Royal Space Force and the Gainax Oeuvre

lhdatt, wings of honneamise, royal space force

My high school friend Andrea always wanted to be an astronaut. She took top honors in mathematics and sciences in high school, graduated with a combined astronomy and physics degree, and attended graduate school close to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas for her advanced astrophysics degree. In each level of education, she worked amazingly hard to receive the honors and heights that she achieved. Then one day, nearing the end of her secondary degree, she inexplicably left school completely. I was floored.

When I spoke with her about it, shortly after leaving, she explained that she didn’t have the desire necessary to be an astronaut. I prodded, because I didn’t understand. Everything she had done with her education up until this point, including grueling hours of studying and lab work, had been to be an astronaut. In my mind, she had more desire than anyone. Andrea then said that it wasn’t about the effort or amount of work, but the boundless curiosity. She was content studying and learning, but didn’t have the destructive thirst that her colleagues had.

“Our job is to fly…to the highest heights! Imagine a world where man can find a new freedom, we have to…I’m gonna be the one to find it!”

-Shirotsugh Lhadatt, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise

Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise encapsulates the intangibles that so escaped my friend both in execution and its development. Infamously Gainax’s first major project, the 1987 movie is the result of a blank check from Bandai Visual with the overall instructions to create. Fresh off of their DAICON IV animation Gainax, née Daicon Film, created Royal Space Force with now well-known names such as Hiroyuki Yamaga, Hideaki Anno, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Mahiro Maeda, and Ichiro Itano. It is a project that is easy to look back on as a time capsule of when it was made, primarily due to the large budget it received in spite of having no merchandising tie-ins.

The product of Royal Space Force follows the aimless Shirotsugh Lhadatt who has ended up in a dead-end space program and spends his days meandering without purpose. Inspired by the devotion of Riquinni Nonderaiko to her god, he volunteers for a mission to make him the first man in space. As his ambition and desire to accomplish something begins to translate into tangible hard work, he is thwarted and ridiculed at every turn. In response, he pours every ounce of himself into this goal. Unlike later Gainax protagonists – Simon (Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann) comes to mind immediately – Lhadatt is not likeable, and the movie makes this abundantly clear. He is also not a starry-eyed young teenager with the entire world ahead of him, but a fairly worn-out man with, in his mind, little left to live for.

“So what is this story that’s continuously being retold? It’s fairly simple, in essence: ‘Hard work and guts,’ (as Coach would say) plus a blind devotion to what you believe in, will save the world. That’s not much different from any other anime. But the Gainax experience is unique because of a few common attributes, all filtered through the lens of the first studio founded by and for the otaku generation. The people who understand you.”

– Otou-san at Shameful Otaku Secret, “It takes a fanboy”

I use the quote above from this post, because it does an excellent job of describing common threads found in earlier Gainax productions both in their internal narratives, external “studio to consumer” narratives, and overall marketing strategy. It is often impossible to ignore the charm of having an animation studio that supposedly “gets you,” the crazy fan, regardless of whether that relationship has been constructed to sell you things or not. In this light, Royal Space Force is an interesting beast as a more genuinely creative vanity project.

“Y’know, on paper it didn’t look so big.”

“Ideas grow; sometimes bigger than life.”

– A conversation between Shirotsugh Lhadatt and Marty Tohn, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise

The climax of Royal Space Force finds the formerly-lazy Lhadatt giving an impassioned speech to his frightened launch pad crew. Their project has already been turned into an excuse for their country to go to war, and they do not know what will follow should the launch be successful. Lhadatt is launched into space where he begins another speech, this time begging for humanity’s forgiveness. What my friend Andrea, in her own words, lacked was this creative drive to discover something, regardless of consequence. In both her case and Lhadatt’s, hard work and guts do not save the world. She did not become an astronaut, in spite of her hard work, and Lhadatt’s guts are – depending on your interpretation of the ending – possibly all for naught other than his own inner ambition and personal redemption.

“Can anyone hear me? I’m the first man in space. If you look up, well, maybe you’ll see it. Or at least please listen. We’ve left the oceans and climbed above the mountains. I’m flying. We’ve found the untouched realm of God. You have to look now it’s your only chance. Nothing is here yet, not even air or water to ruin. Soon the next man will follow to touch it, and another, and in all the rush we may again destroy it. Maybe our killing comes from the madness of being confined? Please listen! There’s no more reason to kill because we don’t have any more borders now!”

– Shirotsugh Lhadatt, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise

As Lhadatt reflects on his actions, images of human achievement, in addition to flashes of his own life, appear before the viewer. We are left to think on what exactly Lhadatt accomplishes in Royal Space Force, and whether it was worth at the least his own death, and at the most the inevitable poisoning of space by humanity. Systemic advancement for the sake of itself is something that Gainax has never shied away from commenting on, almost always allying themselves with the reckless pioneers while additionally owning up to the fact that what they do may not be the wisest choice. Where my friend stepped down in her realization that she did not have that same spirit, the fictional Lhadatt impetuously pressured on, falling in line with what would later become the Gainax ouevre.

Unlike Noriko Takaya, Lhadatt will not be welcomed home after having reached the highest of heights that he, somewhat sarcastically, referenced in the beginning of the film. In the grandeur of his own accomplishment, he begs the people below to cease their violence, turning to that which he had shunned for the majority of the movie, a god. In that moment I can’t help but picture a group of young and impetuous Gainax employees – having been handed all this money from Bandai with the end result this production – looking at each other in disbelief, wondering what exactly they had just created.

