
Which, in a strange and very roundabout way, eventually turns into me doing my own long form writing on my own regarding anime. I would come to pilot my own rocket. I am not entirely sure what to do with it half the time, floating around as I am, and one always wonders at points if anyone is out there in the vastness listening. But I am in the rocket, and it has not crashed. That there are these sights I see, the reflections I want to share, and there is always the wish that someone is out there in the grand vastness listening. That they will be able to walk away even once to see something they had never witnessed before.
And I can hope against hope that Gainax’s rocket is just dipping below the horizon for another go around someday.
2 thoughts on “Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise and The Shooting Star We Saw”
Thank you very much for this thoughtful article. In the introduction to the RSF25 zine, I mentioned that I hoped for renewed discussion of the film, as there was no way the zine could cover it comprehensively. Your essay here is exactly the kind of thing I wished to see.
For example, I’d never made the full connection before, as you did, between the fact the chief designer (Dr. Gnomm) regards his rocket engines as his children, yet evidently had a real wife and son we only see at his funeral. If Royal Space Force had been made as a conventional live-action film, this might have been expanded into some kind of subplot, to set up a tension between his actual family and his engineering creations. Instead, just as his death is sudden, the fact he had a family is revealed to the viewer in a series of quick shots at the funeral (the use of the camera in the funeral sequence is noteworthy–Yamaga said in the director’s commentary that he was particularly pleased with how it turned out).
And yet, in real life, death is sudden, and things about people do come out suddenly when they die–and maybe the stark fact is that Gnomm felt no tension; he simply did care more about his engines, just as many people really do value their work over their family. There’s another bit in the scene that again, in a more conventional film, might have been a sequence to itself. Walking away from the crematory, Kharock, the young engineer among the Space Force who had gotten Gnomm to adopt his ideas, seems to be trying to console one of the scientists–and the old man pivots around angrily on his crutch to rebuke him. We see this from a distance, but the emotion is clear. For a movie that has a reputation for being slow and measured, it also has the capacity to express a lot, even in a few seemingly detached seconds.
Your comparison of the old men’s mechanical efforts to the model work of Daicon Film/GAINAX also made me think of how the rocket, years in the making but still only half constructed when the Royal Space Force first comes across it, is like a giant version of those difficult model kits that people start to build but never manage to finish.
Indeed, they have only one rocket, which absolutely has to work; likewise, they have only one astronaut–Shiro has no backup. It fits the marginal nature of the Space Force as presented in the world of the film, whereas in our world, the early Soviet and U.S. space efforts drew from a large supply of military and test pilots, and their rockets were repurposed ICBMs, already being manufactured in bulk for nuclear deterrence. But what is true in the world of the film might also have resonance with the making of the film itself–Royal Space Force as GAINAX’s one shot for anime to reach a new place thought impossible, with no backup plan for the studio. And a film honest enough to show that even if such a place is found, the act of reaching it can’t alone change things, nor guarantee that people will even see the point of trying. Perhaps, as Yamaga said to Miyazaki, the worthiness is in the process, and not in a goal that will never be identified with certainty.
Hi there Carl, I am glad to be able to make good on some of what you had hoped for regarding the ongoing conversation after the RSF fanzine and that you found this post! As mentioned, this was originally a pile of conversational Reddit comments I had made, so sewing them together for others to go through in a more readable essay/editorial form I thought potentially useful, even if the result kind of lurches around a bit as a side effect.
Dr. Gnomm’s death is certainly a moment that has stuck with me regarding the movie over time, as how exactly it even comes to pass is left pretty ambiguous. He gets a sense the engine is about to fail, and gets a head start on running, leaving his astronaut behind to end up being much closer to the eventual explosion. But while Shitotsugh gets banged up from the event, the engineer dies off screen from any number of things. He could have had a bad fall after getting one to many steps ahead of himself knowing the detonation to come, shrapnel may have arced in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so on. So even his final moments do not receive that kind of conventional live-action approach you mention with what could have been done with a family subplot. There are no camera zooms following, say, what he may be looking at (perhaps his engines, reflecting on his work one last time with a smile or frown) or thinking of (a neglected family life for instance) as he passes on. One moment he is running, and then he is just… gone. We do not realize it is the last time we will see him. As suddenly he has left the world for his own family and those around him, and confused or stricken as they are, he too has left the viewer.
And that I always found a very disarming series of events, to approach portraying things that way, and it gave his death and funeral a natural power or reflective quality it may not have otherwise had as a result.
Yet the work continues ever onward after, which is just as fitting both for what he would have likely wanted for the rocket project, the laborious dreams of Gainax itself creating the film, and indeed ideally the viewers own lives in that idea of a continuous journey of progression over set endpoints and definitive finales. And with Shitotsugh himself, his story as we see it is still very much adhering to that. That while space has been achieved, it is still a moment of continuous personal travel. He has to come down from orbit at some point, so the end of what we see is by no means the end for him. He will always have to continue on carrying the knowledge of what he has himself done or seen while traversing this path, in more ways than one. A greatly expressive notion, even as he speaks quietly alone into a microphone to a world that may or may not be listening, and very indicative of those comments by Yamaga and putting the project out there. That it can still speak to that in new ways so many years down the road for everyone involved, animation teams or viewers alike.