Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise is the best full movie out of the anime industry you might never have heard of. It didn’t do as well at the box office as the producers had hoped. It almost bankrupted the newly formed Gainax, and it had a famously terrible marketing campaign.
Amazingly, despite all of that, it managed to rise above and become a sleeper hit in home video. It was nominated for – and won – a whole slew of awards. And most retrospectives today consider it to be an essential part of anime history. So let’s take a look at what this full movie is, and how it did that.
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise Full Movie Plot Synopsis
In a world that is similar to (but very specifically not) Earth, in the Kingdom of Honnêamise, lives a young man named Shirotsugh ‘Shiro’ Lhadatt. He had a normal, middle-class upbringing, is a little bit of a self-centered jock, and dreamed of flying jets for the navy when he was a kid but didn’t quite get the grades for it in school.
Instead, Shiro is a cadet in the Royal Space Force, a unit that is tiny, underfunded, and depressing as no one in that world had yet been to space. The commander, General Khaidenn, and chief engineer, Dr. Gnomm, want to send humans into orbit as a last ditch effort to save the program, even though they struggle to so much as launch an unmanned satellite.
One night, wandering the streets after the funeral of a fellow cadet, Shiro comes across a woman named Riquinni Nonderaiko. She lives with a little girl named Manna and is preaching in the red-light district.
At first, Shiro is interested in her for less-than-pure reasons, but she pleasantly surprises him with her enthusiasm and excitement with the idea that humanity could achieve peace through space travel. Shiro is inspired, and decides to volunteer to be the first astronaut to leave the planet.
Riquinni gives Shiro some scriptures to read. But she gets angry with him when he touches her and says that she should consider ‘compromising’ with God. He says that compromise makes the world easier to live in, but, hating that idea, she thinks that it’s to blame for the evils of the world.
Meanwhile, the General makes a shady deal to get his space flight project funded. He tells a cheering crowd that the orbital capsule that Shiro is supposed to go up in will be a ‘space warship.’
Shortly afterwards, Riquinni’s cottage is foreclosed on and demolished. Shiro is outraged and offers to get Riquinni a lawyer. But Manna had been exposed to a ton of conflict by her parents when she was younger, and Riquinni wants to avoid more of that for her, so she rejects Shiro’s proposal.
Shiro starts to actually read Riquinni’s scriptures. They say that humanity is forever cursed to violence for having stolen fire.
Dr. Gnomm is killed in a test explosion, and it’s rumored that it was the work of radicals. Protestors say that the project is a waste of federal funding, and Shiro surprises his friends and colleagues when he sympathizes with those critics.
Suddenly, the launch site for the project is moved to the Kingdom’s southern border. The location is better for reaching orbit, but it also places them perilously close to the Kingdom’s international rival, the Republic.
Amidst this move, the General learns that the higher ups in the government don’t believe in the project’s goals, they only see the launch as a useful provocation for their desired war. Meanwhile, the Republic is moving their own forces closer, and they plan to buy time to get into position by assassinating Shiro.
Soured and jaded to the experience now, Shiro goes AWOL and runs away to Riquinni’s ministry. But, between Manna’s continued silence and his impression that Riquinni is hiding money, he’s not happy there, either. All of this leads him to attempt to rape Riquinni one night. But in doing so, he hesitates for just a moment and she knocks him unconscious.
The next morning, a deeply ashamed Shiro apologizes to Riquinni, but she insists that he didn’t do anything, she apologizes for knocking him unconscious, and she calls him a ‘wonderful person.’
Shiro emotionally tailspins from confusion and shame, wondering if it’s possible to be the villain in your own life story. Despite his depression, when the Republic’s assassin finally attacks, he first tries to run away, and then fights back rather than succumbing, and ends up killing his assailant.
A crew finishes assembling the rocket, and Shiro and the General agree to launch early without informing their superiors by trimming down the safety procedures. The Republic attacks, and the space station is almost evacuated, but Shiro encourages the crew to follow through with the mission.
The Republic’s attack halts with the unexpected early launch of the rocket, and they quickly withdraw. Shiro makes it safely into orbit, where he sends back a message saying that, although humanity has marred each new frontier with violence, he still wants to give thanks for this moment.
A montage here alludes to Shiro’s childhood and history. And all the way down on the planet, the only one to look up to the sky as the snow begins to fall is Riquinni, still staring up at the stars and the possibilities inherent with space travel.
