The Wings of Honneamise (preceded by 'Royal Space Force' in the US) is one of those landmark films that everyone should see at least once. Released in 1987, a year before Akira landed, Honneamise is every bit as impressive both artistically and in concept. Writer and Director Hiroyuki Yamaga set out to tell a story that in its most basic form is about a struggling nation attempting to put the first man into orbit around our planet. Delve deeper and what you will find is a character study that really looks at the human race as a whole, looking both at what we create and at what we destroy. Much like some of the other animated greats (Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies springs to mind) from Japan this is a film that could so easily have been live action, but by setting it in an animated world it gives the storyteller complete control over what you see and ultimately how the viewer interprets the directors dream.
Going a little deeper into the main story we see Shiro Lhadatt, a cadet of the Royal Space Force, which unlike the Royal Air Force is seen by the public as something of a joke. Shiro is only there because he could not qualify for the Air Force so is simply doing his job with very little passion, seeing the Space Force in much the same way as everyone else. That is until he meets Riquinni, a women who is devoted to religion and believes that our world is in ruins, when she learns that Shiro is to travel to the stars she is fascinated which leads to Shiro adopting a completely new attitude to his work. In the background of both a developing (and unique) love story, and the work on sending Shiro into space is another subplot of both social and political views that lead to sabotage attempts and betrayal.
Unique to Honneamise is an original story that was not developed off the back of a successful Manga. This story is superbly told, it can be extremely absorbing thanks to its strong narrative but also maintains the occasional comedic touch that lightens the tone preventing the viewer from becoming overwhelmed by the occasional complexities and strong subject matter found within. Complementing the story is the astounding animation, the attention to detail seen in every frame is quite daunting, but allows the viewer to discover new subtleties on repeated viewing, and of course all of this is played out to a delightful score from Ryuichi Sakamoto that is both constantly engaging while also fitting the mood of the film perfectly.
It is however a great shame that many viewers will not take this film seriously. Too many people see Anime as an excuse to see sex and violence in cartoon form, but this film is what anime is really all about, a strong story told from a unique perspective. Although it is set in a world very similar to our own the animators are given the opportunity to build on that world and add the occasional touch that really develops the story by making certain scenes stand out in ways that traditional filmmaking just cannot manage. The extended looks at Shiro training, set only to the wonderful score are a prime example of this as in a live action film I find it hard to believe that they would work quite as well, the action sequences are another example as the added flare that animation provides make them that little bit more exciting to watch. Any anime fan will of course understand what I mean, and I am sure that you will all (if you have not already) see Honneamise as a stand out film (in artistic achievement alone), but I urge first time viewers to open your mind and watch Honneamise and hopefully you will come out of it with a fresh perspective on what an animated film can be.
There has been much discussion on various anime websites and forums regarding the R1 release of Honneamise. Most would agree that the picture is at best, average, especially when compared to the (£70) Japanese R2 release. For me, well I only have the old Manga VHS release to compare with and this DVD is definitely superior (as you would expect) but it is far from what we have come to expect from animated films on our beloved format. Presented at its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio with Anamorphic enhancement the print Manga have sourced shows frequent signs of ageing. Dust, hairs, cigarette burns (as they are known in the industry) at reel changeovers, it is all here and all faults make frequent appearances. There really has been zero effort put into remastering this print which is a great shame, and the encoding is again quite poor, resulting in a picture that loses out on a lot of detail due to an overall softness (edging on blurriness) that kills the kind of clarity this film requires. All of this is a great shame, the DVD is by no means unwatchable and does indeed at times shine with the occasional burst of clarity and detail that this film deserves, but on the whole for fans this release is a definite disappointment.
Manga have provided us with both the original Japanese Language soundtrack presented in 2.0 stereo as well as the rather good English Dub which is presented in remastered 5.1 Surround. Both tracks are very clear with dialogue particularly well presented, and of course the superb soundtrack has never been heard in better shape. While I always opt for the Japanese Language track (along with a superbly presented set of English Subtitles) I can also heartily recommend the English dub present on this disc as for a change both the casting and acting is almost spot on, particularly the casting of the main character, Shiro Lhadatt (whose calm, occasionally but deliberately monotonous voice has been captured superbly by the English voice actor cast in his part).
The most interesting extra feature Manga have presented us with here is an Audio Commentary from the films Directors Hiroyuki Yamaga and Takami Akai. 'What is so special about that?' I here you ask, well, it is the fact that this commentary was recorded in Japanese and has been specifically translated for this DVD release! I am a big fan of Audio Commentaries and this is another one to add to my list of 'listened to more than once'. Both directors obviously enjoyed making this film and recording the commentary, and although in the latter half the occasional silence occurs they are mostly consistent with varied comments regarding the films production, how it was received (by both the public and other anime studios/directors) and with their own critique of the film. I really cannot praise Manga enough for the effort they put into this excellent addition to the DVD as it really is something I would like to see a lot more of with Anime releases in the US (and indeed other parts of the world).
Another interesting extra that is again, quite unique for an anime (or any animated film) is the inclusion of a fully completed Deleted Scene. Presented in Non-Anamorphic widescreen in the original language with English subtitles this is an interesting addition to this DVD that unfortunately lacks any kind of explanation as to why it was cut and where in the film it would have been seen (although you should be able to work that out upon viewing).
In an attempt to secure a budget for his project, director Hiroyuki Yamaga formed a production studio (who would later become the hugely successful Gainax Production Company of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame) with whom he produced a short film based upon a short story he had written (which was the basis for Honneamise). Manga Entertainment have again done good by including this 4 minute short that when presented to the Bandai Company secured Yamaga an $8 million budget (a record at that time for a feature length anime). Presented in Non-Anamorphic widescreen this short does not feature any speech but does have Japanese text that unfortunately has not been translated (the only time on this disc Manga have not gone to the trouble of including subtitles for us).
The final extra is essentially a gallery, but again Manga have excelled themselves in what is an excellent Art and Music presentation. Going against the mould we have been treated to a 76-minute video presentation that features original artwork, backgrounds, model photos and more in slideshow format alongside the films outstanding soundtrack from Ryuichi Sakamoto. This really is another amazing feature whose only downfall is the lack of any chapters to make navigation easier.
The only other notable extras are an English Trailer for Honneamise (this is an Easter Egg) and trailers for other Manga titles.
As a film Honneamise ranks up there as one of my all time favourites and because of this I have no hesitation in recommending it to both the seasoned anime audience and the more adventurous film fan. As for the DVD, well it is almost the definitive edition (thanks to good audio presentation and an unmatched set of extras) but unfortunately the video side of things lets this Manga release down. Although I would love for everyone to see this film as soon as possible I feel it is best to recommend waiting to see what Madman can do with the R4 release due October 10th 2002.