Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Wings of Honneamise: Royal Rape Force

[This was originally intended as a review of The Wings of Honneamise, but it turned into a diatribe about the film’s most controversial scene and how anyone who defends it is intellectually dishonest or just human filth. The following article discusses the movie's depiction of sexual assault. Please take precautions if you find that disturbing.]

Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise is often praised as one of the most compelling creations of Japan’s animation industry. In 1987, it stunned many with its gorgeous visions of another world’s first steps into outer space, and it's praised as a monument to the creative heights that animation can reach when freed from commercialism and pandering.


It’s also one of the biggest fuck-ups in the history of animated cinema. I’m not talking about the film’s finances; it did well enough at the box office and only failed to break even because it was so incredibly expensive in the first place. No, I’m talking about the film’s drastic, ill-advised, and misogynistic detour off a cliff.

Honneamise is an amazing film at first. Set in a world that’s Not Quite Our Own and looks it, the movie follows a would-be astronaut named Shirotsugh Lhadatt. Shiro’s introduced as a goofball slacker in his nation’s ineffectual Space Force, which hasn’t gone into space and, at best, only manages to get its test astronauts electrocuted by their own urine bags. One night, Shiro meets a religious young woman named Riquinni when she’s handing out alterna-world Chick tracts in the street. Her piously supportive attitude inspires Shiro to volunteer as the Space Force’s next astronaut.


What follows is a film that initially seems far from the usual anime nonsense or mainstream family-oriented schlock. For one thing, Honneamise has some of the most amazing visual world-building I’ve ever seen in a movie. The entire setting is comparable to Asian-American nations of the 1950s, but it’s re-imagined in stunning completion, from the cityscapes and vehicles down to the coins, the spoons, the clothing, the TV weather broadcasts, and the origin myths. It’s the sort of movie that reveals new things each time you watch, because there’s too much well-animated detail to take in at once.

Honneamise is also a refreshingly sedate story. Instead of pointless or gaudy imagery, it opens with Shiro reflecting on how he just drifted into the Space Force, and it follows with a fascinating montage of this alternate world’s journey toward powered flight, set to the staccato overtures of a Ryuichi Sakamoto soundtrack. From there, the movie roams through Shiro’s humdrum life. He’s no action-film centerpiece, and his days are spent clowning around with the other Space Force goons and trying to circumvent Riquinni’s strict views on romantic abstinence.


But a problem arises for our main character. In the midst of the Space Force’s efforts to put him up in orbit, Shiro loses his confidence in the program, realizing that it’ll do little to ultimately improve life in his country. He turns to Riquinni, whose house has been bulldozed by creditors, and her passive attitude frustrates him. Clearly, he is a troubled individual, carrying an inner conflict that represents the existential turmoil every member of this sad human race must confront in some way. And Riquinni, with her perpetually self-humbling views of the world, can’t really help him.

So how does Shiro deal with this? He tries to rape her.

Yep. One night, Shiro lurches, as if in a trance, over to Riquinni while she’s changing clothes. He throws her on the ground and forces himself atop her, to put it delicately. He appears to come to his senses moments before she clouts him with a candlestick. Then he makes a goofy face and passes out. Because attempted rape is WACKY!


The next morning, Shiro follows Riquinni out of the house and apologizes profusely (in the English dub, he says “I just couldn’t help myself”). To his shock, she apologizes for clobbering him upside the head, and explains that he needs to forgive her so she can forgive herself. Bewildered, Shiro wanders back to the Space Force.

There are many reasons director Hiroyuki Yamaga and Gainax put these scenes in the The Wings of Honneamise. They show Shiro’s weakness, his self-doubt, and his growing disdain for Riquinni. They demonstrate how he’s incapable of accepting the weight of the future he’s chosen for himself. They capture the savagery inherent in human nature and the necessity of overcoming it. That's what some critics say, at least.

