Back in late 1980’s or early 1990’s I saw an anime move in the anime room at Lunacon that blew me away. That movie was Royal Space Force, The Wings Of Honneamise. The animation that I did see was incredible, the story well developed and the background rich creating a level of animation that just didn’t exist in American animation. At the time I wasn’t able to sit for the entire movie and didn’t catch the title, so it was a while until I was the whole thing as back in those days you either were connected to a video tape pass around group, which I wasn’t or caught the stuff at cons, which because I was going to college and looking for work was Lunacon once a year. That changed when they opened up a Suncoast at the local mall and I could buy tapes. I quickly discovered the movie and watched the whole. With the exception of one scene the work was the tour de force that I remembered and the film is still a favorite.
I think that it’s important to understand the people who made Royal Space Force, The Wings Of Honneamise going too deeply into the movie. Wings was not made by a huge studio with a bunch of people behind it. The movie was made by essentially a bunch of college dropouts called Studio Gainax.
These were fans who, at the very least, decided to get off the couch and make something, and make they did: shorts, OVAs, video games, toy shops, and eventually, just about the biggest hit the anime world has ever seen. So while they might be the most visible embodiment of that post-Yamato otaku culture, they also preached and practiced something that was inherently un-otaku: making something of your own….
Here’s where the Gainax story begins in earnest: In 1981, a group of Osaka-based anime fans operating out of Kinki University applied to host the Japan Sci-Fi Convention, a convention that was held each year in a different city. Their bid was successful and marked the third time that the convention would be held in Osaka. Tradition dictated that the Japan Sci-Fi Convention have a new nickname every year, related to where it was held, and previous and the two prior Osaka events had been called “Daicon,” a pun referring to the kanji used to spell “Osaka” and a type of Japanese radish. The 1981 event was to be called Daicon III.
While the Japan Sci-Fi Convention accommodated all aspects of sci-fi fandom, the group of organizing fans, lead by Yasuhiro Takeda and Toshio Okada, decided that their convention needed an animated short for the opening ceremonies. Takeda and Okada soon got in contact with another local fan, Anno, after hearing that he knew how to animate. At their first meeting, Anno impressed Takeda and Okada by quickly illustrating a flip book of a powered suit in action. As production began in a small room attached to a factory owned by Okada’s family, two more local fans joined: Takami Akai and Hiroyuki Yamaga. Faced with a minuscule budget and looking for ways to cut costs, the amateurs animated the thing entirely on vinyl sheets instead of the traditional acetate…
While Gainax is invariably remembered as an anime studio created by anime fans, the period in-between the two Daicon videos is a reminder that these guys loved more than just animation. After Daicon III, the group formed Daicon Film and worked on a series of amateur tokousatsu films, drawing particular influence from Ultraman.
The first of these was released a year after Daicon III and was titled Kaiketsu Notenki (thus providing the origin of the title of Takeda’s book, The Notenki Memoirs). Two more films followed in the gap prior to Daicon IV: Aikoku Sentai Dainippon and Kaettekita Ultraman. While these projects started off as low-budget parodies, production values increased as they tackled new projects, including two more films in 1984, Kaiketsu Notenki 2 – Minatomachi Junjo-hen and Hayauchi Ken no Daiboken.
Their final live action film, Yamata no Orochi no Gyakusha, was released in December of 1985, and featured special effects and production values that bordered on professional. Orochi was directed by Akai and shot on 16mm, a significant step up from the earlier films that used 8mm. That jump alone suggested some degree of professionalism, as 16mm was the same film used by professional tokusatsu shows.
While Orochi’s crew was comprised of unpaid volunteers, much of the production material and supplies were funded by General Products, a reminder of the intimate relationship between the two companies even before merging five years later.
By the time Orochi was enjoying a limited theatrical release, Daicon Film was in the midst of a massive transition, as the studio was moving from Osaka to Tokyo to facilitate the production of a pilot film for a project called Royal Space Force. They were also changing their name from Daicon Film to Gainax, a name that means effectively nothing, but has it’s roots in both the film Orochi and co-founder Akai’s past.
