It’s a bit of cheat, but reviewers will use analogies to describe movies simply because it’s the quickest way to get the point across. Hence, “Volcano High” is “The Matrix” meets “Harry Potter”, and “The Matrix” itself is “Ghost In The Shell” meets Jet Li’s “Black Mask”. “Wings of Honneamise” is anime’s “Citizen Kane”. It was the debut feature by fledgling writer/director Hiroyuki Yamaga, who was given a budget (courtesy of toy giant Bandai) established professionals would kill for. Like “Kane”, “Honneamise” failed at the box-office despite critical praise, but thanks to VHS, Laserdisc and DVD, it found its audience.
Personally, “Wings” is one of my favorite movies, period, mostly because it’s just so damn different. Despite the images of astronaut, rockets, and airplanes on the DVD case, “Wings of Honneamise” is not science fiction. Not exactly. It’s best described as a historical drama, like “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13”, except in this case it’s a history that never happened.
“Wings” is the story of slacker/doofus Shirotsugh Lhadatt, a citizen of the fictional nation of Honneamise, which exists in a fictional alternate world. We first see him as a pre-pubescent kid, trudging to the top of a snow-covered hill to get a view of Honneamise Royal Navy jets taking off from aircraft carriers. As he explains in voice-over, he’s got the need for speed, but his school grades won’t allow him to make the cut to pilot aircraft in the conventional forces. As a result, he joins the Royal Space Force.
Unfortunately being an astronaut for Honneamise doesn’t quite have the same cache as being an American astronaut. The program is under funded, constantly in danger of cancellation, and most of the other “astronauts” are slackers who bide their time on the government’s dollar. One day Shiro runs across Riquinni Nonderaiko, a plain but cute missionary who piques his interest. While Shiro impresses Riquinni with his stories about the space force’s ambitions, she in turn instills in him fresh confidence in the nobility of space exploration. So much so, in fact, that he ends up volunteering for the first manned flight project to the surprise of everyone.
From there, we follow Shiro and the rest of the Space Force as they go about getting him into space. Shiro may be the lead character, but the environment he inhabits is the star attraction — and it’s an environment that could only come to life in animation. Looking at the world maps that show up throughout the movie, it’s clear that the nation of Honneamise and its Cold War rival Rimada are not on Earth. We’re treated to a completely new and different society, where everything is familiar yet different from what we accept as the norm.
The sense of the familiar and exotic extends to the music, the majority of which was composed and supervised by Oscar-winner Ryuichi Sakamoto (“The Last Emperor”). Sakamoto’s background in progressive J-pop undoubtedly lent a hand to the creation of the synthesizer-heavy soundtrack, which, like the movie’s visual design, is both familiar and alien. “Wings” is a complete package of minute and major details that invites endless repeat viewings.
But if “Wings” was just about the design team showing off, we’d be stuck in a “Star Wars” movie. In creating a totally credible world, the filmmakers add weight to the story they’re telling, one that’s ultimately about the things that drives man as individuals and as a species forward through history, evolution, and enlightenment. When we first meet Shiro, he’s a young guy, but is already lost and unsure of what he’s supposed to do with his life. He knows he wants to fly, but reality isn’t playing along. In following Shiro’s story, we discover that life isn’t about where you end up, but how you get there.
“Wings” isn’t trying to tell a grand, epic story. It’s a personal epic, if there is such a thing, and that’s likely the reason it failed to click with audiences during its theatrical release. Back in 1987, the anime scene was more about action-oriented titles like the “Bubblegum Crisis” series or established favorites like the final “original” Gundam film “Gundam: Char’s Counterattack”. In the US, it was the stone age of anime fandom, before fan-subtitling and official translated releases. A carefully paced meditation on the human condition was not going to excite fanboys who didn’t speak the language.
But there’s no excuse to miss this movie now. It is that good, and remains an enduring reminder of what creative people can do when they take cartoons seriously.
Hiroyuki Yamaga (director) / Hiroyuki Yamaga, Hiroshi Ã”nogi (screenplay)
CAST: Masahiro Anzai …. Majaho
Shozo ÃŽzuka …. Space Force Trainer
Leo Morimoto …. Shirotsugh Lhadatt
Chikao Ã”tsuka …. Dr. Gnomm