Review for Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise
“I’m never going to buy a Blu-ray Player!” That was me back in 2007, happy with my multi-region DVD player connected up to a decent quality widescreen CRT television. All this high definition stuff was fanciful pie in the sky, and Blu-ray was never going to take over the home cinema arena the way that DVD did. To an extent that is still true, but CRTs are a thing of the past, as are SD TVs (although no one has told the broadcasters), and last year I caught up to and clambered aboard the HD bandwagon. The Wings of Honneamise is my favourite anime feature film, and I long wanted to own a copy that wasn’t on videotape, and wasn’t Manga US’s dismal DVD. When it was finally released in the US, it came from Bandai Visual, a speciality label set up to sell Japanese content direct to US audiences, but at Japanese prices. It works now for companies like Aniplex, as they know they are catering for a niche. Bandai Visual tried it at US economies of scale and failed. But in their short existence they brought the classics of anime to the US in very attractive if expensive formats. One of their early releases was The Wings of Honneamise and they released it in the burgeoning HD formats, Blu-ray and HD DVD as well as DVD.
I only wanted the DVD back then but Bandai Visual’s DVD of The Wings of Honneamise was only available as a bonus with either the Blu-ray or the HD DVD, and at the price they were demanding, I was hesitating for so long that it was Australia’s Madman Entertainment that threw me a lifeline. They went and released The Wings of Honneamise on DVD, and it was the Bandai Visual version. Without any of the HD content, it was also a lot more affordable, and my dilemma was forgotten; until I actually got it and found an NTSC-PAL standards conversion, and a slight problem with the audio. It was good enough for the old CRT set though, and I was happy until I got that Blu-ray player last year. The first thing I did was go looking for The Wings of Honneamise on Blu-ray, and despite Bandai Visual long being defunct, and Bandai Entertainment just having shut up shop, those ridiculous economies of scale meant that there were still copies floating around. It’s been eighteen months, and if you go looking for speciality anime retailers, you may still find a few copies, and still at RRP. I got it for half price, and you’ll understand the insanity of Japanese pricing when I mention that it still put me back $40.
The film’s still the same, so expect a little cut and paste...
From an early age Shirotsugh Lhadatt wanted to be a jet fighter pilot, but his academic scores weren’t good enough. In a world not too dissimilar to our own, the Space Service is a laughing stock, and unmotivated Shirotsugh just drifted in. He spends most of his days slacking, and avoiding the more dangerous aspects of his job. That’s until the day that he meets Riquinni. In a world becoming more decadent and self-absorbed, Riquinni stands on street corners and preaches of piety and humbling oneself before God. When she hears of the work that Shiro does, his noble calling impresses her, she’s awed that he will touch the face of God. Her reaction serves to inspire Shiro in turn, and soon he is uncharacteristically fervent about his work. He’s just in time, as after 20 years of experimentation and work, and despite the ridicule of most, his nation is finally ready to put a man in orbit, and all they need is one volunteer. But it isn’t the purest of endeavours.
Perfect! To my eyes, this is a perfect transfer of the original source, with minimal print damage, authentic colours, the finest of line detail, and a warm layer of film grain bringing across the original cinematic experience. There is so much detail now, with the richness of the world design, the breadth of the colour palette, every aspect of the animation accurately reproduced. The stated aspect ratio is 1.85:1 widescreen at 1080p resolution, but as per those early CRT HD TVs that these first Blu-rays were designed for, The Wings of Honneamise is windowboxed to compensate for overscan. The HD transfer does bring out the flaws in the film. After all, The Wings of Honneamise was created before the digital revolution, it’s a cel animated feature, and you can now see the uneven paint colours on cels, the imperfection associated with a handmade feature, and those odd scenes where a cel didn’t sit properly and a plane of animation drifts out of focus, or there’s a slight judder between subsequent frames. And I have to say that I loved every imperfect frame of it, as it still exhibits a warmth and authenticity that modern digital cel animated features have yet to emulate.
