Remember the good old days of anime in the UK? When VHS ruled, the tabloid press railed against the crazy new thing we had discovered, and to get the really, really good stuff, you had to send away for a few episodes on an expensive imported video cassette? Nobody had internet access and we fans were a faithful little mob, who got our information via newsletters and mail order fanzines. They were good times. Anime was still new and unusual, not to mention exciting and irresistable, and celebrated all the more for it.
But anime felt dangerous, too. In fact, a few years into the Great British Anime Invasion of the 1990s, some perceived that there was a real need to get past its dubiously earned reputation. Anime needed to become credible and acceptable in the eyes of the public, and the burgeoning fan base was clamouring for something apart from the admittedly rather schlocky fare that seemed to dominate release schedules. Besides exploding heads and demonic rape, we wanted the good stuff. The real stuff. Something we could sink our teeth into, then stand back and say, ‘You know what? That was really, REALLY good! Let’s watch it again!’
So it was that Gainax’s debut feature, Wings of Honneamise, first apppeared in the UK. It was the critically lauded antidote to the Overfiends, Guyvers and Angel Cops that warmed home video department shelves of the time. And it had the scent of a respectable, sophisticated, family-friendly film about it, even earning a distributor mandated cut (more on that later!) to preserve that flavour. Never mind that it had been a commercial failure in Japan – it fit the bill for a game changer. So Wings of Honneamise found itself released to baying UK fans, claimed by some – perhaps rightly – as a film that might challenge preconceptions of anime in the UK, and widen the scope of the material the local industry could provide in the process.
The storyline of Wings Of Honneamise centers around Shirotsugh Lhadatt , a young man living on a world that is not our planet Earth, but something similar, living in a society and an era that is at once familiar, but not from Earthen history. The movie’s opening monologue tells us exactly who he is – a dreamer caught between the two extremes of his society’s privileged and poor who, as he puts it ‘landed in the middle’. Consequently, he finds himself a member of the Royal Space Force, a subdivision of his nation’s army that focuses its attentions on developing manned space flight.
Lhadatt’s life is not as glamorous or exciting as his line of work might suggest, though. In fact, the Royal Space Force is something of a laughing stock. Regarded as useless by other members of the military, he and his friends are mocked and picked on, and it seems that Lhadatt is to be permanently mired in frustration and mediocrity… until he befriends a devoutly religious girl and, by coincidence, the Space Force’s efforts begin to bear fruit.
At this point, it’s worth establishing one very important, inescapable fact about Wings Of Honneamise. It is not for everyone. What unfolds after the opening credits is a moderately paced, contemplative story that places the focus on its characters and premise more than action. In fact, the movie is, save for just a couple of scenes, almost totally devoid of visceral thrills and spills. So if you come to the movie cold, knowing nothing of it and expecting a smorgasbord of explosions, robots and flashy sci-fi set pieces, you’ll be very disappointed. It’s just not that kind of movie. Honneamise is the complete antithesis of that, in fact. It’s the kind of broad, alternative reality sci-fi tale that Japan does so well… and, in this case, it’s done exceptionally well.
Visually, Gainax’s feature, helmed by Hiroyuki Yamaga, is astonishing to behold. Predating Akira by a year – which should give you some idea as to the animation techniques practiced at the time – and with not a hint of CG in sight, everything on screen is painted or drawn by hand and looks gorgeous. Where Wings scores really big is on the visual realisation of an alternate human society. It is STAGGERING to see how much of the setting is fleshed out this way, from the architecture of Lhadatt’s world to the clothes its inhabitants wear, down to details like the strange, engraved metal rods everybody uses for currency, or the knick-knacks lying around a character’s home or workplace. Everything in this movie is visually unique, while having a discernible function. That line between the familiar and the alien is expertly trod, and there’s honestly nothing here that could confuse you as to its place or purpose in the setting. It’s a sumptuous feast for the eyes, and an amazing showcase for creative, imaginative design.