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise Characters
- Shirotsugh ‘Shiro’ Lhadatt – The main protagonist of Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise. He’s a young cadet in the Royal Space Force who goes from being a self-centered jock with bad grades to a thoughtful pioneer who wants the best for humankind.
- Riquinni Nonderaiko – A priestess who hands out pamphlets in the red-light district arguing that humans can never be free from sin since we stole fire. However, she is genuinely excited by the prospect of humans leaving the planet and sin behind, and encourages Shiro as he prepares to do so.
- Manna Nonderaiko – A quiet, sullen child who lives with Riquinni. Before she came to the ministry, she lived with her deeply unhappy parents in a household where her father abused her mother, so Riquinni does her best to shield Manna from further conflict.
- General Khaidenn – An old general, and the commander of the Royal Space Force. He originally wanted to be a historian when he was a young man himself, but he couldn’t handle the evidence that history provides about how human nature never changes.
- Dr. Gnomm – The chief engineer of the Royal Space Force, an old man who has dreamed of putting a human in space but has never quite been able to achieve it before this film.
- Marty Tohn – Shiro’s best friend, and his emotional sounding board as he grows and matures over the course of the film. Fun fact: in the English dub of Royal Space Force released by Manga Entertainment, he is voiced by a pre-famous Bryan Cranston!
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise Production
There were many aspects of the production of Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise that were untraditional because the team helming the film was deeply inexperienced! Directed by Hiroyuki Yamaga when he was only twenty-four and produced by Toshio Okada, they were best known for making amateur fan-oriented short films before this.
When they pitched Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise to Bandai, which would eventually help produce the full movie, the executives were interested. But between the youth of the above-the-line team and internal resistance to Bandai entering the filmmaking business, a four-minute pilot film had to be made first to prove the movie’s saleability.
The pilot film, screened in April 1985, helped Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise get a conditional greenlight at Bandai. It was originally intended as an OVA, but would have to wait a year, until after the storyboards for the entire film were done, to decide if it would get a theatrical release.
While working on the script, storyboard, and design of the film, Gainax went out of their way to find methods of making everything in the Kingdom of Honnêamise look subtly different compared to what we are all used to, like money or cups. In fact, the only thing they deliberately kept the same was the rocket at the end of the film.
The rocket, in fact, became one of only two criticisms Hayao Miyazaki had of the film when he saw it, that a world that placed such an emphasis on being subtly different would have a rocket that looked like a Soviet ship. But Gainax says it was done to make sure there’s no mistake from the audience as to whether the story and themes relate to people on Earth.
Additionally, the character designers used real-life models for many of the characters, leading them to have looks unlike most found in anime productions.
As 1985 wore on, Gainax brought on more department heads who had more experience with live action than anime. Shinji Higuchi became the special effects director despite having never worked in anime and also being only twenty years old. They also hired several part-time college design students who would not go on to pursue a career in animation.
The idea behind this was to have new and out of the box approaches to animated filmmaking that someone who had been in the field for a while might not see. For instance, a “newsreel” scene that Higuchi worked on was animated and then shot to give it the right look.
Yamaga had daily meetings with the Gainax team to work on the design and share thoughts for the film. At all levels, everyone was encouraged to present ideas about how things should look, and the best idea, regardless of who it came from, was always taken.
That continued through the entirety of the film’s production. Critics in the company said it meant they had no strong director, but there was an incredible flow of ideas and new inspirations.
In January 1986, Toho Towa agreed to distribute the film theatrically as a feature film, which ramped up production, and it was finally released in March 1987.
Yamaga would later say that the process was “like we were all swinging swords with our eyes blindfolded.” Regularly animation drawings, cels, and even timesheets were altered in a way that was not industry practice, and it happened so frequently that the younger people thought it was the way an anime was made when they went into their next projects!
As for the collaborative nature of the entire filmmaking process, Yamaga would also say “I was just pleased that everyone was involved in the project…. I expected to make all of the decisions, but as time went by, the staff started to understand that… they were going to have to get involved. By the end of the project, nobody cared what I had to say. I thought that was great.”
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise Marketing
If you’re looking for the gossip-y section of this article, you’ve found it here. The marketing behind Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise was nothing short of a disaster.
To set this up, first you have to know that Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, released in 1984, had been the last big anime hit, and the distributors desperately wanted the same kind of success. The success of Nausicaä also made it the only full movie that Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise could truly use as a reference point.
