What if, in its early days, the U.S. space program had struck Americans as a fringe outfit of nerds and dreamers–a wacky wing of the military-industrial complex–and drawn sneers instead of Top Gun pilots and MIT engineers? That alternate history is the premise of the 1987 Japanese animated feature Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise by Hiroyuki Yamaga.

With an unprecedented budget of 800 million yen ($8 million U.S.), the 125-minute sci-fi epic required a team of over 3,000 animators to tell the story of life on a fictional planet where Shiro, an idealistic space cadet, is drawn to the enigmatic Riquinni, a devout young woman who lives in the countryside and goes to the city to hand out pamphlets for prayer gatherings. “I liked how they were multidimensional characters, yet they don’t communicate,” says Matt Perrier, the product manager at Manga Entertainment, a distribution company headquartered in Chicago that has released over 200 anime titles since it started up seven years ago. “It was iconoclastic at the time.” He also appreciated the twist of male and female characters who don’t find romantic happiness, though the film’s offhand treatment of Shiro’s attempted rape of Riquinni mystified him. “That always just seemed out of place to me,” says Perrier. “I didn’t understand it and felt it may be hard for some Westerners.” He asked Yamaga to discuss that scene when he recorded the commentary for the DVD released by Manga in 2000, but Yamaga didn’t seem to know the character’s motivation either, preferring to chat with one of his assistant directors on lighter matters such as how well the animators had rendered Shiro’s push-ups.

Growing up in Windom, Minnesota, Perrier was first exposed to Japanese animation through the imported series Star Blazers and Battle of the Planets. As a graduate student in philosophy at Ohio State University, where he studied Plato’s middle-period dialogues and mystery religions, Perrier began hanging out at the one Columbus bookstore that stocked manga (Japanese comic books) and anime videos. When he moved to Chicago in 1997 so his wife could attend law school, Perrier looked in his national guide to anime culture and discovered that Manga, a key distributor, had a Chicago office. He called them up, and was soon hired. His casual fandom had turned into a career.

Japanese pop culture has long had the U.S. in its thrall–witness the 35-year popularity of Speed Racer cartoons, the Pokemania of 1999, and the still-insatiable market for Hello Kitty paraphernalia. Jeff Fleming, cocurator of the exhibit “My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation” at the Chicago Cultural Center, argues in his catalog essay that the American television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dark Angel model their heroines after the archetypal anime character of the “powerful young female figure who is destined to save the world.” In another “My Reality” essay, artist Takashi Murakami traces the element of apocalyptic fantasy in some anime to “Japan’s postdefeat culture of impotence.”

As for anime’s popularity in the country that dropped atomic bombs on Japan, Perrier points out that nationalism is rarely a theme in the genre. “Anime is interesting because it doesn’t stick to stereotypical plotlines,” he says, “even when they seem to be going in a Hollywood action- adventure direction.” Despite cultural differences, Americans get it. Drawing on his study of the classics, Perrier argues, “People would get Roman comedy too, since it’s not so different from Three’s Company.”

Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise will be screened on Tuesday, August 6, at 8 PM as part of the Japanese Anime Film Festival at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. The festival continues through September 7 with Tuesday evening screenings at 6 and 8 and Saturday afternoon screenings at 1 in the center’s Claudia Cassidy Theater. “My Reality” is on view through September 8. Both the exhibit and the film series are free; call 312-744-6630.