The year is 1987. It’s been two years since a small doujinshi animation start-up called Daicon Film went commercial and took the name “Gainax” – and in this year, they release their very first commercial film – The Wings of Honneamise. The movie is a critical hit but a commercial flop. Plans for a sequel were laid down in the early 90s, but a lack of capital forces Gainax to pull the plug, and the intended director, Hideaki Anno signs an animated series deal with King Records that will eventually become Neon Genesis Evangelion. But that’s still several years in the future…

Wings of Honneamise is a story about the first manned spaceflight; but not our first manned spaceflight – that is, not the first human spaceflight made from our Earth by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Instead, what’s so compelling about Honneamise is that it goes to incredible lengths to paint us a picture of a future (or perhaps past) of a world very different from our own. Honneamise is particularly interesting too, in how it co-opts a great deal of religious iconography and practice and interweaves it into Lhadatt’s struggle; Gainax’s later Evangelion lays it on thickly, but the seeds of that fascination with religious (if not necessarily Christian) symbolism can be seen here as well.

Shirotsugh Lhadatt is our young protagonist, a Navy pilot washout who has enlisted in his nation’s “Royal Space Force” – a sadly underfunded institution that is seen as private folly of the Royal Family at best, and an unruly mob leeching better spent tax dollars at worst: which is, at the beginning of the tale, not far from the truth. Although Honneamise has all the trappings of a “hard” science fiction story, it eschews a focus on the technical difficulties of space travel and instead chooses to focus on the social, psychological, religious, and political ramifications of such an undertaking – all within a fictional world that is like and yet unlike our own. The Royal Space Force muddles through political maneuverings, anti-government protests, and above all a soul-searching quest to figure out if their objective – opening a path to mankind to the stars – is really the right thing to do.

The movie is a terrific endeavour, at 2 hours total runtime, and the consistency and quality of animation throughout is staggering given it’s production during the mid-80s. There are many things to like about Honneamise that are rather unique; perhaps the only other show that I have seen that comes close to how well it deals with the thematic subject matter is Planetes.