Some Basic Info About this Venerable Sci-Fi Film
Title: Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise a.k.a. Ouritsu Uchuugun Honneamise no Tsubasa a.k.a. Star Quest
Film Length: 121 mins.
Release Date: 3/14/1987
Age Rating: 15+ (mild violence, some strong language, brief partial nudity)
Summary: Pursuing the dream of flight since he was a child, but not academically-gifted enough to make it into the Air Force or the Navy, Shirotsugh Lhadatt is a 21-year-old cadet serving at the Space Force--a branch of the military with no budget, no respect, and no hope for successfully reaching the stars. With the squad as unmotivated as the government is to continue financing them, Shirotsugh meanders aimlessly through life until his passion is sparked by a religious girl named Riquinni, who admires him and his profession. Inspired to take his career more seriously, Shirotsugh volunteers to be the first man to be sent into space, even as circumstance and his own country stand as obstacles in his way.
The Good: Gritty aesthetic and setting; interesting sci-fi plot carried by quirky underdog cast
The Bad: Moves a little too slowly; story tries to juggle too many things at once and hamstrings itself; that weird attempted-rape scene; what in the world is that music?!
The Ugly: The unfortunate result of trying to rough up someone on the verge of puking
So how did I find myself watching this particular film?
I've always been a fan of Gainax's output. Ever since FLCL first grabbed me on Adult Swim in the early 2000s and I wore out the first VHS of Neon Genesis Evangelion until those first 2 episodes were ingrained into my brain. I suppose it's only fitting that, during this little stretch of Gainax reviews I'm doing, we should finally come across the studio's first major project: this very film. I'm not entirely sure why I waited so long to watch Wings of Honneamise--maybe it was the dry-sounding (for Gainax) premise?--but that's all over now. I can now step forward and boldly proclaim that Gainax's first feature film sure is...kinda-sorta okay-ish?
Where does Wings of Honneamise soar above the competition?
First and foremost, sci-fi fans will love this film purely by virtue of its well-developed setting and grit-and-spit industrial art style. Truly, one of the great tragedies of modern anime--as great as modern anime is--is that these kinds of dirty, rusty, humble-looking titles have been all but phased out with the advent of digital animation. You just don't get these kinds of stories anymore, with dirty, sweaty people living in gritty, grimy industrial cities with trash strewn about in graffitied alleyways with makeshift barriers and tin-walled houses. Huge factories with sweeping decorative arches supported by thick, heavy steel beams, cluttered and cramped aluminum apartment buildings, steel and grime and grit and dirt as far as the eye can see...it's just really refreshing to see that kind of realism on display again, as it's easy to forget those things can exist in an anime world if you spend too much time hunting only for the new stuff.
It's also refreshing to see these kinds of character designs, with their sort of goofy, affably homely charm--something else that would never fly these days. I kinda like that basically nobody is outright handsome or beautiful (though Riquinni is a cutie pie and I will hear no word to the contrary), because you just don't see that very often in any animated feature, since it's just easier to draw people who look pretty. Time and effort went into making these characters look the way they do, and I admire that. The setting itself is pretty fascinating on its own, too, complete with entirely-fabricated foreign languages and visually distinct cultural garbs and writing styles--if you're a big fan of this kind of subtle, omnipresent world-building, then I don't need to say anything else because Wings of Honneamise is the movie for you.
On the narrative side of things, there's plenty to enjoy as well: the ticking-clock aspect wherein the Space Force has one last chance to get a working rocket into the sky before being defunded completely is a classic plotline, and when the intrigue and danger get ratcheted up for the climax, it's very much a good time. It truly is an underdog story, as the guys at the top actively want the Space Force to fail (to them, space exploration has no foreseeable benefit for making war, you see), and you as an audience want to see our plucky crew succeed even more to spite them. As for the crew themselves, Shirotsugh is a lovably lazy bum we can't help but root for (most of the time, more on that later), his friend Matti is a real bro and works hard to see his friend succeed, and the half-dozen wacky old men working on the rocket parts are straight out of a Hayao Miyazaki film, and there's no higher praise than that. Riquinni and her adopted sister Manna are also super-compelling, and as much as I wanted Shirotsugh to succeed in his mission, I wanted these two to be safe and happy and not be treated like cattle by the power company, those dirty, dirty corporate home-wrecking scumbags!