Anime Limited particularly deserve acclaim for delivering what is easily the best-looking edition of the film UK fans could ever hope for. This is a bone that’s definitely worth picking over, as, previously, this material hasn’t always been treated with the greatest of sensitivity. Owners of Manga Entertainment’s atrociously ghosted, bootleg video quality US DVD release will know what I’m talking about. It’s worth noting that I was sent both the DVD and Blu-ray editions of Wings for review, and I was VERY hard pressed to discern a great deal of difference between the two. The Blu-ray is just visibly a tad sharper, and has more sonic depth to my ears, but the DVD version looks looks and sounds amazingly good in its own right. So if you own an old copy of the afore-mentioned US DVD, or even the old VHS cassette, and this movie means as much to you as it does to me, an upgrade to either format for this edition is a no-brainer. Short of Bandai’s more recent Stateside release, I have simply never seen Wings of Honneamise look this good.
As far as the soundtrack goes, Wings is pretty impressive. Apart from featuring a score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, of ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ fame, there’s also a dub featuring Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston. A lot’s been made of the fact that Walter White himself is present and correct in the dub – and yes, he’s good at this stuff, that comes as no surprise – but the dub itself is something of a mixed bag overall. It features a number of familiar voices, some of whom were clearly still developing as voice actors at the time, while others – notably Dan Woren – show that they were born to do it. As a result, while all the leads are pretty solid, supporting performances are something of a mixed bag. It’s definitely not a bad dub, but it does feel very much of a time before the process enjoyed the keen level of polish that it does now. For the sake of perspective, my first encounter with the movie was on a subtitled VHS and I think, in a rare case for me, subs are how I’ll want to watch it again in future.
Perhaps the only issues I could quibble over with this edition of Honneamise are really very minor ones. Remember I mentioned that, back in the day, the UK distributor asked for a cut to be made? Well, that excised material – a fumbling attempt by Lhadatt to force himself on his love interest, which is quickly thwarted – is reinstated, as it has been for prior US editions. I’m personally not a fan of this scene for two reasons. Firstly, it’s unpleasant. And secondly, it’s actually kind of jarring in the context of the dub, where Lhaddat’s somewhat less than pure intentions toward the unfortunate girl up to that point aren’t really hinted at strongly enough for my liking. It’s a controversial scene, and the issue of its inclusion or excision has divided fans for years. Personally, I see the case both ways here. The story would work with or without it. But, for good or ill, the decision was made to present the movie uncut and untampered with, and I can jive with that.
My other minor niggle would be that the super-clean picture quality of this transfer actually shows up quite a lot of dust and imperfections later on in the movie. But that’s something I can live with as well. After all, the movie is edging toward its 30th anniversary, and I can tolerate this kind of thing as easily as I can, say, the shifting plate images seen in anime up until the mid – late ’90s before digital technology killed that particular problem. It’s a mark of the era the film was made in, and you have to respect that kind of thing. When a movie flies as high as Honneamise, it earns the right to be loved, minor warts and all.
All that’s left, I guess, is to mention that the special features across both Anime Limited’s new editions of the movie are identical – at least on my check discs. There’s a promotional feature included on both the DVD and the Blu-ray, which is neat as it provides an insight into the ‘show and tell’ material that was used to secure funding for the full length feature. I only have one gripe about the disc production, which is that a two hour movie could have maybe used more than six chapter markers. But that again is me being nitpicky. It’s really just great to have this movie available to own again, and in such a high, high quality package.
Unreservedly, I can say that that Wings of Honneamise ABSOLUTELY deserves your time, if not a place in your anime collection. I’ll repeat that its pace and subject matter mean it surely isn’t for everybody, but it deserves to be seen at least once by anybody who professes to call themselves a fan of anime, animated movies, or just plain ol’ movies in general. In a world ever more cynically focused on the business aspects of entertainment at the expense of creative values and integrity, it stands as an important film. Not just in terms of the experience you’ll have watching it, but for what it represents as art. It’s timeless, enthralling stuff. And while its message that human beings all just need to get along may be nothing new, it relays it with conviction and sincerity – qualities that are honestly lacking in a lot of entertainment these days.
So, yeah. Buy it. Because they really don’t make ’em like this very often.