Honneamise’s rape scene is frequently defended by fans of note. Carl Horn, an esteemed anime-industry veteran, explains in a series of Usenet posts that Yamaga was showing Shiro’s failure to grasp his own destiny and Riquinni’s inability to do the same for hers. He maintains, at length, that “Yamaga knew what he was doing.”

Translator Neil Nadelman conveys a similar sentiment here, quoting Yamaga as saying that “The assault and its aftermath was there to put the final knife into the possibility that Shiro and Riqunni could ever have a full and balanced relationship with each other. Riqunni's failure to admit to herself what Shiro had tried to do showed that there was no longer any possibility of communication.”

In the film's commentary track, Yamaga also explains that he wanted to depict an unpredictable relationship between a man and a woman, a relationship that rejects the typical movie romance. The rape attempt was effectively the first case of what anime fans would later label the “Gainax Twist,” a turn of plot that the studio often uses to screw with the viewer’s expectations or nerdy predilections.

None of these arguments really explains why Honneamise had to use a rape attempt when there were dozens of better ways to express the themes underlying Shiro’s personal downfall. The commentary track is of limited help here. Yamaga and assistant director Takami Akai, the other Gainax member on the track, discuss the buildup to Shiro’s attack on Riquinni and how it was “difficult to explain to the animators.” But what explanation does Akai offer when Shiro hurls her to the floor and mounts her? He reminisces about how he wanted to use the animation cels of the scene as “promotions or gifts” but that people stole all of the production materials showing a bare-breasted Riquinni struggling beneath her attacker. Clearly, the people behind this movie had their priorities straight.

Then there’s the aftermath of the assault, during which Akai points out that Riquinni reveals herself as a “strong woman” by completely forgiving Shiro and saying that it was her fault. So, depending on your interpretation, the film’s leading (and only) adult female character is a fundamentalist lunatic willing to immediately overlook a horrible event, or she's a woman who shows perseverance and robust spirit by BLAMING HERSELF BECAUSE SHE WAS ALMOST RAPED. Holy fucking shit.

In truth, Honneamise is ruined not just by the near-rape, but by the film’s subsequent handling of it. Following his conversation with Riquinni, Shiro finds his way to his Space Force compatriots and, in a conversation with his friend, openly wonders if he’s a good or bad person. The problem here is that Shiro, at his most troubled, seems only slightly ill at ease. He doesn’t act like a man who just tried to force himself on a woman. He acts like a guy who just cheated on his taxes or ran over a squirrel on his drive to the office. I’ve heard that one cut of the film deletes the rape scene entirely, and I have to wonder if the typical viewer would notice, because the film deals with Riquinni’s attack by simply bustling on its way through a street-sweeper chase and fighter-plane dogfights and symbolic montages that don’t seem affected by it in the slightest.

Furthermore, the movie still insists that the viewer care about Shiro in some way. He obviously isn’t supposed to be a blatant, stand-up-and-cheer hero of any sort, yet Honneamise continues to focus its story around him with the implicit assumption that he’s still an ambivalent and intriguing enough character to shoulder the movie’s conflicts. If we’re not expected to root for him, we’re still asked to stay interested in him and what he’s doing. And that’s asking a lot when the movie’s shown him trying to rape someone. When Shiro emits his message about prayer and loss while he’s in orbit, it seems rushed and inauthentic, because he hasn’t truly dealt with his actions. And neither has Honneamise at large.


Maybe, just maybe, there was a subtler, more artistically solid, and less woman-hating way to show Shiro and Riquinni’s relationship self-destructing. Yes, Yamaga, you wanted to shake the viewers and break with convention and freak the hell out of those stodgy anime-industry squares, but you did it with such a ham-fisted, sexist misfire that I’m always surprised when anyone claims to like The Wings of Honneamise without adding “except for…” and some description of the rape scene.

