The Daicon IV anime short, but actually, Time

Do you remember Daicon IV? You shouldn’t, unless you were one of the few thousand convention-goers to attend Osaka’s Nihon SF Taikai event in 1983 — and if you are reading this blog in English in 2019, you almost certainly aren’t.

But somehow, that five-ish-minute promotional short has morphed into an imagined watershed moment for all of otaku culture. It has ranked as one of the top anime of all time — not a literary feature like Grave of the Fireflies or a pop-titan like Dragon Ball — but to repeat: a five-minute short first seen by fewer than 5000 people. It must be phenomenal, right? In the words of some nostalgic reviewers, it is of such quality that “it’s just about impossible for an anime fan to not like,” of such significance that its creators “repurposed the face of the anime industry,” of such depth that it captures “a sense of unity that anime fans have since lost” …it is the “otaku creation myth.”

The actual original laserdiscs can cost thousands of dollars!

Yughhh the last one makes me groan. I’m far too skeptical to believe in that (I protest because Daicon IV consists of a long string of references to manga, anime, science fiction, and fantasy. In other words, it is the gorgeous illuminated index to a culture that already existed, not the advent of a new one. But whatever, pop-history demands its moments that changed everything).

But you know what? Yeah! Daicon IV is pretty good, or at least as good as a promotional video can be, I suppose. I’m not going to be too cynical today. I like Daicon IV. It’s cool and cute and runs my favorite song off one of my favorite albums – “Twilight” from Electric Light Orchestra’s synth delight Time. And because Daicon IV is practically an unofficial music video for that song, this post is really about time.

Youtube plays wack-amole with fan-uploaded full albums. Luckily, you can find ELO’s official uploads separated into individual songs on this playlist.

Others have written plenty about Daicon IV’s place in time and how its stellar animation became history. But I haven’t found much about what it says about time, which strikes me as odd because, well, the album that it stole unlicensed music from is literally called Time! Some come close by noting how Daicon IV presents an optimistic otaku culture worth celebrating in an era that largely scorned such obsessive fandoms; the short rides on a unifying upward energy: a girl in a Playboy-bunny costume (another unlicensed borrowing) raises a daikon (Japanese radish) plant that grows into the colossal vegetable-shaped spaceship that cruises across the short’s opening crawl like the Star Destroyer from A New Hope. The ending even reverses the aftermath of an atomic bomb to restore a desolate planet into a verdant oasis ~through the magic of anime~. Oh, what a bright future!

However, when I watch Daicon IV, I feel a contradiction between the message and the music (not between the animation and the music, it syncs perfectly). In opposition to Daicon IV’s good-cheer, Time hides deep pessimistic themes under the upbeat synth-pop sound coursing through many of its songs. At its most optimistic, the album shows that though progress into modernity may improve our material conditions, the future does not guarantee greater human happiness. And then at its most pessimistic, Time retreats into a nostalgic preference for the past, imagining the year 2095 as a tech-obsessed dystopia defined by empty artifice, vapid consumption, and most of all, modern loneliness. Yikes, so much for Daicon IV’s bright future!

I’ll wrap this argument back around to Daicon IV by the end, but first I want to look through the album that lends the short its distinct sound, and by translation into animation, even its motion. Because though the optimistic and pessimistic themes of Time and Daicon IV may have conflicted back in “the good old 1980s,” as that conflict has carried forward almost forty years into the future, they may have achieved an ironic alignment in yearning for a nostalgic past.

In the literal plot of Time (because snooty concept albums have plots!), a man from the 1980s travels to the year 2095. He gets a robot girlfriend, goes to the moon, and takes in the wonders of the late 21st century. But mostly, he just wanders without purpose, wishing he could go back to the past with this wonderfully ironic and prescient lyric from “Ticket to the Moon” (which, despite premiering in 1981, seems to anticipate the current 80s nostalgia craze …see the awful novel Ready Player One):

