‘Royal Space Force’ or — The (Almost) Right Stuff?

Colin Edwards
3 min readJun 19, 2024

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‘Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise’ (1987) is a highly infuriating experience as anyone expecting an exciting ‘Macross’ style adventure filled with aerial dogfights and cool spaceships is going to be severely disappointed because the film is a deliberate reaction against all that. So a little patience is required, the only question now being — is any expended effort worth it?

Set in an alternative circa 1960’s Earth the film depicts the kingdom of Honnêamise’s Royal Space Force’s attempt to send the world’s first person into orbit. Failed fighter pilot Shiro volunteers so undergoes an intense training program in preparation, although he appears more distracted by Riquinni, the young religious girl preaching on the street corner.

Meanwhile Space Force engineers struggle to build the rocket and solve the myriad of technical problems as both internal political pressures plus military tensions with the neighbouring nation known as The Republic escalate.

Director Hiroyuki Yamaga keeps everything firmly grounded to the perverse extent that, one brief flight sequence near the beginning aside, we’re frequently wondering if this film is ever going to lift-off at all. Instead, it plays out like a deliberately dour anime version of Philip Kaufman’s excellent ‘The Right Stuff’ (1983) with the focus being on the various obstacles to be overcome, something given a unique spin with this version of Earth possessing alternative technologies to ours (it’s not quite steampunk but it’s close).

When the film deals with all this it’s utterly gripping and the highly detailed world-building is staggering to behold as everything looks as though it serves a specific, practical function and could genuinely operate. The intricate design work is never too outlandish (again, this could disappoint some) so there’s a real believability about it all and the off-kilter richness of it all is mesmerising.

Where the film does suffer, however, is in its pacing because this lack of “action” destroys any momentum. Sure, it’s all intentional as the filmmakers are wanting to leave the audience thinking about the social and human cost of military driven technological advances as opposed to being merely entertained but it’s up for question as to whether they fully succeed or not or if the sacrifice is worth it.

Although the film’s biggest issue is with Shiro and Riquinni’s “relationship” which grinds the film to a screeching halt every time they appear on-screen together. It’s obviously included to add emotional weight and for Riquinni’s religious views to provide a spiritual dimension to the concept of space travel but it never quite convinces and the way their relationship culminates in a highly misguided narrative decision destroys any sympathy I might’ve had for either of them (Riquinni’s response to Shiro’s behaviour is almost as uncomfortable as his actions).

Fortunately the film’s final half hour is devoted to the launch itself and suddenly all the careful ground work Yamaga and his team have laid down — the restraint, the deliberate holding back of conflict and denial of spectacle — dramatically pays off. All the tension is earned, the scope and scale explodes and when the Republic starts a large scale ground and air offensive to seize the rocket we’re treated to some of the most astounding dogfight animation ever produced. Why couldn’t the film have been this exciting all along?!

However, after a seriously impressive launch sequence (the ice falling from the rocket was all hand-drawn, as was everything else), the film lapses into eye-rolling pretension with a montage that’s aiming for Kubrick-esque majesty but only exposes the film’s grandiose aspirations.

‘Royal Space Force’ was a flop on its theatrical release but is now regarded as a true anime masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why that’s the case on both counts as it’s a film with intentional deficiencies and unintentional flaws but also with an undeniable visual richness and depth that outclasses almost anything else in the genre. The trip is worth it, but prepare for a bumpy ride until lift-off.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.