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.”
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.