The first major issue with the marketing came from changing the title. Two special interests came in here. Bandai, wanting to copy Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, wanted the film to be titled using the formula ‘something of something.’ And All Nippon Airways, a sponsor, wanted it to have the word ‘wings’ in the title.
They went through over twenty possible titles, but the first big push for renaming the film was to The Wings of Riquinni, focusing on a female character to raise the sex appeal. When the full movie was formally announced in 1986 the marketing materials called it Royal Space Force but had The Wings of Riquinni as a smaller subtitle.
Yamaga was deeply opposed to The Wings of Riquinni though, because the film was meant to expand the audience’s view of the world, so he didn’t want it focused on one character.
By November 1986, the marketing materials had changed to call it The Wings of Honnêamise – Royal Space Force with The Wings of Honnêamise at the top of the poster and Royal Space Force at the bottom, both in equal size. And then in December, Royal Space Force was smaller, clearly meant as a subtitle, which is how it was theatrically released.
Beyond the changing title, though, the promotions department did their best to make Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise appeal to the same demographic as Nausicaä, even if that meant misrepresenting the film.
Posters were drawn for the film in which a child’s pet looked like a giant monster. And the romance of the story was overblown. The only line of dialogue in the trailer (‘Do you believe in the miracle of love?’) was said by Riquinni’s voice actor, but doesn’t appear in any version of the movie.
And at the film’s Hollywood ‘American prescreening’ at the Chinese Theatre in LA, it was shown as an English dub. But for reasons passing understanding, the title had been changed to Star Quest, all the character names had been Americanized, and even major plot points were altered.
All in all, Toho Towa never quite understood what Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise was, or how to market it on its own merits. Jonathan Clements, when writing a survey of the last century of anime in 2013, devoted a whole three pages to a case study of this film’s ‘outrageous attempts’ at marketing, and all the ways it went wrong.
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise Reception
After that fiasco of a marketing campaign, it won’t be a huge surprise to say Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise did not recoup its cost at the box office.
It was released in March 1987 in Toho Towa’s foreign film branch theaters, sometimes as a double feature with the made-for-TV film Ewoks: The Battle for Endor. In all fairness, as co-producer Hiroake Inoue said, it ‘put up a good fight.’ The average theatrical engagement for a film was four weeks, and in one theater, this stayed for seven.
A bit of a sleeper hit, though, it did better on home video. (Which, considering how it was originally pitched as an OVA, isn’t a huge surprise.) It was released in 1990 on laserdisc (with, finally, the correct title of Royal Space Force, and The Wings of Honnêamise as a smaller subtitle) and Bandai finally turned a profit on it in September 1994.
They’ve continued to make money on it ever since.
Critically, in Japan, the film did very well. It won the Japan Anime Award for best anime release of 1987, the 1988 Seiun Award (Japan’s oldest sci-fi award) for Best Dramatic Presentation, and the Anime Grand Prix fan poll rankings put Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise as the #4 anime release of 1987, with Shiro as the #9 male character.
The film was re-dubbed into English for theatrical release in 1994-1995, and the US critical reaction was more decidedly mixed. The San Jose Mercury News gave it just one star, for instance. But along with other positive reviews, Roger Ebert, then of the Chicago Sun-Times, gave it a solid three out of four.
In retrospectives, worldwide critical reaction has been even better. It has come to be heralded as a true anime classic, making several “top one hundred” lists and touted for being “intelligent and thought-provoking.”
And, while you may disagree somewhat with the assessment, when Richard Corliss, former editor-in-chief of Film Comment, wrote an outline of the history of anime for Time, under the year 1987, he marked down “The Wings of Honnêamise is released, making anime officially an art form.”
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise Sequel
In 1992-1993, Gainax began to develop plans for a sequel to Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, called Aoki Uru (or Uru in Blue) which included a storyboard, partial script, and extensive design illustrations.
However, that was also a time of incredible upheaval at Gainax and the project didn’t have a secure budget, so it got put on hold in favor of working on the television series Neon Genesis Evangelion.
There have been a couple of announcements regarding the project in the years since, like a multimedia presentation in the late 1990’s, and the formal announcement of the English title at the 2013 Tokyo Anime Fair.
In 2018, the project was officially transferred to Gaina, a subsidiary of the Kinoshita Group. The idea at that time was to aim for a release in 2022.
It may not have recouped its cost at the initial box office, but everything before and since proves that Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise is not just a classic of anime history, but it’s a major entry of full movie history. With so much originality and innovation going into it, the film is just as fresh as it was thirty years ago, and it’s always up for a good re-watch!