The stellar ambitions of Royal Space Force
Is there is a single trait that you would ascribe to Yamaga Hiroyuki and his fellow founding members of Gainax Company, Limited in those early years (1984-1999)? Would it not be their attention to detail? (And if you caught and appreciated that incredibly nerdy and by now remarkably dated textual reference… rest assured that you are in exactly the right place, my friend.) The very first film released by Gainax, Royal Space Force, was clearly put together from start to finish – from the intricate conceptual watercolours painted by Sadamoto Yoshiyuki and Maeda Mahiro to the final finishing frame of the orbiting spacecraft over that alternate Earth – with painstaking detail firmly at the front of mind. Royal Space Force is the first great anime film. By which I simply mean this: it dreams too big, sets its sights too high, promises too much in the concept… stumbles and falls down a lot in the storytelling, and… somehow manages to bungle into delivering by the end. The fact that the main plotline itself seems to follow too closely the ambitions of its creators – clearly a labour of love on their own part – is surely nothing less than a deliberate choice.
Because Royal Space Force is the story of an unlikely love, and an unlikely spaceflight. Why unlikely? Well, the nation that is preparing to launch this spaceflight is a jaded and cynical one. The space programme of the Kingdom of Honnêamise is generally regarded as a vanity project of the Royal Family, which is more interested in motorsports and scoring diplomatic points against its chief gæopolitical rival, the Republic. As a result, the engineering team are a bunch of idealistic ancient old coots, and the actual spaceflight team, who are technically a branch of the Kingdom’s military, are generally regarded as a bunch of washouts, goof-offs and losers. Among these is one Shirotsugh Lhadatt—an all-around average middle-class guy with below-average grades and a below-average attitude, who had dreams in his youth about flying a navy jet but whose performance in school rather precluded that ambition.
Shirotsugh doesn’t believe in the possibility of successful manned spaceflight any more than your average cadet in the Royal Space Force. (That is to say, he doesn’t believe it at all.) Not, that is, until he meets a girl – a religious street preacher in a ‘bad part of town’, who calls her nation to repentance for its sins of war and fratricide. Rîquinni Nonderaiko initially takes to Shirotsugh on account of the fact that her adorably-taciturn sister Manna, who for much of the film doesn’t talk, seems to like him. And when she hears what Shirotsugh does for a living, she is undisguisedly impressed – believing that perhaps spaceflight will bring the world to repentance and to peace. Shirotsugh, looking to get into Rîquinni’s pants, at once starts taking his duties in the Royal Space Force seriously. He begins to believe in his mission, and is selected – reluctantly – for the penultimate gamble of sending a man into space. However, his new gung-ho attitude instantly makes him a celebrity, a political football and a target. Much of the drama in the story revolves around Shirotsugh’s seduction by the Vernean romanticism of spaceflight, and the deadening cynicism of ministerial bickering and war that surround and engulf him – threatening both his life and the project he is embarking on.
If love, politics and war are the broad main themes of Royal Space Force, what makes it so impressive as a film is, as mentioned above, how it draws attention to the details of its world. It’s rather incredible, actually, how the entirety of Honnêamise’s world was built up from the (practically literal) nuts and bolts: the quasi-Asian architectural flourishes, the tripodal soup bowls which recall Chinese antiquity, the triangular-headed wooden spoons, the elongate knife- or obol-styled coinage, the feathers and headgear on the red-and-blue formal wear of the Space Force. And then there is the ‘alternative path’ of modernisation we get to see. It’s seemingly a world in which industrialisation occurred – complete with homelessness, exploitation and war, it seems – but without the cultural influence of a European ‘West’. Even the digit indicators use their own numerical system. Everything from the dress, to the card games and entertainments in the seedy nightclub districts, to the outlines of the buildings in rural communities or transportation depots or marketplaces, seems to promise ‘another path’: a kind of ‘might have been’ if a nation like China or India had managed to industrialise before the West. At certain points Royal Space Force brings the viewer near to the point of full-on sensory overload with all of this wealth of background detail. But it’s worth it in many ways to see how much effort went into this world-building.
As such, despite there being both a technological focus and a certain degree of attention on the ‘low life’, Royal Space Force doesn’t quite fit into the usual ‘punk-punk’ categories of alternate tech-development speculative fiction, though it’s closest overall to dieselpunk. This is a world that has both jet engines and lamplighters; that has electronic communication but no evidence of paper money. The filmmakers did their level best to create a society that feels real and weighty without being exaggerated, alternative while still remaining believable. They wanted to draw the attention of the viewer toward these mundane details in our own world.
Shirotsugh Lhadatt himself, as well as being something of a stand-in for the ambitions of the film’s creators and their attempt to communicate a certain message to the otaku subculture, appears to be a fairly clear shout-out to the matchless Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. (His rocket was also apparently based on the Vostok-K.) Although Gagarin himself was never anywhere near as much of a slacker or a jerk as Shiro (indeed, he was both academically and athletically rather an overachiever, and a fairly nice person in general throughout his life), many of the beats of their personal stories rhyme in intriguing ways. Like Shiro chases Rîquinni, Gagarin chased after a woman – Valentina Goryacheva – who initially spurned his advances and wasn’t initially impressed by his air-jockey swagger. Shiro also has a similar relationship to his own celebrity and uses in propaganda purposes that Gagarin did. And of course both Gagarin and his wife were religious – a Russian Orthodox Christian, despite the propaganda to the contrary – both before and after his spaceflight. Gagarin’s spaceflight provoked similar religious feelings even within his contemporary Soviet context. There’s a hell of a lot in Royal Space Force for a soi-disant ‘Paneurasianist weeb’ to love and appreciate, on account of these parallels with the Soviet experience in the Space Race.
