This is a landmark movie. It's the first anime from Gainax, the studio which is famous for Neon Genesis Evangelion, but has also been responsible for shows like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Gunbuster
, FLCL and Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. Gainax was founded in the early 1980s under the name of Daicon Film by six university students including Anno Hideaki. At first they just made short films to show at the annual Japanese National SF Convention (aka. Daicon), but in 1985 they changed their name to Gainax and two years later had turned out this behemoth. It's a two hour long art film and at the time was the most expensive anime movie ever made, costing 8 million dollars, although Akira trumped it the following year at 10 million.
Critically this film is highly respected. Roger Ebert called it "a visually sensational two-hour extravaganza", for instance. What's special about it are its visuals, which basically create an entire world down to the smallest details. Especially in the 1980s, we didn't tend to get the kind of all-encompassing art direction that takes nothing for granted. No matter how imaginative the storyline, one's still liable to get familiar-looking cars, animals, furniture and so on. That's the principle they sought to overturn in this film. Hiroyuki Yamaga is using the full potential of animation by ensuring that thought and creativity had gone into everything they drew. The story's set on a parallel Earth, so naturally enough it has its own clothes, vehicles and hairstyles. Even kitchen utensils won't look the same. You could watch this film a dozen times and never lose sight of all the detail and subtlety.
Naturally the worldbuilding is tied into this, leading to a different geopolitical situation with its own cultures. We're following the efforts of the Royal Space Force to get a manned rocket into space, which of course is depicted with incredible care and realism. The rocket at the end is similar to real ones that the Soviets used to use.
You'll have noticed I haven't talked about the story yet. The film failed at the box office, by the way.
The good news is that at least the story is better than that of many anime movies, because it succeeds at being what it is. However what's trying to be is really slow, low-key and at times more like a documentary than a drama. It doesn't have the appeal of a Ghibli film or even the explosive impact of many of Gainax's later works, but instead is just spending a few months following Shirotsugh Lhadatt, a young man who's drifting into his nation's unloved space program. It's only going ahead in the first place because the government wants to provoke their enemies into trying to seize the rocket and giving them a pretext to go to war. Lhadatt finds himself befriending Riquinni Nonderaiko, a religious woman who'd been handing out leaflets on the street. You know, as you do. You're not going to get any there, son. Nevertheless she thinks what he's doing is wonderful and encourages him to volunteer to fly this new rocket.
This happens in great detail. Slowly. However there's nothing wrong with Lhadatt's personal journey in the film, assuming you've prepared yourself for a film that's not very interested in throwing action at you. For the most part you're simply watching people going quietly about their business and doing their best. This should probably have been boring as hell, but fortunately the film has its own kind of charm and a gentle sense of humour. I checked the clock less than I've done with films half its length. I seem to remember once describing it as soap opera appeal... it doesn't matter what's happening (or not happening), since you're really watching the people.
There's death, an attempted rape and a big finale, but even those aren't being done sensationally. The finale in particular is a trippy montage ending that out-Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey, which obviously I fast-forwarded. I'm sure it's really meaningful if you're prepared to, um, whatever.
The film got an American release in the 1980s as Star Quest, heavily edited and badly dubbed. Avoid that one. The 2000 Manga Entertainment DVD was uncut but poorly transferred, but fortunately the Bandai Visual release of 2007 is based on the 1997 Japanese remastering and is thus quite good. Apparently for a while Gainax was even planning to make a sequel, which was to be called Aoki Uru and would have been set fifty years later. They started developing it in March 1992, but the necessary backing never appeared and the project was shut down in July 1993. Some of its themes were apparently similar to those in Neon Genesis Evangelion.
This is a historically important film that pushed forward the medium of anime, but feel free to do the ironing while you're watching. I suspect it might work quite well like that, actually. This absolutely isn't the kind of story where you'll be lost if you let your attention wander for a moment, while obviously the animation and even the music are well worth checking out. The latter is by Ryuichi Sakamoto, in the year he won his Oscar for The Last Emperor. Overall I'd have liked to have been able to be more respectful towards such an impressive and respected film, but... sorry, nope. I did think it sustained its running time surprisingly well, though.