Remember the good old 1980s

when things were so uncomplicated

I wish I could go back there

and everything could be the same

Time mostly concerns itself with a sense of loneliness produced in its modernist technoscape. Again, it’s an issue in the literal plot: the time traveler misses his partner left behind in the past (the bonus track “Julie Don’t Live Here Anymore“). But on a thematic level, the album worries that the whole lived experience of modernity for the “21st Century Man” will define itself by loneliness as society replaces real relationships with synthetic ones. Time‘s first full song, the “Twilight” used in Daicon IV, introduces a key premise behind the idea:

It’s either real or it’s a dream

There’s nothing that is in between

Once again, the line has direct plot meaning: the man wonders if he has only dreamed up his time-travel adventure. But placed in the context of the full album, it takes a new thematic meaning: any amount of artificiality will corrupt an experience by introducing doubts about authenticity — by “Twilight’s” binary, thus making it impossible to trust the reality of even slightly dubious experiences. The next song, “Yours Truly 2095,” hits the idea head on when the man enters a relationship with a robotic girlfriend but wonders if she can replace his real romance from the past. Despite the robot’s likeness to the man’s partner back in the 1980s (“[she] looks a lot like you”) and her ability to fulfill the physical functions of a girlfriend (“she does the things you do” …I cringe), she denies the man emotional closeness:

She’s only programmed to be very nice

but she’s as cold as ice

whenever I get too near

That inability to develop an empathetic connection with the robot collapses any potential for a “real” romance into an unfulfilling synthetic one. To echo “Twilight,” there’s nothing in between — because a loving relationship requires the authentic participation of both partners, one person doting after an indifferent sexbot with a “heart of stone” hardly qualifies. The man realizes that if he can’t achieve anything real with the robot, he might as well not even try:

Maybe one day I’ll feel her cold embrace

and kiss her interface

’til then, I’ll leave her alone

The robot is just a tool (“But she is an IBM … / … And she’s also a telephone.” ha!). Her eerie, seductive refrain “Is that what you want?” hints at the emptiness of a commercial culture concerned only with satisfying its consumers’ base desires. But despite her extreme intelligence (“She has an IQ of 1001”), the robot cannot imitate a real social connection. She turns her partners into loners.

The songs “The Way Life’s Meant to Be” and “Here is the News” extend that point about the alienation produced by an artificial modern culture. The man discovers that the people of the future have become so absorbed in their wonderful, anti-social technologies that they have lost connection to reality. He feels lost and lonely wandering around his future hometown, “where people never speak aloud.” It’s natural scenery has been replaced by “plastic flowers” and its art by cold, scientific academia in “its ivory towers.” Beyond science, the culture cares for nothing but entertainment, with even the dry news* promising “another action filled adventure / all the worst from the world convention” every hour, on the hour. But then if the news becomes mere entertainment, and no one otherwise communicates, how can you establish a social reality?

* (The whole of “Here is the News” is great. It seems to anticipate the 24/7 coverage of disaster and controversy that has permeated cable news networks like Fox or CNN. But then it’s also so funny. Take lines like this one: “Ten Eurotechnicians were today sentenced by the justice computer to be banished for life to the prison satellite Penal One –One –One” In a post-Brexit Europe flirting with populism, is this the future of the Brussels bureaucracy? Later, the news issues a warning about an inmate escaping from Satellite Two. An obsolete technocrat driven mad? Heh, I’d watch that anime).

Time turns that isolated unreality into a century-early elegy for the “21st Century Man.” History tells us that there has never been a better time to be alive — the time traveler has a flying car and the scientists have finally cured rocket sickness! But then the man wonders: why am I so lonely?

You should be so happy

You should be so glad

So why are you so lonely

You 21st century man?

Those “shoulds” sting. They place the blame for unhappiness on the individual rather than the indifferent society that produces such intense loneliness. But the man knows that it is the future’s fault because he has lived in a more authentic time marked by less technological artificiality. Time caused his misery, not his own failings (“time has the final word”). So, he concludes with the album’s preference for the past or, at least, the present: “I wanna go back!”

So, what does any of that have to do with Daicon IV? Hmmm… maybe not much for the original release in 1983, when its exuberance catalogued an optimistic otaku culture looking forward to pop-cultural acceptance. But I think much of the recent commentary surrounding the short has approached Time’s pessimism.