...And where does it crash and burn?
Unfortunately, even though it's got a rich art style and has a strong narrative and character combo, this movie has a lot of issues dragging it down, as well. Like, for instance, the fact that the film itself drags along for too much of its runtime. At just over two hours long, it feels twice that, and it's because many of its scenes last just a little bit longer than is necessary--death by a thousand cuts, if you will, though I suspect a thousand little literal cuts would've saved the film from feeling so slow.
Another issue the film has is in regards to the sheer number of moving parts it tries to manage, especially in the film's climax. To delve into some spoiler territory, the government chooses a remote location for the Space Force's rocket launch near the neighboring hostile country's border, with the intent of enticing that country's military into attacking the rocket, destroying it, and hand-crafting a convenient excuse to launch into all-out war. This is a tense and exciting plot on paper, but in execution, with the meetings between those foreign leaders, rogue elements in our heroes' country, our heroes themselves hatching their own plan, and everything else going on, it becomes too much to keep straight. Add to that Shirotsugh's shifting worldviews, struggling between his lackadaisical self and his newfound philosophical self, and the first instance of a Gainax Ending showering us with trippy seemingly-unrelated imagery during those final scenes, and those last 20 minutes are just a lot to take in--the end result is a narrative that should be slick and thrilling, but overall feels incredibly uneven and sloppy. It just feels like the script could've used some more treatment to smooth things out.
Speaking of rewrites needed to smooth things out, why is there an attempted rape scene in this movie?! The tone of this movie is incongruous with an attempted rape scene. About halfway through the film, Shirotsugh is staying at Riquinni's place once again (he's hiding out from the public adulation, and also, y'know, he's got the hots for her). He's made some small, unsuccessful romantic gestures, but she's rebuffed him because she's not into it. Nothing major. And then, on this night, as if he's in a somnambulant trance, he walks up to her while she's undressing, grabs her by the shoulders, and tackles her and holds her down while staring blankly into her face. He snaps out of it, she clocks him on the side of the head, and they have an awkward reconciliation the next day. The entire point of the scene is to display Shirotsugh's unconscious sexual frustration taking control of him, establishing that he's not a perfect person and, even though he's the hero, he can lose control of himself. With that said, did we really need to jump straight to attempted rape?! No, no we did not. That's too extreme a leap, you guys. You could've had the same narrative effect with a forced kiss or an embrace that was uncomfortably butt-squeezy without eviscerating the film's tone and severely damaging our chances of continuing to relate to and cheer for Shirotsugh. Maybe it was because it's an anime film from the 80s and we gotta meet our Boob Quota, but I can't abide by it--it comes out of nowhere, it clashes with the rest of the film, it does far more harm than good, and its narrative purpose could've been served by a bunch of other means. I believe I've made my point clear here.
Now with that heaviness out of the way, we conclude the list of Honneamise's faults with its soundtrack. It sucks and is too loud and drowns out the dialogue and sounds terrible and doesn't fit the tone and atmosphere of the film. And that's all I have to say about that.
So, what's the verdict?
As I've said already, fans of this kind of industrial sci-fi will be sold on Wings of Honneamise no matter what I say, so there's that crowd all sorted out. As for the rest of you, I can only give this film a very mild recommendation--it's a great example of old-school anime aesthetics and fans of ye olden titles will doubtless find enjoyment, but otherwise, I can only say to check it out if your curiosity demands it. It's just a shame that Gainax's first major film is so uneven and at times tone-deaf, because they're usually better at...actually, no, I will retract that statement before it's even finished--Gainax have always been a little uneven and tone-deaf, but Wings of Honneamise just ended up being the least deft of their works at making sure those flaws were outshone by the good stuff.
Final Score: 5.5 out of 10. Fans of classic sci-fi anime will no doubt enjoy the film's gritty industrial aesthetic, the down-to-earth cast, and the ticking-clock elements of its storyline, but the film's pacing and narrative consistency are essentially nonexistent and will viciously test the patience of any viewer not already completely sold on the concept.