 

5 comments

  1. Being a trailblazer is much more difficult than one’s successes may imply. When one sees the limitless potential of an undiscovered and unutilized space, the manner in which that space is captured for one’s own can be daunting. “Where do I go? What do I want to contribute to society? How can I best pave the way for others to continue what I’ve done?” The prospect of going beyond expectation means that one does not know what to expect to begin with. The uncertainty is overwhelming to those without a clear goal.

    Even worse, to be the first to travel that sort of path means that such a path is always travelled alone. There are no mentors to rely upon for guidance. The support one gets comes from outside the realm of their exploration, a grim reminder of the distance between where they want to be, and where they’re from. That’s what makes the narrative of Lhadatt’s achievement so bittersweet for me. The cold, mysterious depths of space paints the perfect picture of such a distance, and how such feats are, by nature, misguided, and never picture-perfect as the history textbooks would eventually claim.

    It’s wonderful that the movie in itself is a prime example of such perfect imperfection, a largely telling debut work for a burgeoning company unsure of where to go from here. The line between vanity and responsibility is blurred, as it is so interestingly paralleled between RSF’s story and that of the studio that produced it.

    I would not have seen such a parallel if it weren’t for this post, and as someone who grew up with Gainax, I would not have known of this parallel if it weren’t for your post. I appreciate the company even more, and I appreciate your writing all the same. Yours is also a unique addition to the established sphere of anime writing. It steps beyond the boundaries of what is expected from an anime blog, and the further you develop yoursef in both your uniquely effective combination of art and writing, it’s easy to feel creatively distant from your peers and your support network. You may be all the way out there with your writing, but always know that there are those back on Earth who are cheering you on despite such distance, myself included.

    1. “The cold, mysterious depths of space paints the perfect picture of such a distance, and how such feats are, by nature, misguided, and never picture-perfect as the history textbooks would eventually claim.”

      Lhadatt’s journey is most certainly bittersweet, even if one strips away the fact the he himself is not the greatest person, simply due to the implications at the end of the film. Was what Lhadatt achieved “good” or “the right thing to do?” We may never know, just as history texts paint events in a certain, oft-glorified light. Who really knows whether what anyone does is “the best thing?” All one can do, for their own personal sake, is to keep trying regardless of doubt. Whether or not this is healthy in the long run will always be up in the air, and I think Royal Space Force captures this perfectly.

      Thank you for commenting and your continued support. ^ ^

  2. Thank you for your essay on Royal Space Force. I think you were insightful to recognize the unheroic nature of Lhadatt; I believe a lot of people are thrown by the film because they feel that what “should have been” a heroic narrative gets spoiled by his actions, whereas Lhadatt himself, in his conversation with Matti in the bazaar, recognizes that he is no hero, and quite possibly a villain.

    There’s a recent collection of essays written for the 25th anniversary of Royal Space Force that uses previously untranslated articles and interviews to tell the story of the movie’s making and reception back in the 1980s, and how GAINAX shaped themselves by this project that would be unlike anything they would ever do again. It includes a roundtable discussion by the creators addressing, as you say, “what exactly they had just created,” and a sometimes heated debate between RSF’s director, Hiroyuki Yamaga, and Hayao Miyazaki over the motivations of the characters in the film and their philosophies of moviemaking.

    The URL of the collection is here:

    http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/487410

    Once again, thanks for writing on Royal Space Force!

    1. Thank you for well, everything you have written regarding Royal Space Force in addition to your championing of the series from the get-go. Your knowledge and analysis of this film so far exceeds mine that I feel fortunate to know that you have read it at all.

      I have been meaning to pick that up along with Colony Drop’s latest. This is exactly the push/reminder I needed to do just that.

      Thank you for your kind words and comment.

  3. Dear Emily,

    I think people with fresh perspectives like yourself are definitely going to have insights into the film that would not have occurred to me, even if I’ve written a lot about it. For example, while I realized the making of the rocket was to some extent a metaphor for the making of the film itself (I say “to some extent” because it wasn’t meant to be a metaphor exclusive to GAINAX’s own struggles) it hadn’t really occurred to me that details such as the meetings with higher-ups over the project, the questioning over its costs, the regret over approving it in the first place and lack of interest in the Space Force’s ideals, and the “branding” of the project as something very different from what it actually was (a “space warship”– something which the history of anime has been chock-full of, but which Lhadatt’s capsule definitely isn’t) are all applicable (again, to some extent) to what actually happened with the production and promotion of the film.

    In contrast to Evangelion, I would call Royal Space Force an un-cryptic film; Miyazaki himself called RSF “an honest work without any bluff or pretension.” I say that not to put Eva down, but to reflect on how there is more than one way for a work to create a deeper meaning than its surface. It might be said that Royal Space Force does this by being as simple as real life, that is to say, not very simple at all.

    RSF’s world is full of small details that are difficult to notice on first viewing, but these are not easter eggs placed there to help unlock the story–they don’t even necessarily have anything to do with the story, because Yamaga realizes that even putting the first man in space is just one story among the billions that define people’s lives in the real world. I admire the way the film subordinates even its own narrative to the idea of a larger world that goes on without need of that particular story, and indeed may not even take notice of it, no matter how grand it seems to some. It does this also, I think, without bitterness. You can build the most beautiful cathedral, but you can’t force people to actually believe.

    You should definitely also get Colony Drop’s latest ^_^ It’s got a great layout and articles. One unintentional crossover between the two zines is that in both of them the now-defunct Japanese magazine OUT plays an important role, and how it presented a different, more questioning and sardonic style of anime journalism than is available today. The roundtable discussion on RSF I mentioned for example, was organized by OUT, who also covered the disconnected marketing campaign of the film.

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