The online dialogue around Daicon IV drips with nostalgia, whether in the Youtube comments or the MyAnimeList reviews or on whatever other discussion site. Modern otaku often exalt a sort of myth-making about the amateur-hobbyist-auteur from the good old 1980s, expressing sentiments like (I caricature) “They made their anime in the the same filthy, cup-ramen-stained garages they slept in, damnit!” Those sort of nostalgic sentiments seem to carry a pessimistic, starry-eyed implication though: things were better then.

Each season, someone will inevitably gripe that this was the worst anime season on record, to the point that every season in recent memory shares that dubious distinction. Or with much more gravity than anonymous commenters, Hideaki Anno, the animation supervisor for Daicon IV itself and famed director of Neon Genesis Evangelion, has predicted “the death of anime” in the next several years as its profits-focused business model churns out copycat shovelware in place of quality original features. Anno’s modern pessimism stands in stark contrast to the optimism of his early career. It seems to ask: has the anime industry become a victim of its own success, with cynical commercialism driving down the unlicensed lo-fi passion that produced Daicon IV?

Like with that line about the “otaku creation myth,” I’m too skeptical to agree with Anno, if only because the commercialist boom that continues to expand in today’s globalized anime market already existed in the 1980s (Gundum model kits and Star Wars toys, anyone?). I don’t think that anyone can make a serious argument for a steady, inevitable decline in animation quality — that Gundam was better than Dragonball was better than One Piece — by virtue of time alone. They all were (and still are) titans of their eras — if gross commercialism diminishes the quality of anime now, it should have done the same in the past as well. And then beyond the anime industry alone, I think people often exaggerate the quality and camaraderie of early geeky pop-cultures, trying to fill their dissatisfaction with the present by appealing to a comforting rose-tinted nostalgia like the lost man from Time.

To return to Time’s broader concerns about an inauthentic modernity though, I do wonder, where does it go from here? We aren’t quite up to date with 2095’s IBM-powered sexbots-cum-telephones, but we maybe see early indications of a similar lonely, artificial entertainment culture in the likes of body-pillows, VR Girlfriend games, and the whole “Waifuism” phenomenon. I think it’s too early to tell if those technologies and trends will become harmful or even important — if it makes some marginal number of people happy today, whatever. But then to echo Time’s pessimism, I don’t trust the future to make the world any better either. Just as my skepticism keeps me from preferring the past for the sake of a comforting nostalgia, it just as well keeps me from trusting in a comforting optimism that promises inevitable progress.

So far, I have omitted a key point in Time. The very title of “Twilight” contradicts its “nothing in between” refrain. There is something in between warm, nostalgic reality and bleak, modernist artificiality: simple twilight mixing in the present. Though the man pines for the past in 2095, I’m sure that as soon he hits the streets back in the 1980s, he’ll start to miss his flying car and trips to the moon. His problem isn’t with the past or the future, it’s with a constant state of neurotic dissatisfaction that will follow him through any present because he can’t stop thinking about time. He doesn’t suffer because 2095 is somehow worse than 1981; he suffers because he feels alien in the super-modern culture and can’t stop mourning his past. But the rocketeers seem to get along just fine.

Things will get worse and things will get better; we will have good anime seasons and bad ones. But the future is always inevitable (from “Hold on Tight,” the lyric “Time just rolls on and on”). And then in reverse, the past is too (from “Ticket to the Moon, “it’s just one way”). With that in mind then, I don’t see much use for nostalgia. Daicon IV is interesting enough as is. It doesn’t need assistance from rose-tinted glasses or grand historical narratives to demonstrate it’s quality. So, I guess I’m saying that there’s nothing left but the present, as always. And once again, the eternal brilliance of Time anticipates that answer: from the “Prologue,” “You feel so glad to be unable to go beyond.”

Hmmm… maybe not glad, but I don’t see a need to rush the future like Daicon IV’s exuberant, animated optimism …or to retreat from it into the nostalgic past like Time’s pessimistic, synthetic sorrow.

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