The 80s is when it truly started for the Japanese animation industry. The rise of Ghibli, Oshii's first flashes of genius and of course its first true landmark film: Akira. It's also the era that houses the industry's first forgotten gems. Films that were big back then, but somehow got lost over time. Wings of Honneamise [Oritsu Uchugun Oneamise no Tsubasa] is one of those films and it wholly deserves a second life.
One year before Akira, Wings of Honneamise got made. Back then, it was the most expensive anime ever made, running a whopping 120 minutes and aiming to conquer the hearts of the same people who fell in love with Nausicaa a few years earlier. Gainax spared cost nor effort to make it a successful film, but the box office results were disappointing. Critics lauded the film, but the masses just didn't seem to care.
And in a way it's not that difficult to understand. Oneamise is somewhat of an arthouse film, not a segment that draws big crowds, especially not when talking about animated films. It's not a very typical anime feature either. There's a strong focus on fantasy retro tech that will appeal to a tiny anime niche, but apart from that it's a quiet film that spends more time sketching a fantasy world rather than adhering to a strict plot.
The story revolves around Shiro, a disillusioned young man who fails to realize his lifelong dream (becoming an airplane pilot) and ends up being part the local space force. While this may sound pretty cool, the film's space force is little more than a team of enthusiasts with no notable experience at all. Until one day money finds its way to their little department, and they start their mission to get the first man into space. Somewhat reluctantly, Shiro accepts to become that man.
Even though the film is more than 25 years old, it still looks absolutely stunning. The art style is detailed, and the animation is still convincingly fluid. But it's the architecture and tech designs that really catch the eye, as they are as amazing as they are unique. Gainax really succeeded in creating an alternate reality that looks a lot like ours, but still harbors many aesthetic differences. Technically it can't compete with modern-day animation, but on an aesthetic level, Wings of Honneamise is still one of anime's greats.
The soundtrack too is wonderfully unique. Not that surprising maybe, considering that famed composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (Tony Takitani, Gohatto) was responsible for most of the music. His work gives the film a very peculiar sound, using a kind of off-center folk variant that sounds otherworldly but isn't too experimental or jarring to upset the audience. It's a soundtrack that defines the film, which is exactly what defines a truly great soundtrack. As for the dub, the Asian voice actors (Shiro in particular) give the film an extra dreamy layer. Shiro is soft-spoken and often contemplative, which makes for some stellar voice-overs. In contrast, the American dub is much harsher and often stilted, destroying a lot of the atmosphere the film is trying to build up.
Don't expect a film about space travel, don't expect too much action or thriller elements. Wings of Honneamise is a film about politics, society and finding joy in your work, even when you can't succeed in your dream job. For some people this lack of focus will be considered a flaw, on the other hand it allows Yamaga to paint a broader picture that is often completely absent in similar fantasy-styled films. Personally, I loved Yamaga's approach.
Wings of Honneamise is a largely forgotten anime gem. Despite its budget, its impressive technical feats and its many memorable scenes, it didn't capture enough hearts to become part of the anime canon. It's a shame, because Wings of Honneamise has everything to wow film fans. Interesting themes, blissful artwork, a stellar soundtrack and the perfect ending make for an amazing film that didn't lose much of its shine and polish over the years.