For a brief period at the beginning of the 2000s, it seemed like anime was on the verge of achieving genuine cultural acceptance. No, more than that– it was on the verge of being cool. Let’s ignore, briefly, the obvious problem, which is that I was a kid in middle-school at the time, and had no business making judgements about the coolness of anything, let alone the entire output of a foreign media industry. No, anime looked cool because of works like 2003’s Interstella 5555 (pronounced “Four Five”), a collaboration between French electro-crazy pop-music superstars Daft Punk and the legendary Leiji Matsumoto, who you may know as the man responsible for shows like Space Battleship Yamato, Captain Harlock, and Galaxy Express 999.
Conceived during the production of Daft Punk’s second album Discovery, Interstella is, much like Discovery itself, a love letter to the pop-cultural touchstones that dominated the young lives of Daft Punk frontmen Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter. In Discovery’s case, it was that era of early synthesizers, of Giorgio Moroder, of vocals that sound muffled not necessarily because of primitive recording technology, but because they’re wafting up from a place somewhere in the circumference of your earliest memories, from a place where music just sounds old.
In a similar vein, Interstella is a celebration of Matsumoto’s work, themes and visual style, of what Daft Punk themselves describe as the “enigmatic, poetic universe” he created in shows like Harlock, which they watched growing up. The plot, about an otherworldly pop band, forcibly transplanted across the universe and rebranded for Earth’s roving masses, is, as Zac Bertschy writes in the ANN review, “no deeper than a dixie cup.”
Considering the film is essentially just a long string of music videos set to the music of Discovery, this is not a problem. There’s no dialogue beyond the song lyrics themselves, and little in the way of added sound effects. This is a self-contained story told in about an hour, using the music of an album that Pitchfork says is the third best of the 2000s, with visuals inspired by some of the best shows in the history of anime. You can write the plot on a cocktail napkin. That’s cool. The feelings this cartoon evokes are a little more complicated.
Our protagonists, a pop band on a planet that is rainbow-hued right down to the blue-skinned people that inhabit it, are effectively nameless. We know who these characters are, though. Leiji Matsumoto is only credited as “Visual Supervisor,” but you would never know it looking at Masaki Sato’s character designs. The guitarist is a dead-ringer for Yamato’s Susumu Kodai. The drummer might as well be Tetsuro from Galaxy Express. The titular Stella, who serves as the band’s bassist, is the familiar spindly, long-haired Marianne Hold-inspired female character Matsumoto loves so much. And when the band gets kidnapped, the man they call in for the rescue looks a little bit like Harlock. It’s probably the get-up he’s in. He also pilots a flying space-guitar. Yessir.
The interplay between the Matsumoto-inspired visuals and Daft Punk soundtrack is something the film does exceptionally well. Characters running on cue to the legendary guitar solo in “Aerodynamic”. The band undergoing a dramatic, factory line metamorphosis to the vocoder’d vocals of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”. Shots of a stadium filling to capacity to the four-on-the-floor thumping bass kick of “Superheroes,” eventually building to a climactic escape scene as the song itself moves to increasingly triumphant places.
If you’re here for the visuals, you’ll appreciate the music. If you’re here for the music, the visuals only serve to enhance. “Voyager,” a track on the album that had never stuck out to me prior to viewing Interstella, is set to a blue skies travelogue journey of Europe, its unbelievably funky bassline serving as perfect accompaniment. It became one of my favorite tracks on the album.
The man who is sent to rescue the band becomes a tragic hero in the span of an hour, with the lyrics from “Digital Love” and “Something About Us” giving him all the words he needs to give his relationship with Stella emotional weight. It’s not just that, though. The sound of the music itself, with its intentionally outmoded Moogs and Rolands, makes the visuals somehow even more painful, even more emotional. It’s a team effort, this movie, and it hits me hard every time I watch it.
Dialing the ebullience back a bit, I’ve gotta point out that this is not a particularly well-animated cartoon. It’s consistently at the level of a good-looking TV show, but there are no flourishes indicating that a tremendous amount of time or money were poured into this thing. The style carries the production, but the production values are lacking. This is Toei Animation. This is the ‘00s. Get used to it.
Dialing the ebullience way the fuck back up, let me tell you right now that I love this film. It combines two great things into an eminently watchable hour-long crowd-pleaser, which is something you just don’t see much of anymore. With the anime industry aiming for increasingly micro-cosmic markets, Interstella is a slap upside the head. You can show this to anyone, anywhere, and the are gonna dig it. I want to see more stuff like this made, and I bet you do, too.
In a 2004 interview with the Cartoon Network, Daft Punk states that while “Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell are good… we really like the old-school style of Japanese anime.” Was anime ever cool, or are we all just living in our respective nostalgia-addled dream worlds? Daft Punk embraced their fond memories of the past, and produced an intensely memorable concept album and film. Perhaps a few of the entitlement-addled anime fans of today will blossom into superstars, and produce a similar passion project down the line. What would that look like?