Image provided courtesy of Madman Entertainment

This year, a seminal work of Japanese animation is celebrating the thirtieth anniversary since its original theatrical release: Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise. To commemorate the occasion, there was a special screening event in Tokyo on February 18, organized by Anime Style editor Yuichiro Oguro.

Historically, Wings of Honneamise is an important piece to consider in the development of the Japanese animation industry. As the first professional work from then-upstart studio of ambitious young anime fans Gainax–and also the first theatrical animation project funded by Bandai Visual–the movie was an impossibly ambitious work in scope and complexity. Watching the film again, the work itself seems to be aware of that aspect. It works as a statement not only on society at the time, but also on the plurality of media–the relationship between the film and the viewer.

Thirty years on, I am intrigued as to how its themes relate to today’s sociocultural landscape.

It is difficult to categorize the film into a traditional genre, as it is not “action,” “comedy,” or “suspense,” yet it contains elements from all of these in well-balanced quantities. It is more of a thought-provoking piece, designed to make you ponder the state of human life.

The narrative of the film is really a coming-of-age story of sorts for Shirotsugh Lhadatt (or Shiro for short), a young soldier enrolled in the Royal Space Force, which is considered the laughingstock of the Kingdom of Honneamano. The opening sequence of the movie sets the tone for the rest of the film: In his youth, Shiro had his eyes set on being a pilot, but his grades made that remain nothing but a dream. So, as a result, he joined the Space Force, where he spend each day lounging around and slacking off. After meeting a deeply religious girl named Riqunni, he is inspired by her hopeful outlook on his profession and decides to make something of himself by volunteering to be the first astronaut.

It sounds crazy, but the idea of the Space Force being a place where you can get a fairly comfortable job and earn a decent salary with little qualifications tells you everything you need to know about its status in the society of Honneamano. Basically, it is seen as a total joke, a waste of taxpayer money and does not even get the respect of other soldiers and government officials–let alone the public.

Back in 1984-85, while the short pilot film for the project was being produced, the Space Shuttle program was in its heyday. Pop culture, in particular Hollywood, had space fever, with many movies romanticising space travel with a typical “sense of wonder” touch. At the time of the film’s release, a little after the Challenger disaster put a dent in our space ambition, things had begun to cool down. The tumbling of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War began our weaning away from outer space infatuation, and coincided with our growing interest in cyberspace as we entered the 1990s. While communication, global positioning, and weather satellites played an increasingly important role in our everyday lives, the Space Race was no longer so inspiring; space exploration and research barely registering in our cultural awareness.

Our society was being conditioned to think of space as it is thought of in Shiro’s world–an irrelevance in the face of overflowing convenience for the well-off, and the struggle for survival of the not-so-fortunate. Today, more than ever, we are all interconnected through social media, but for what purpose? What do we aspire to? What do we dream of when we have everything? Social justice for those that don’t have anything? That is certainly a noble cause, don’t get me wrong, but can’t we be more? Royal Space Force dared us to look in the mirror and ask these questions back in 1987.

One of the great things of this film, in my opinion, is highlighting the complacency and apathy of modern human society. Let us take a look at the first scene on the base, where Shiro and his friend, Matti, are just slacking off while the other guys are training. Shiro, disillusioned with his lifestyle, looks at a roll of bread and thinks about quitting the force, saying “Bread, huh? I wish I was a baker. Won’t they hire me?” To which Matti replies that he is already in the best place one could wish for–“Even if you do a half-assed job here, you won’t go hungry.” The two of them are only living because they are alive, they don’t care about anything save for their sustenance and continued existence, without ever considering their purpose. In a world where the infrastructure has developed enough to guarantee everyday human comfort, there is little to aim for anymore. The strive for stability, once achieved, becomes boredom. Shiro’s plight is his own privilege. Meanwhile there are people starving in the streets.

When he visits Riquinni–who is behind on her electricity payments–and has to explain what it is he does, he does so meekly. He is surprised when she reacts really positively, like it’s a wonderful thing. Nobody had ever respected or praised his profession in such a way before, so he is taken aback. Slowly but surely, he gets the motivation to really take advantage of his position and not just wallow in the comfort–to improve and become a role model, albeit with some missteps along the way because, after all, he is human.

Today, we are at an interesting point in our relationship with space. As the focus shifts onto private enterprises like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the possibility of space tourism with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and the like, some see the space business race heating up and it might be the case that we witness another cultural interest in the stars. But at the end of the day, this movie is asking us to look beyond that, to why we feel this excitement. It ponders that perhaps ambition is the very core of humanity, flawed as we are. Those messages are as fresh today, thirty years on, as when the then 24-year-old Yamaga first committed his creation to celluloid.

Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise was shown as part of the Shin-Bungeiza X Anime Style Selection Vol. 90: “30th Anniversary: Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise Viewing,” at Ikebukuro Shin-Bungeiza on February 18. The film can be purchased on Amazon in the US and from Madman Entertainment in Australia.

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