In a world eerily similar to our own, war between the Kingdom of Honneamise and its archrival, The Republic, seems inevitable. But even as the two nations' rapidly evolving technology creates new ways to wage greater and more deadly forms of warfare, a small group seeks to use those same advances to propel mankind forward into the future and into space in their world's first manned spaceflight program.
For astronaut candidate Shirotsugh Lhadatt, it's not just a journey beyond the reach of the atmosphere, but a personal odyssey as he grows from an aimless young man into a leader willing to put everything on the line...
I've written before about hidden gems in anime and I am pleased to say that I keep finding them over and over again. It's a quest that the finding is the reward. One film that I discovered after hearing about for years was this wild, fantastic gem called Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honnêamise. With a title like that, you hope it has something going for it. With animation by GAINAX, direction by Hiroyuki Yamaga and amazing character designs by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, it is everything in all the right places.
Taking place in a fictionalised version of Earth dominated by two factions, the Kingdom of Honnêamise and the "Republic", Wings of Honnêamise is the story of one man and his dream to be something better than even he believes himself to be. Shirotsugh Lhadatt is a member of the armed services who somehow has found himself in the Royal Space Force. If that sounds impressive, it is not. The space force are treated as a joke and anyone who works there is laughed at. With his life in the toilet, Lhadatt is picked to be the next test pilot for their first ever space flight. The last guy didn't make so Lhadatt doesn't have long to live. In his lowest ebb, he meets a young religious girl Riquinni Nonderaiko who inspires him to look again, try to pick himself and move forward with the test flight. With a newfound energy, he throws himself into the work and in doing so, attracts the attention of the royal household, their superiors and the general public. With tensions running high, it comes down to what will happen first: the invasion of the country by the Republic or Lhadatt's launch.
The film is a masterstroke of filmmaking, drawing on a wealth of previous authors rich adherence to believing in the worlds they created. From E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series to Miyazaki's Ghibli films, GAINAX build their story around the believability of the world it is set in. Everything derives from whether you buy into this world. In an industry that works at the output of product rather than the quality of the product, Honnêamise is a total cut above the rest. The kingdom where it is set, it's a complete world. From the cars everyone drives to the razors people shave with to buildings people live in, this is a universe where it all works or it doesn't. How do the cars run? What do they run on? They look like our cars but they are stylised and designed to fit the aesthetic of the Kingdom. The planes run on propellers but they use double stern props to move themselves. The space suit that Lhadatt wears for the launch looks like a space suit with connecting parts like modern suits but it seems to be made out of cloth on the outside. Not manufactured cloth but hand sewn cloth. The razor Lhadatt uses to shave is not something that we would use in the modern world but it works and the animators take the time to show the razor in action just in case you doubted their sincerity. All of it makes you wish that it was real, that you could reach out and touch it.
The story itself goes beyond the tired cliché of "Boy overcomes obstacles, finds girl, loses girl, challenges final boss, wins goal" and shows that there is a dark side to being in the spotlight. Lhadatt wants something to do with his life and he's just killing time by being in the Space Force. Meeting Riquinni gives him a goal, an ideal, something to work toward. When he's with his team, it all makes sense for him. When he's thrust into the limelight, he doesn't know what to do. He's not an idiot but he's not sure how to function in front of the crowds. People who work for the Republic are trying to kill him and he's always on his toes now because of it. Add to that the implicit notion that his bosses are using him as propaganda against the Republic and he starts to get worn down again. So he recharges by hanging out with Riquinni. But this in turn opens one of the darkest moments in the film. Lhadatt does something that almost costs him his friendship with Riquinni. But Lhadatt is redeemed by Riquinni who forgives him without a second glance. She doesn't want to talk about it after that so in recompense, Lhadatt throws himself into the work in the final days before the launch. It's as if he can't forgive himself so this is suddenly his last chance for redemption. This ignores the fact that it is Riquinni who ultimately decided his destiny and character by sparing him. To this day, I can't explain that logic on her part or the reasons for him to try and attack her. It just comes out of nowhere. GAINAX themselves are happy to let the scene and its implications stand and not comment further. I leave it to you readers to decide.
The final act of the film is straight out of The Right Stuff with everyone working non stop to get to the launch. They struggle, fail, struggle and succeed in spite of their superiors "help". When the Republic invades the launch area, Lhadatt convinces them to stay and help him. When it all comes together, the film rewards us with a spectacular shot of the world below as a thank you for having invested this much time with the world around the story. In the end as Lhadatt orbits the world all the troubles he faced, all the warring he witnessed and every problem his fellow humans endure seem so easy to solve. From where he is, the world looks so fragile. Real life astronauts have expressed similar thoughts after coming back from space for the first time. Well done to Yamaga-san for being able to express that thought so well.
Wings of Honnêamise is the rare breed of anime film - a visual and narrative tour-de-force with plenty of eye candy to please fans of all disciplines. You owe yourself the chance to see an anime studio in full command of their enthusiasm, a director bursting to tell a great story and heroes and characters who want to tell their stories while living their lives. Simply amazing.