Hiroyuki Yamaga, “Royal Space Force – the Wings of Honnêamise / Ôritsu uchûgun Oneamisu no tsubasa” (1987)
A very visually handsome and often stunning film to watch, “Royal Space Force …” reflects something of the global politics and various conflicts, expressed in war, society and culture, of the time when it was made. In a parallel universe to ours, on an alternative Earth, a kingdom and a republic – both representing the pinnacle of industrial civilisation – are on the verge of total war. In the kingdom of Honnêamise, a young man, Shirotsugh Lhadatt, lacking in direction fails his entry exam into the royal airforce and drifts into the nation’s moribund space program. He meets a young religious woman, Riquinni, who sees in him a potential messiah of sorts and who urges him to try out for the project to put a man in space for the first time. Shirotsugh follows Riquinni’s advice. There then follows a sequence of events that test Shirotsugh’s character and those of the other men in the project: they are assailed by doubt, technological problems, the disdain of the airforce, their government’s machinations and the pressure arising from their media celebrity and the kingdom’s hopes and dreams. The men discover that the rocket that will launch Shirotsugh into space is to take off from a launch-pad in a demilitarised zone between the kingdom and the enemy republic; this was planned deliberately by the kingdom’s top military personnel to provoke the enemy into a hot war. Sure enough, the republic reacts with extreme firepower and the project to send Shirotsugh into space is in doubt due to the danger from war.
The film’s greatest achievement perhaps is in the creation of a convincing world and civilisation that mix tradition and modern technology, out of which emerges a complex society with distinct values that are often contradictory and which give rise to social and cultural tensions. The kingdom is a hierarchy and its government appears to be bureaucratic and corrupt. The space program has been neglected at times and is the butt of humiliating jokes about its worth. At the same time, viewers are aware that this civilisation is an alien one, albeit one they accept quickly on its own terms: weapons, planes and other technology seem vaguely familiar and look like an amalgam of major late 19th / early to mid 20th century technology squished together until they blend into fantastic shapes and sizes. Thus at once we recognise them as familiar and as strange. Although a significant element in the film, the style of technology as a kind of cyberpunk retro-modern is consistent and it is very much at the service of the humans in transport, communication and fighting.
The path that Shirotsugh takes to become his planet’s first astronaut shapes his character and outlook and the film can be seen as a coming-of-age flick in which the protagonist finds new purpose in life and gains redemption and enlightenment in an endeavour which initially brings him scorn, then fame and celebrity, and finally a realisation that he is being used as a pawn. Nevertheless Shirotsugh achieves a significant goal for humanity and becomes an intercessor for his planet and the cosmos beyond. In this, he conveys a message of peace to his people far below, urging everyone to lay aside weapons of killing and war and to work towards repairing the damage they have wrought upon their planet. Redemption might come to humanity as a result of restoring their relationship with nature.
The film can be seen as a subtle criticism of religion, especially the type of unquestioning and passive religion which threatens to turn Riquinni into an eternal submissive victim. The very personal and intimate spiritual enlightenment Shirotsugh achieves can be compared to institutional religion and religious cults with the latter shown up as wanting. There may or may not a subtle critique of the patriarchal hierarchy that dominates the kingdom’s life and culture: nearly all significant characters are men and the one notable female character, Riquinni, appears as a figure of pathos.
Everything in the film flows steadily, enabling major characters to fill out as rounded individuals whom audiences can warm to and identify with. The first half of the film can be quite slow and most of the heavy action is in the last half-hour. Even so, in scenes of fighting and violent destruction the film’s emphasis remains on the Royal Space Force’s attempt to send Shirotsugh into space. The fight scenes are not treated as huge spectacles of complex technology being mashed up under a hail of bombs and fire-power; there is just enough action and killing to demonstrate the intense nature of the war between the kingdom and the republic.
Shirotsugh comes across as a likeable everyday man and most other characters have their quirks and eccentricities. Riquinni fails to inspire much sympathy even during an attempted rape by Shirotsugh; her later apology for bopping Shirotsugh and stopping him from ravishing her might shock viewers but is in agreement with her character.
One disappointment about “Royal Space Force …” is the mostly forgettable music by renowned musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto; there are some musical passages of delicate emotion but on the whole the soundtrack is not outstanding and has a staid air.
Although over 25 years old as of this time of writing, the film hasn’t aged much and stands up well against more recent animated competition thanks largely to the strength of its plot and themes, and of the well-rounded characters. While the plot is not complex, it is a character-driven piece and much of the pleasure in watching the movie is in seeing how Shirotsugh grows in maturity and wisdom. The art of the film is detailed though not too much so and background scenes can be very beautiful and serene in a self-sufficient way. As family fare, the film may be a little advanced for young viewers and older children who are not quite teenagers might need repeated viewings. It’s a film that believes wholeheartedly in the potential of the human spirit and the gifts that await when that potential is fulfilled.