Honneamise is a stupendously visual film. Not a frame goes by that doesn’t grab the attention, doesn’t amaze at its inventiveness and attention to detail. When you make a parallel world, it can be cheap and cheerful, or it can be an opportunity for art designers to play God. In this film, it seems that the animators and designers’ primary goal was to design everything from the beginning again. Whether it is something substantial like a car or a plane, or something basic like a book, a doorbell, or currency, they went back to first principles, and took it through a different evolutionary path. Everything looks skewed, door handles work in a different way, motorbike ignitions are unrecognisable, but you get the feeling that all of these designs would work in the real world. It’s just that history didn’t turn out that way. It’s even true in real life. We have the QWERTY keyboard because keys were less likely to stick that way on a manual typewriter. Yet it is the least intuitive layout for fast typing, and we have to be trained to use it. Honneamise is a world of what ifs, and while the character designs are pleasant and well drawn, it is the world design that will mesmerise.
You have the choice between the original Japanese stereo experience, presented in PCM 2.0 format, the old Manga Video English dub at DD 2.0 Surround at 640kbps, and the remixed Japanese surround audio in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround. Forget the rest, as the latter is the audio track of choice here. The Wings of Honneamise gets an amazing surround upgrade, with great clarity and definition. The dialogue is always clear, the film’s music comes across well, and the action sequences really do give the LFE a workout. Also, the film’s sound design is just as inventive as the imagery, and the way it’s been translated to the surround sound-stage rivals the remix that the Akira Blu-ray got. Also prepare to turn the volume down at the climax of the film. Subtitles are available in translated English and Japanese.
A thick card case holds the contents of this collection, two DVD-size Amaray cases, one holding the Blu-ray and one holding the DVD, and there’s a discreet ‘Made in Japan’ indication on a blue banner around the case on which is printed the disc blurb, so as not to mar the case artwork.
Hence the price, and hence the fact that the Blu-ray is Region free, and the DVD is coded Region 1 and Region 2 for playback in Japan and the US. Both discs will happily play on unmodified UK players. Incidentally, the DVD offers the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with DD 5.1 Japanese and DD 2.0 English, once again with English and Japanese subtitles. While the image falls far short of the clarity that the Blu-ray has to offer, it’s still a splendid transfer, with the NTSC video encoded for progressive playback. Also, the Australian problem with out of sync Japanese audio in the final chapter is not an issue here.
Insert either disc and it presents a menu offering Japanese or English options. Each will autoplay that version of the film, but it also loads menus in that language as well. If you want the Japanese version, best choose the English menu; wait for the film to start, and then escape to the main menu screen to choose the Japanese audio and English subtitles.
There is also a 20 page commemorative booklet that looks at the film. There is an intro from anime film historian Ryusuke Hikawa, an interview with director Hiroyuki Yamaga and a look at the effects work of Hideaki Anno. There are plenty of images from the film. It’s identical to the one that came with the Australian release, but because it is of a size that fits in the card box, and not the Amaray case, the text is large enough that it doesn’t strain the eyes, and it’s of better quality.
Both the DVD and the Blu-ray get the original Trailer and the Original Pilot Film, but on the Blu-ray these are both in full HD. The Original Pilot film lasts 5 minutes. This was the promotional piece that the animators put together, and on the back of it got the funding for the feature film. All the elements of the final movie are there, but the world is more reminiscent of feudal Europe. It says in the booklet that they thought the promo was a little too Ghibli and they threw it away and started from scratch.
That minute long deleted scene from the Madman release is apparently an Australian Exclusive, and can’t be seen on these US/Japanese discs.
The Wings of Honneamise is the best animated movie ever made, and from me that’s faint praise. I’m hard pressed to find live action films that I like more than this. Twenty years on, it still hasn’t been equalled in scope, in imagination or in maturity of thought. There’s no doubt that the skills in animation keep getting better, with CGI anything is possible, but that makes this film’s achievement all the more spectacular when you realise that there isn’t a single pixel in the whole thing. It was all accomplished with pen and ink on acetate. Naturally it was a box office flop. All groundbreaking films are, and Wings of Honneamise was truly groundbreaking. Prior to this, all anime features were made for general audiences, character designs were cutesy, and there would be some comic relief, some romance, something to appeal for all ages. This film tore up that doctrine and threw it away. There is nothing cute about any of the characters. If there is humour it comes naturally from the situations, the pace is glacial and the story is aimed squarely at adults. It’s thought provoking, philosophical and blisteringly intelligent, refusing to pander to audience sensibilities. And it did all this a year before Akira.