Yamaga apparently included the scene in his movie without anyone stepping in and objecting, and that remains a testament to just how much of a boys’ club the anime industry was in the 1980s and still is today. There might be more defense for his choices if he’d gone on to an illustrious career, but that didn’t quite happen. Other Gainax directors made their marks on the anime industry with other projects, including Hideki Anno’s Evangelion and Kazuya Tsurumaki’s FLCL, but Yamaga never again got as ambitious as he did with Honneamise. He co-wrote Gunbuster (uncredited, for some reason) shortly after, and Gunbuster is a crowd-pleasing puffball in which huge robots and girls in combat leotards save the human race, all without being raped. Yamaga also co-wrote Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, generally considered the best of the Gundam franchise, though he’s only credited with the screenplay while someone else did “series composition.” Perhaps the director ignored his suggestion that the lead Gundam pilot be nearly raped by the Zeon soldier with a crush on her. A decade after this, Yamaga returned to directing anime with the reprehensible Mahoromatic, which has everything wrong with modern anime, and the forgettable attempted comedy of Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi.

Many overlook this when praising The Wings of Honneamise. Even today, the movie is often lionized without anyone acknowledging how much the rape scene damages everything. Some reviews wave it aside or ignore it completely. Others lament the fact that Gainax isn’t going further down the path blazed by Honneamise. Gainax’s subsequent series, from Gunbuster to Nadia to Gurren Lagann, are often made with comfortably mainstream appeal. Yet even in the bizarre extremes of Evangelion, there’s nothing quite as degrading as what Honneamise does to Riquinni. Yes, anime fans, it’s truly a shame that Gainax is longer using rape as a conveniently sectionalized character-development device. You can still find plenty of awful, awful anime that does just that, but it’s never another prestigious, big-budget film that emerged just when anime needed an art-house champion.



Perhaps it seemed worthy of unrelenting plaudits to the anime fans of 1987, but I can’t believe so many modern critics ignore how Honneamise at first emerges as wonderful movie only to turn into yet another case of WHAT THE HELL, JAPAN. Stereotypes of Japan and its nationwide Issues With Women are invoked frequently, and they’d be annoying here if Honneamise didn’t uphold them. Roger Ebert mentions the rape scene in his review of the movie, linking it to the "sudden sexual violence" common in manga and anime. While I imagine some fans must have bristled at comparing such a brilliantly textured film to violent porn comics, the truth is that Ebert was on the money.

On the subject of stereotypes proven accurate, it doesn’t speak well for anime fans when they defend the movie’s marginalizing of sexual assault as a statement about the disintegration of a relationship. Only in the anime industry would a director show this by having a man try to rape a woman, and only in anime fandom would people view the results as anything but a terrible idea.

I’m bothered by Honneamise’s ugly, mishandled scene even more because the film is utterly spectacular up to that point. It’s an entrancing, wonderful tale, built from thoughtful personal moments, broad visions of a beautifully drawn world, and even low-brow comedy (I’ve heard Animal House inspired at least once moment in Honneamise). It’s unlike any other animated creation, and in my teenage years I counted it among my favorite movies; not my favorite animated movies, but my favorite movies, period.

Yes, there was a time when I liked Honneamise completely, when I thought that the attempted rape was meaningful expression that wouldn’t have worked any other way. Then I watched the movie again and again. I read the defenses of it. I listened to the commentary track. And you know what? There’s no excuse for the rape scene, and there’s no reason to stand up for it. All evidence suggests that Yamaga, in fact, did not know what he was doing. If Yamaga knew what he was doing, he wouldn’t show Shiro only mildly shaken by a brush with becoming a rapist. If Yamaga knew what he was doing, he and Akai wouldn't have considered giving away production cels of a woman being violated.

Most importantly, if Yamaga knew what he was doing, he wouldn’t use the scene to symbolize the despicable failings of one man, perhaps of all humanity, and then treat it purely as symbol. Because once you’ve shown a rape attempt like that, your film is no longer the story of a morally conflicted man and the flawed progression of the human race, framed by a quest to reach beyond a planetary cradle. It becomes the story of a man who tries to rape a woman who’s so warped (or SO STRONG) that she instantly accepts blame. It also becomes the story of a director who destroys what might have been the best animated film ever.