[Strangely enough, this film – with its appeals to mythology and a distant fall combined with a Vernean romanticism about space travel; as well with its fish-out-of-water cosmonaut who goes to space seeking love – reminds me of Veit Helmer’s space age-nostalgic Kazakhstani romantic comedy Baikonur, although the two films configure themselves in ways which are almost diametrically opposed. The religious-mythological bearings and weight of the two films are similar, as are their attitudes toward technological progress. But where Baikonur’s Iskander Orynbekuly finds love and a home and a future close at hand on the ground with the rockets blasting off behind him in the distance, Royal Space Force looks wistfully down at the planet from orbit, and points to a love which straddles the stratosphere.]
The religion that Rîquinni so fervently preaches, and the holy book that Shiro reads from, are neither Gagarin’s Orthodoxy nor the Islâm of the traditional Kazakhstani aul. They are something of a homebrew-fantasy retelling of Earth’s own classical religions. There is a human ‘fall’ associated with man’s quest for fire, and the first man – blending together the legends of Adam and Prometheus – brings death and suffering into the world by his defiance of God. He brings fire into the world for the benefit of man, but the fire consumes his sons and the city he builds. This theme of primordial Fall and modern struggle appears again and again: the suffering and misery of the world are intimately linked with man’s forward striving and seeking to attain new heights of technical prowess. We see this with the elderly homeless people and anti-war protesters who are camped out in the street in front of the Defence Ministry. And Shiro himself seems to grapple with this harder than the other characters in the film – even Rîquinni, whose devotion and resignation are total even when her and Manna’s rural house is demolished by big urban developers. Shiro goes back and forth between devotion to his mission and frustration with the ways in which he is clearly being manipulated. He even goes so far as to angrily fling his advertising pay on the steps of the Defence Ministry for the homeless there to collect, and then take an unscheduled leave to go handing out fliers on the street alongside Rîquinni.
Shiro’s pursuit of Rîquinni is also bound up in her religious commitments to a certain degree. At one point when Shiro starts making a move on her, she gets up and suddenly offers to make tea. Shiro complains that she won’t allow herself to relax, and perhaps she should come to a ‘compromise’ rather than be so devoted to her religion all the time. Rîquinni gets angry at this and shoots back at Shiro that such ‘compromise’ is what got the world into the mess it’s in now. (This causes Manna to cry, as apparently Rîquinni and Manna’s parents were always arguing.) At a later time, after seeing how Manna and Rîquinni live in the church and after being disenchanted with everything he’s doing, Shiro makes a clumsy attempt to force himself on Rîquinni as she’s changing clothes. He hesitates and she knocks him out with a ceremonial vessel to the side of the head. The next morning, Shiro tries to apologise, but Rîquinni not only readily forgives him, but even apologises back to him for doubting him. This twists the knife in even further for the already guilt-ridden Shiro. Intriguingly enough, the entire launch sequence itself is posited as something of a literal leap of faith, as it takes place amidst a losing battle against the Republic Army, and the technicians are told to abort by the retreating Kingdom soldiers. Ultimately, it’s Shiro who calls for the countdown to happen anyway.
The religious climax of the film happens as Shiro looks down at his world, and we are treated to a montage of that world’s culture and history – the falls and the struggles – before finally Shiro utters a prayer that his spaceflight will help his world to choose peace. Even though we do not see Shiro consummate his relationship with Rîquinni at any point in the film, here is as close as we get: the united vision and hopes of these two, one looking up from the ground and one looking down from space, as they share the same religious awe and the same humble wishes of peace and goodwill to all.
Once again: Royal Space Force is a breathtakingly-ambitious film that stumbles around occasionally while promising the stars. There were parts of this film that still don’t quite work in my mind. Although I understand the intent, and I think it was a nice touch for the spaceflight to be used as a cynical military provocation by the Kingdom against the Republic over the heads of the Space Force, the war scenes and dogfights that happen as Shiro’s rocket goes up in the middle seem more than a bit overwrought – like they want to batter us over the head with the point. The lengthy chase and assassination sequence in the latter half of the film is likewise overdone. Even though the political stakes are so high, the tone of the sequence, particularly given how repetitive it is, is almost more of a comic punchline than anything. But it falls completely flat when Shiro stabs his assassin with his ceremonial Space Force knife. Even though it’s clear that we should be thinking about Cain and Abel as this happens, the death of the Republic assassin is almost an anti-climax.
Despite these occasional stumbles, though, and despite the sensory overload that comes from jampacking the film full of as much background detail as they can stuff into every single frame, Royal Space Force remains a firm favourite of mine, along with much of the rest of Gainax’s early catalogue: Appleseed, GunBuster, Nadia, Eva, KareKano. The religious commentary alone makes the film worth seriously considering. The ‘what-if’ scenario of an alternative development track that is neither utopian nor dystopian should also be a draw. And of course, speaking personally, the parallels with the Soviet Union and the gæopolitics of the Space Race make this a fun watch for me. But the questions that Yamaga and his crew want us to explore are all worth asking. What price does our progress come at? What dreams does our progress allow? What does it mean to be human and to strive for survival and excellence in a world that is filled with evils, compromises and ambiguities? What does faith mean in such a world? Again – this is a film which promises way beyond the competencies of its authors… but the fact that it even succeeds at holding out its promises to be examined and thought about is a triumph in itself.