Wings of Honneamise
I recently re-watched Wings of Honneamise, possibly the grandest, most spectacular anime which can be called an unequivocal commercial failure. Adored by critics but slammed at the box office, this film only found a limited audience when it was released in 1987. Unlike most films though, Wings of Honneamise carries even more weight now, fifteen years later, than it did upon its original release. With craftsmanship unseen in any release before or after, Honneamise is one of the few films that every anime fan should see.
Set in an alternate world both similar and strange in comparison to our own, our protagonist Shiro once had dreams of joining the Air Force. Due to poor grades and a lack of motivation, however, he scuttled out and instead became a member of the fledgling Royal Space Force. A collection of misfits and outcasts, the group is seen as a joke. However, as part of an ongoing rivalry with a neighboring country, the Space Force starts putting together a program by which they plan to send the first man into space. Seeing that they haven't been able to launch a single rocket without catastrophe, it's considered suicide. Surprising even himself, Shiro volunteers for the mission and starts rigorous training amid the amusement of his peers.
Meanwhile, Shiro meets a young woman, Riuquinni, preaching on the streets in the hopes of saving humanity. He finds himself drawn to her and to her religion, and as the launch grows closer, he spends more and more time with her. Eventually, though, disillusionment follows as even the most steadfast wander from righteousness and man's best plans go astray. Shiro's decision between following that disenchantment to justify a downward spiral or pushing it aside and becoming a man of integrity will determine his destiny.
Wings of Honneamise is uncommon in virtually every way. It cost over $8 million to produce, which at the time was a staggering budget for any anime production. The creators of the film were several rabid anime fans who, after creating two short music video parodies called Daicon III-IV for conventions of the same name, wanted to tell their own stories. In the process, they formed Gainax, now known throughout anime fandom for the infamous Neon Genesis Evangelion, FLCL, Gunbuster, and many other top-tier titles. For a fledgling company to produce a work this staggering is simply amazing.
The uncommon bit doesn't stop with the film's studio, however. The world of Honneamise is very like ours while being completely different. The details are what are stunning, particularly when at first glance everything appears so normal. However, on multiple viewing you notice little things, such as spoons holding a triangular rather than round shape. The airships and architecture are completely foreign yet altogether familiar. Each item within the program is retro designed as if the artists were told to casually defy convention. A lesser film would make the designs the movie. Instead, Honneamise takes them for granted, just as the people in that world would, and subtly, deftly weaves them in.
The plot of Honneamise is introspective and thoughtful, slow-moving yet graceful. For all the technology and sci-fi trappings, the film is really about a man slowly finding his soul. The film takes on the two always taboo subjects--religion and politics--and presents them in a slightly different context in order to comment on them. This movie leaves the audience questioning its own existence and purpose--and few films animated or otherwise can do that.
For audiences weaned on countless barrages of violence and motion, Honneamise will likely be too slow to keep an attention span. When I watched the film with my webmaster, who doesn't mind artistic films, he found it interesting but lethargically paced. The average anime crowd won't necessarily "get" this film because it shuns the typical conventions to its benefit.
I also must make a note to parents that there is a disturbing sequence in the film of an attempted rape. The scene itself is extremely pivotal in the film and is not exploitative in the usual sense, and the film could still muster a PG-13 rating. However, it does make the film unsuitable for younger children; teenagers, though, should be able to understand the scene in its context with guidance.
All that being said, Wings of Honneamise is extraordinary, an achievement not just as an animated picture but as a film. The last 10 minutes have been burned into my memory. Anime in itself is an artistic endeavor, but Wings of Honneamise is actually art. If you like thought-provoking material dished out slowly and with great flavor, you will truly enjoy it. Highly recommended.
P.S. Please beware of the current DVD out on the market. Despite having some of the best extras of any anime DVD, including an almost unheard-of director's commentary, the picture quality on most DVD players is horrid. The picture is interlaced, and without getting into a technical rant, proof exists on the web that this DVD was incorrectly mastered. Word has it that a new version will be coming, so hold tight and rent a copy until it's released.
Wings of Honneamise -- extremely brief nudity, violence, adult situations -- A+