Comparisons are understandably made with The Right Stuff. The Right Stuff was made in 1983, adapted from Tom Wolfe’s novel of the same name. It told the story of America’s Mercury Space program, and those early astronauts who took their country’s first faltering steps outside the confines of this planet in the race against the Soviet Union. Wings Of Honneamise tells much the same story, except that this world’s space aspirations are considered laughable and wasteful, rather than heroic and patriotic. But the big difference is in the tone. The Right Stuff was an ode to heroes, concerned with telling us about how, not really too bothered with why. The Wings Of Honneamise asks why. Why go into space, why spend vast sums of money for no apparent return? Because of the parallel world setting, there is no worry about upsetting sensibilities, and through allegory all these questions and more can be explored. Still, NASA does get a screen credit so they must have been impressed with the final product.
This film is all about opposites and contradictions. It begins when slacker Shiro meets pious Riquinni. She’s proselytising on a street corner in a hedonistic sector of the city. Shiro and his friends have been celebrating a wake for a fallen friend, and in passing Shiro picks up one of her flyers. He winds up at her doorstep, more out of curiosity and the chance to impress a pretty girl, but he gets affected by her thoughts that humanity has fallen from grace, that in the race for progress they have forgotten something fundamental. When she hears that he is in the space program, she is enthused. The space program isn’t destructive, even though they are a military group; there is no room for a weapon on a space capsule. Instead they exemplify the purity of human achievement, a flawless aspect of creation designed to touch the heavens themselves. It’s this fervent passion that inspires Shiro, and soon he is the most vocal proponent of the Space service, volunteering to be the first man in orbit. The irony of all this is that Riquinni is a victim of progress when her home is destroyed for a new factory. She is a proponent of nature versus progress, a return to morality from a growing decadence, but it is that same progress that will put Shiro into space. She sees Shiro as the purest of all, a man who will touch the face of God.
It isn’t long before the purity of the space service is tainted. It’s immediately a tool of squabbling politicians, the rocket cannot be completed without its creators yielding to corruption, and Shiro is soon the poster child for a propagandising nation. While he is having his photos taken, there are the homeless outside on the streets, questioning why the money for the rocket can’t be spent on them. The political football gets kicked up to a higher league when the nation’s traditional enemy hears of the launch. What was previously an international joke becomes a prize to be coveted, and soon agents of the foreign power are after the rocket. Honneamise is happy to oblige, and moves the launch site closer to the border, just to draw the enemy out into a conflict to gauge the state of their military.
These bigger issues are played out in microcosm with Shiro and Riquinni. Shiro becomes a vessel for Riquinni’s hopes and dreams while her world falls apart, while he struggles on a path towards spirituality that can make him understand why he is determined to get into space. It becomes difficult given Shiro’s initial motivations in pursuing Riquinni. Incidentally, this is the uncut version. Manga UK willingly cut a violent assault to get a PG rating, but it is here in its unsavoury 30 sec totality. The film makes a whole lot more sense now, and the character arcs are much clearer because of it.
The Wings Of Honneamise is one of those films where a few thousand words in a review just aren’t enough to do it justice. The animation, the imagination, the attention to detail, the considered characterisations, maturity and smart story all come together to deliver an unforgettable experience. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is great about this film. It is one of the best films ever made.
I have my Holy Grail. I have The Wings of Honneamise on Blu-ray. It looks and sounds fantastic, and you can really appreciate as never before the sheer passion and energy that the genius of Studio Gainax put into this film. It’s not only my Holy Grail, as those fine folk at Manga Entertainment would pounce at a chance to give this a UK release if it became affordable to do so. I hope it does as this US release is getting hard to find now, and like all classics of a medium, The Wings of Honneamise should never be allowed to go out of print.