Orochi had been filmed in Akai’s hometown of Yonago, where, in the local dialect, “gaina” means “big.” Combine that colloquialism with the most famous giant robot letter of the them all, X, and you’ve got “Gainax.”
The company’s roots to Yonago and Orochi run deeper than most would expect: Years later, Gainax would organize their own convention called “Gainamatsuri,” where, in 1995, they would announce the release of Neon Genesis Evangelion. But ten years before that ever happened, the Gaina Matsuri was a very real local festival that occurred in Yonago and, of course, was featured in Orochi.
With improved visual effects and a decision to ditch the parody angle, Orochi proved, much like their Daicon shorts, that these guys had as much potential in live-action as they did with animation. Potential or not, things were about to change, as a generous offer from Bandai steered them back towards animation.
In addition to producing the opening animation for Daicon III in 1981, the proto-Gainax groups had also sold resin garage kits at the convention. Unlike conventional injection-molded kits, like the wildly popular Gundam kits that were causing mayhem at stores across Japan around the same time, garage kits were kits designed and produced by small outfits, usually with extremely limited manufacturing runs. These kits were often only available for a limited time, and typically only sold at specific conventions; a tradition that continues today with events like Wonder Festival. The success of their kit sales at Daicon III led to the group establishing General Products in 1982 with the intention of producing licensed models based on popular franchises.
The people in Gainax were among the first, if not the first anime otaku. They played around with animation and built model kits. In 1981, they made this anime introduction for the Daicon3 SF convention. The convention lost money, but the animation was sold and enough copies were sold to keep the con out of bankruptcy. Here’s the Daicon 3 video.
Two years later the organizers of Daicon tried again and this time they invited the people who now called themselves “Daicon films” to be part of the organization and to make another video, this one.
Here’s a shot by shot review.
The Daicon IV video should really be seen on a fairly large screen in HD to be fully appreciated. I saw it that way when it was part of a show about otaku culture at the Japan center in NYC back about ten years ago.
The remarkable thing about that time in the early 1980’s was that all the rules were being broken vis a vis animation in Japan. For the first time animation was being taken out of the kids room and growing up, just like the Daikon girl. But growing up is hard and conflicted.
Also, in the 1980’s the Japanese boom was going on and people were willing to throw money at the latest big thing because money was cheap and missing out was intolerable. So companies like Bandai were looking for ways to draw on the creative otaku energy. So when the Gainax people went to Bandai with a proposal for a Gundam series Bandai, seeing the success of films like Naussica, said “give us a movie proposal. Gainax did. Here’s the proposal video.
Looking at this video, you can see many of the elements of what would become Royal Space Force. Many of the ideas are only sketched out, but the main characters and background are well developed. Amazingly so for a pitch film.
Before I go into the film itself, it’s important to know something about the culture and people that created it. fortunately Gainax has provided us with a video to give us some insight.
Like many creative cultures, the otaku in Japan were outside the mainstream. This is important because being outside the mainstream is a big deal in Japan with it’s very high pressures to conform. This was the heyday of the salaryman and the infamous grind of the Japanese education and testing regime. You expected to fit into the new Japan and the business of the new Japan was business. Kid stuff was for kids, but once you got through college it was time for serious work taking over the business world with wonderful Japanese technology. This was the Japan of the 1980’s. This was the deal that Japan wsa making with it’s people.
Yet that very technology needed content. The new VCR’s and other media needed to have content provided or there would be no sales. Who would provide that content other than the very outcasts that Japanese society had been marginalizing. They were the ones that developed the skills and they were the ones creating and producing. So it was only natural that companies like Pioneer and Bandai went to the Otaku culture for the content they needed to sell the toys and electronics.
In this climate Bandai was willing to take the plunge. They provided Gainax with a blank check of about 800 million yen to make the movie. That money was well spent. This blog post shows why I say that.
