I guess films are like the studios that create them: some are still going strong year after year, some enjoy a resurgence in popularity long after their big break, some fade into obscurity while others try to last out on reputation alone. Although I’m a Gainax fanboy I wondered how the their debut production, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise, had stood the test of time.
Is its reputation deserved? Old-school fans can be fiercely loyal to the stuff they hold dear after all, especially when it’s seen through the soft-focus rose tint of nostalgia. Some titles are popular for popularity’s sake but others, such as this one, are enduring simply because they’re good.
I always suspected that Yamaga and co are more comfortable when not held back by the TV serial constraints but never has it been so obvious as it is here. It wasn’t until I started freeze-framing to do the tedious job of choosing screencaps (which, by the way, don’t do its artwork justice) that I fully understood the amount of work that’s gone into this movie: the attention to detail is staggering. The world-building has its own geography, customs, currency, technology and even, if I’m not mistaken, languages. Although it draws inspiration from the US/USSR Space Race of the 1950s much of this is a flight through the imagination…as animated escapism should be really. The rocket designs are obviously true-to-life but some much else is, much to my amazement, built from scratch.
The ‘built from scratch’ point is one digression where I will nod to the film’s origins and bore the anime history experts by highlighting its own history. As a fledgling studio of hard-up yet enthusiastic geeks trying to make it on their own, a lot of love has been poured into the production but in that sense art imitates life: the heroes are a team of nobodies with dogged determination and a can-do attitude who have everything to lose and everything to prove. The parallels with what must have been Gainax’s own workplace atmosphere are I suspect intentional.
This is where the reputation/nostalgia problem comes in. It’s all well and good painting Wings of Honneamise as the real and fictitious triumph of the underdogs but let’s be honest here: we watch it to enjoy it, not merely to give ourselves a history lesson. My point is that the loving care, artistic innovation and financial risks speak for themselves: on its own merits as stand-alone film it’s still brilliant, and that’s what matters.
The background is alien but perhaps because the people and places portrayed are not those of our own world, the writers felt more confident in making the social commentary that little bit more forceful. The big ideas such as corruption and political machinations or the little ones like departmental funding and personal issues are no less relevant just because the nationalities are fictitious: they’re dressed up differently but still hit home. The difficulty in working at the mercy of myopic bureaucracy or the discomfort of unintended celebrity status translates well to a lot of real-life situations!
I really like the aesthetic of it all, not just because it’s different. With the exception of Planetes the humdrum, un-glamorous side of science fiction is rarely shown: this is giving a voice to the quiet geniuses and backroom risk-takers that make the rest of it possible. The technology is rendered with meticulous attention to detail but that technology is wonderfully quaint and primitive; this juxtaposition of historical and space-age gives a retro-futuristic feel like that of Xam’d Lost Memories in some ways. This isn’t just the story of how Gainax began: it’s a story of how space opera stories themselves begin.
The pacing of the film and perhaps the nonchalant hero, who has a pretty unpleasant moment of personal weakness at one point, may be off-putting for some. Whether it was to portray the long and drawn-out nature of our heroes’ struggle or just to give the worldview the screen time it deserves, it’s a long film; because the main character is so unhurried and indecisive in everything he does, it feels like a long film at times. He’s not always all that heroic so the realism might get the better of the entertainment value on occasion, but I find that unflinching, matter-of-fact frankness refreshing.
Since Gainax have churned out slapstick comedy/parody TV series with tired in-jokes and dollops of fan service it’s understandable that Wings of Honneamise, with its long-winded plot and mature storytelling style, might be a bit of a shock. Indeed, I constantly asked myself “why don’t they make films like this any more?” and have yet to formulate a satisfactory answer. Maybe a film of this scale, with no pre-written source material or tie-in merch to rely on, would be too much to ask for in the current financial climate. Reading around, the lukewarm reception upon its release is what can kill careers so we ought to be grateful to be given the opportunity to remember it at all.
The way in which a small group of people who aim higher than anyone while being looked down upon by their contemporaries, the way an everyman drifts through life before finding his muse and making history and the little coincidences, bits of luck and dashes of philosophy and spirituality to contrast the scientific endeavours are inspirational and make something greater than the sum of its parts.
This isn’t my excuse to rant about how Yamaga, Anno and their colleagues have never returned to the glory days of their first features, or how the Industry is allegedly choking under the black cloud of global recession or suffocating under the hug-pillow of moe. It isn’t even about how the movie is an historically significant one. It’s about good cinema as good cinema: that is, gorgeous cinematography, memorable characters and powerful storytelling that are just that, regardless of era. It’s a moving and stunning film and that’s why it deserves to be a appreciated. Go watch it.