"Suppose that life was a story…Well, have you ever wondered if maybe you aren't the good guy?"—Shirotsugh Lhadatt
Facts of the Case
Perhaps on another world—ours, for example—Shirotsugh Lhadatt might be called a "slacker," showing up late and out of uniform for a fellow soldier's funeral. But this was not any solider: Shiro and company are part of the new Royal Space Force of the Kingdom of Honneamise. Experimenting with new technology, they hope to put a man in orbit, for no other reason than to show that it can be done. And Shiro is being trained to go, for no other reason than he is the only one crazy enough to volunteer. And Shiro volunteers…
Come to think of it, why does Shiro go? Drifting through life, unsure of his goals but not of his ego, Shirotsugh Lhadatt is a man in search of a purpose. Attracted to the enigmatic Riquinni, a poor but religious woman, he hopes for spiritual enlightenment. And Riquinni sees in Shiro a heroic figure who will soon touch the stars. Struggling through their miscommunication, they both see the rocket as a means to an end, a source of epiphany. But what will they learn from it? They will only discover that when Shiro survives his journey into orbit. Wait, I take that back. With assassination attempts, budget cuts, faulty equipment, political maneuvering, and an enemy army massing at the border for an invasion, I should say if Shiro survives his journey into orbit…
The first feature from the upstart Studio Gainax, Honneamise no tsubasa was a breakthrough in Japanese animation history. Produced by a group of relative amateurs who convinced toy giant Bandai to put up an $8 million budget (the largest for a Japanese animated feature at the time) based on a spec trailer. The final film is a triumph. I have often described it to people as an alternate-world version of The Right Stuff, but one which raises deeper questions than that film. If the reasons for putting Shiro into orbit in Honneamise are unclear, consider our own "space race." Why did we send our rockets up, when people in our society were starving and helpless? Was it to outmaneuver the Soviets as part of a political power play? Was it to promote peace by deterritorializing borders? Or was it simply, as Kennedy put it, "because they are hard?"
All these questions are addressed in Honneamise, but in a curiously indirect fashion. The world of the film is not our world, but a strangely parallel one. We see its differences on the surface: strange architecture, art, language, culture, technology. Every detail is in place. Even their books open differently. And yet, the people of this world are all too familiar: the government is steeped in corruption, the scientists are emotionally distant from the consequences of their work, the soldiers await the glory of battle, and the ordinary people struggle with their ordinary problems, only occasionally grasping at some higher meaning.
Shirotsugh and Riquinni (Leiquinni in the original, although in Japanese, these are pronounced the same) struggle as well. They misunderstand one another, and they misunderstand the larger issues around them. They are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and it is one of the great strengths of Hiroyuki Yamaga's script that the characters are not glorified or ennobled by their journey. History will blur the details—as the opening and closing credits provide historical "sketches" that simplify the paths before and after the story we see—but in the present, these individuals are very human.
The Wings of Honneamise grounds these well-developed characters in strikingly original production design. One intriguing extra included on this Manga Video release is a production art gallery which features hundreds of design sketches from the film, showcasing the wealth of detail used to flesh out this world. Accompanying the gallery is the complete Ryuichi Sakamoto soundtrack, otherworldly synthpop which enhances the film's alien feel. Indeed, Sakamoto's work here is in many ways more inventive than his Oscar-winning The Last Emperor soundtrack from that same year. Unfortunately, this hour and sixteen minute (!) gallery is not broken into chapters, so watch it at your own risk.
Other extras include the original spec trailer that Gainax presented to Bandai, which looks a bit rougher than the finished product (since it was done on a shoestring budget), yet still features many images which made it into the final version. A minute-long deleted scene helps embellish on Shiro's "laid-back" persona, and given the already weighty length of the movie (two hours), it is unclear why this single minute needed to be trimmed. Manga Video also provides a nice bonus: a director's commentary by Hiroyuki Yamaga and assistant director Takami Akai (who never identify themselves on screen, but given all their references to other crewmembers, this is a fair guess). They speak Japanese, but a second subtitle track provides translation. During the first half of the film, they mostly discuss animation and art design, as well as voice acting. Yamaga seems convinced that other animation directors like Otomo (Akira) and Oshii (the Patlabor films, Ghost in the Shell) drew influences from his film, and he is probably right. In turn, he gives considerable credit to Hayao Miyazaki. During the second half of the film, Yamaga and Akai spend some time analyzing the characters, particularly focusing on the complex and controversial scene in which Shirotsugh sexually assaults Riquinni, only to have her apologize to him afterwards—a scene which shows how emotionally crippled both characters are.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In spite of the success of Yamaga's script and the marvelous production design, I am deeply troubled by Manga Video's presentation of one of the most important films in anime history. The transfer of The Wings of Honneamise is simply appalling. While the packaging claims that the transfer is digitally remastered anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1, although this is listed nowhere on the package), you would never know this by watching the film. The image is blurry throughout, and every camera movement is rife with visible lines and other distortions. This makes the film nearly unwatchable in parts, which is a pity considering its wealth of detail and fine animation. Manga Video apparently blames the original film elements, but my VHS copy never looked this bad.
Two soundtracks are provided. The English dub is in 5.1, which sounds particularly aggressive during the climactic rocket launch. The voice work is serviceable and does not change too much from the original—although Shirotsugh comes across as a little more gung-ho in English than he does in Japanese. The Japanese track is presented in a lackluster 2.0 mix, which sounds altogether too flat.
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise is a milestone in feature animation: serious themes, strong characters, stunning art design. And all from the hands of a group of independent animators who put everything they had into the film. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend Manga Video's release of this film. I wish I could say otherwise, as I think this film is a masterpiece. But at $30 for a poor transfer, and no signs of Manga Video re-releasing a corrected version any time soon, you are better off saving your money.
Riquinni's god may offer forgiveness to many, even Shirotsugh, but I suspect he has a special place in Hell reserved for whomever is responsible for botching this DVD production of an anime masterpiece.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Manga Video
• Director's Commentary (subtitled)
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