The art direction and the way the world works is just incredible for a first effort. Art director Hiromasa OGURA’s efforts here are just wonderful as the pictures above show. perhaps the best thing is that the world essentially works, but is different enough that it’s recognizable that this is not our world. Ogura obviously knows technologies, which is important in a film where technology is at center stage like this one. The airplanes look like airplanes, just not our airplanes. The steel mill looks like a steel mill, just not our steel mill. Everything essentially looks like it would work.
Here’s the opening of the movie.
It’s the story that provides both the ups and the downs for the movie. The main character Shirotsugh Lahdatt is engaging enough in the beginning. We can relate to his failure to get his first choice in career, and possibly second, third and fourth, ending up in the Space Force. We can also appreciate the Space Force and it’s crew of slackers and ne’erdowells that is sort of the anti NASA, wrong stuff attitude. This is a space program undertaken by a country not a wealthy as the post war US and it shows. The space force is operating on a threadbare budget and money obtained by rather questionable means. When we enter the scene it’s obvious that life is cheap as well. After the funeral our intrepid crew goes to what can only be described as carnival of sex for sale and we meet Riquinni the other part of the on again off again romance passing out religious tracts that we later find out she prints herself.
The movie follow the growing relationship between Shiro and Riquinni, who inspires Shiro out of his lethargy and into the hot seat, with all that goes with it. Because as things go forward, the hot seat becomes very hot indeed as we see the burgeoning rocket program become real. The movie takes us all through the various astronaut tropes that those of us who grew up in the 1960’s became aware of, which the movie pokes fun at with no mercy. The training regime and all the other stuff are classic humor.
It’s the relationship between the two main characters that drives the movie. The relationship between the ever more stressed Shiro and the ever more unreal Riquinni is what drives most of the conflict in the movie. As Shiro is drawn ever deeper into the hard world of the astronaut and it’s dangers, Riquinni becomes ever more unworldly as her world dissolves around her. It becomes apparent that her method of conflict resolution is to deny that it happens. Including the tensions of a relationship.
Meanwhile Shiro has become disheartened over the apparent shallowness of his celebrity and the thing of which he is risking his life over. He goes to Riquinni’s place, in a temple and when she fails to give any response attempts to force the issue, sexually. This is the one scene that many think ruins the movie. The fact that we are believing in Shiro up to this point and he starts to attempt to rape Riquinni is disturbing. Good guys don’t do that sort of thing. The fact that Shiro stopped himself before Riquinni deservedly clocked him is even more disturbing, as is Riquinni’s reactions afterword where she asks Shiro to forgive her for stopping him.
The movie goes on from there to it’s almost inevitable climax in fire and triumph, but you are going to need to watch the movie for that. As for that one scene I suspect that there were a lot of things going on in the background about it. Thirty years later the controversy over the scene remains and I think that the scene may have been responsible for one of the movies oddest twists, it’s premiere in Hollywood at the Mann’s theatre.
In a very odd twist, Honneamise, was redubbed and edited, badly and shown first in the US, once. Apparently the thinking was that there was some value in having the movie shown in the US first. Or they were trying to get ahead of the game as fat as the potential bad publicity as movies in the early 1980’s in the US were pushing the boundaries and the rape scene could be blamed on that and have the movie be seen as more “edgy.”
I think there is more going on than what we see at the surface. If you watch the movie more than once, you start to see that there is a lot of social commentary about current Japan in the background. In some ways the entire movie is a commentary from a bunch of young men who feel left out of the mainstream. Yet in spite of that the movie movies you and in the end you end up cheering for Shiro and hoping he does well. The movie is an incredible down payment to an era in animation that would be perhaps the greatest in creative energy anywhere. This was also the time that anime started to hit the global mainstream, for better or worse. Wings Of Honneamise was a big part of getting that movement started. It’s still a wonderful watch.
The title picture is the cover of the booklet provided with the Bandai Visual Blueray/DVD set. Copyright Bandai/Gainax.