In The Year 2000: Interstella 5555

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?

9 Comments

  1. I remember meeting a french couple in 2000, and I was wearing a “Project A-ko” t-shirt, and when they saw it, they both said: “Albator!”, which is the french name for Harlock.
    It’s a fun movie, but its cultural significance is greater than the movie itself, mainly as a testament of anime’s influence the world over.

  2. I also liked this a lot. Just to see Matsumoto’s visual style brought to life (well, okay, “life” in the animation sense) was a thrill…but then again, I had been into anime for a number of years by the time the 00s rolled in.

    Sure, the plot’s wafer thin, but as Jason pointed out, that’s not the point, and it doesn’t matter in the end. This a visual odyssey, and one that deserves to be taken.

  3. For me, it raises the old issue of style over substance. A lot of the time, I am tempted to forgive anime – and to a greater extent Japanese comics – for poor or sub standard plot and dialogue if the artwork is suitably emotive/impressive etc.

    Considering that, I suppose this example really makes the case for creating something visually rich and not feeling that it has to have dialogue; so I guess the substance is in the visual style, not riding along side it.

  4. Great read, Jason.

    Excellent point made about critiquing Interstella for it’s plot. It seems anime fans specifically seem to forget that animation is a VISUAL medium, and it must excel in the visuals. A simple story does not necessarily equate to a “bad” story.

  5. Okay, to be honest, I’ve only watched one of the music videos, and the only reason I remember Daft Punk’s “One More Time” (Or maybe not, I never did remember the song title) is simply because of that video.

    It’s still a bloody good music video. Even if we all know Zac Bertschy has his head so stuck up his rectum he can’t see anything but his own shit.

  6. @DrmChsrO: “Even if we all know Zac Bertschy has his head so stuck up his rectum he can’t see anything but his own shit.”

    Ouch!!

    But hell, I’m no better…I would have added, “And the toast he had at breakfast.”

  7. This is the stuff – an excellent piece of writing about a good piece of animation. One thing I noticed right away – the visual quality actually IMPROVES after One More Time. I think Homem-Christo and Bangalter floated the initial music video as a test – if it failed to register, it would remain a curiosity, but if it hit, they could complete their vision. The movie’s protacted production cycle (the single+video were released in December 2000, the movie not until December 2003) would seem to bear this out.

    I liked it immediately, and the summer of 2001 was colored by the dizzy joy of hearing One More Time creep onto mainstream radio playlists, electronics store displays, and movie theatre muzak systems. Despite its rather heavy use of sampling, I do think Discovery is one of the best albums of the 00s, and I tend to avoid dance music.

    I scheduled Interstella 5555 as a surprise addition when Arisia brought me in to run their anime room in 2004 – it had been released quietly just a month earlier. Advertised in the con’s hallways on crude, hand-lettered signs as THE DAFT PUNK MOVIE, it packed the room (capacity: 75) at Saturday midnight. I ran it officially in the same timeslot the following year, where it packed the room again. I bet it’d have kept packing the room if I kept it up.

  8. I, too, liked it. Then again, I’m as old as dirt and spend my miniscule spare time watching old Toei OPs over and over.

    Anime, as does everything else, partakes of the culture from which it springs. Compare the party-colored, bubblicious Zeitgeist of Shōwa-era Japan c. Expo ’70 to today’s dull-brown dreariness and its no wonder that the stuff they put out nowadays seems flat. Superflat souls = superflat anime.

    What’s needed is not new animation techniques, new technology, or new people in the biz, but new hearts, new souls, new hope. Give the Japanese people (and hell, us Americans, too) back the optimism and verve we’ve lost over the past 35 years or so and watch the fireworks. “Where there is no vision, the people perish” – Prov. 29:18

  9. I thot it got a bit long, so watching it in one go is a bit difficult. However, I still love this as well. Bought the limited edition with the Kubrick figures.

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