The Wings of Honneamise

(Neo Magazine, Uncooked Media – I also wrote an article about the production of the film for the AllTheAnime blog and another article that’s reproduced below the review.)

Picture a world different from ours in intricate, tiny details, yet wholly recognisable as our beautiful, blighted planet. On this alternative world, a dissolute youth called Shiro volunteers to become the first man in orbit, the centrepiece to a quixotic, ridiculous space programme. There are scheming politicians and foreign assassins, but Shiro’s big obstacle is himself, his own apathy and shallowness.

Studio Gainax’s first anime is an adult, rich drama, pondering human hope and folly. It’s utterly sumptuous, with enough dense background detail to repay many viewings. Anime Limited’s Blu-ray edition isn’t immaculate – occasional flickery white flecks can be glimpsed on some scenes, presumably reflecting shortcomings in the 28 year-old film materials – but it looks mighty fine.

Like last year’s Wind Rises, Honneamise often lacks momentum as the space project grinds along. Even the action scenes can feel over-extended, especially a long urban chase when Shiro is targeted by a tenacious assassin. The scenes in an enemy nation take the film too far outside Shiro’s story.

The slow, baggy passages can make the viewer impatient with even the forgivably self-indulgent bits, such as the thrilling battle finale (drawn by a young Hideaki Anno), when war rages round Shiro’s launch site. Thank heaven for the film’s humanity, in the funny grumpy interactions between the staff of the oddball Space Force, or the delicate suggestions of the immature Shiro’s evolution as a person, clumsily befriending a beautiful street preacher.

This is the uncut film, including a notorious scene of attempted rape. On the one hand, Honneamise would demonstrably work without it; a previous UK release cut it entirely. Yet, the scene’s not simply gratuitous. It focuses the film’s themes: the hopes and horrors of history, how even a sinner may rise from humanity’s lowest depths to the sublimity of sky and stars. In this way, the scene makes a huge difference, not to the overall ‘message,’ but to how that message is illuminated and understood. (Imagine if Wind Rises had a scene of Jiro seeing the POW slave labourers who built his planes.)

But the uncut Honneamise effectively asks viewers to buy the redemption of a character who suffers no overt punishment for his crime, whose remorse is ambiguous and suggested indirectly. You may find this a heinously offensive presumption, founded on rape culture. But in one respect, Honneamise is terribly on the money. The sexual attack is committed not by a monstrous stranger, but by a likeable, normal-seeming guy whom the female victim has befriended and knows, respects and trusts. If only more films and anime were as honest.

(I also wrote an article on the film for Neo magazine, below.)

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a Navy pilot. You had to join the Navy if you wanted to fly jets… They were so fast, flew so high. For me there could be nothing better than flying. But I saw that my grades weren’t going to let me do any of that. And so I ended up joining the Space Force.”

Some readers of this article may have never heard of Wings of Honneamise. In the last decade or so, it’s rather dropped out of sight in Britain – and yet, for the ‘90s wave of anime fans, it was a milestone like Akira or Ghost in the Shell. It was also the official debut of the Gainax studio, who’d bring us Evangelion and Gurren Lagann, but Honneamise was very different.

The two-hour cinema film is the story of a young man, Shiro Lhadatt, who delivers the opening monologue. His world is a wondrous parallel to Earth, entirely similar and entirely different, with its own nations, customs, religions and technology. On this world, the conquest of space is a dream, regarded as the pursuit of cranks and losers. (This slightly foreshadows the future world in last year’s Interstellar, where space travel is officially written off as a historical hoax.)

Shiro has no dreams of his own. Yet one night he encounters a street preacher, an attractive woman called Riquinni, who believes in sin and salvation. To his surprise, Riquinni regards the Space Force’s work as wonderful, a way to escape the sinful world. Shiro’s even more surprised to find himself volunteering to be humanity’s first astronaut, undertaking gruelling training while a rocket is built to bear him into orbit. But his country’s rulers have their own plans for the space launch…

Honneamise is a unique film. It’s not an action adventure, though it does have action scenes (mostly in the second half). Rather it’s a blend of character drama, epic worldbuilding and scientific endeavour. More deeply, it’s an inquiry into value, into what truly matters in life. Is the rocket project a great human undertaking, or a ridiculous waste of lives and effort? Shiro is the space project’s public hero, but is he a great man, or even a good man? Why is he doing all this, and can it be anything worthwhile?

To some degree, Honneamise foreshadows Evangelion, which asks similar questions while importing all the anime sci-fi baggage – monsters, aliens, monsters fighting aliens – which Honneamise skips. At times, Honneamise feels closer to last year’s Wind Rises, a realistic portrait of pioneers and inventors on a laborious, unglamorous pursuit of ambiguous value… which lets humanity fly.

We should stress there’s more action in Honneamise than in Wind Rises! Yet Honneamise’s reputation doesn’t rest on its action but on its themes and its stupendous worldbuilding, its creation of an entire world where everything is different; sports, costumes, even the forks and plane propellers. There are obvious echoes of the historic space race between America and Russia, but also unexpected twists and spins.

Honneamise is an otaku film, a film about a misfit by a team of misfits, celebrating their own dreams. The makers of Honneamise famously emerged from the Japanese fan convention scene, from amateur movies, sci-fi clubs and self-published fanzines. In Western terms, you can see Honneamise as a portrait of a Trekkie who might just be able to be, not Captain Kirk but rather Yuri Gagarin or Neil Armstrong.

Honneamise also operates on a loftier level, reflecting on human history and destiny. The film culminates in one of the most extraordinary finales ever seen in anime, after all the fireworks and explosions, an abstract reverie taking us through thousands of years of a history that both is and isn’t ours. This isn’t Star Trek; it’s 2001 or The Tree of Life.

But on its journey, Honneamise has one infamous scene, widely condemned as abhorrent. It’s an attempted rape, disturbing enough for a “trigger warning” to be given before the film was shown at Edinburgh’s Scotland Loves Anime festival last year. Some people argue the scene wrecks the film. Its defenders argue that it’s a legitimate portrait of a man’s (and Man’s) shallowness, sinfulness and stupidity, and a portrait of a female victim who can’t face reality. It’s possible to take a middle course, defending the idea of the scene, while condemning how it’s presented and animated.

The strange thing is the controversial Honneamise is not the Honneamise which British video viewers saw in the 1990s. The film was distributed by Manga Entertainment, which cut the sequence entirely in order to have Honneamise rated PG. (The assault is never directly referenced in the later scenes, which is one reason why some fans think the film trivialises the issue.) As of writing, Anime Limited intends to include an option for viewers to skip the scene in its edition of the film.

Despite the controversy, Honneamise was embraced by fans as an example of anime at its most serious and visionary. The film was lent extra cred by the presence of the venerated film compose Ryuichi Sakamoto, who wrote the pungently individual score with three staff under his direction. The famed American film critic Roger Ebert called Honneamise “visually sensational.” The American film paper Variety groused that the film seemed “adolescent,” which was the whole point – Honneamise was an expression of youngsters blundering through their early lives.

Toshio Okada, the first president of the Gaianx studio, told Animerica magazine that Honneamise could be densely layered because it wasn’t a director’s film in the way of, say, a Miyazaki film. (The official director was Hiroyuki Yamaga.) Rather Honneamise was a group free-for-all. “On a Gainax project, everyone has to be a director,” Okada said. “Therefore everyone’s feelings and everyone’s knowledge are going into it, creating all that detail.” If you weren’t building a space rocket, then making Honneamise was the next best thing.

Fittingly for a film about leaving your world behind, Honneamise was far more celebrated by Western anime fans than it ever was in Japan.