By Will Whitehurst / May 22nd, 2013
Any pop culture fan worth their salt has probably heard of Daft Punk. And I must admit, my look at their anime film Interstella 5555, in honor of the release of their new album Random Access Memories, might be more than slightly biased. I’m a pretty big fan of the robot-masked DJ duo. Before the amazing RAM came out earlier this week, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have put together Homework and Discovery, two of the most classic albums in electronic music; Human After All, which comes awfully close; and the soundtrack to Tron: Legacy, the visually impressive sequel to Disney’s cult gaming-themed film from the ’80s. But before you ask me what Daft Punk has to do with anime…well, what some otaku might not know is that ten years ago, they had just released an impressive project. When Thomas and Guy-Manuel were young, they were both huge fans of Captain Harlock, an old-school space opera created by Leiji Matsumoto, one of anime’s finest directors. Soon after they recorded Discovery, the duo approached their childhood hero with their brilliant concept.
To Daft Punk’s surprise, and to fans’ delight, Matsumoto became the band’s visual director, putting out anime-themed music videos for the album’s first four tracks. This would set the stage for the rest of Interstella 5555, giving it an episodic feel, with a (99%) dialogue-less production that makes viewers focus on the impressive fusion of Daft Punk’s music and Matsumoto’s visuals. But this “Animated House Musical” is far from a Fantasia wannabe, as it tells a simple yet compelling space tale that just so happens to also be critical towards the entertainment industry. One might ask “Say what?” The film’s full title, “The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem,” refers not only to the galaxy it’s implied to be set in, but also to the “star system” owned by music and film producers, where promising talent is searched for and exploited like no tomorrow. It’s a ballsy critique, especially coming from a group that has been signed to two of the world’s largest record labels (Virgin at the time, and Columbia now), but I digress. Let’s take this journey through Discovery.
Interstella 5555 begins with a short but sweet title sequence, where the titles are intercut with footage from an interview with Matsumoto. He states that musicians are like magicians, and that he’s had dreams of lights flashing in his head since childhood. After the only lines of spoken dialogue are said, we’re thrust into a psychedelic galaxy as the opening notes to “One More Time” play. The blue-skinned inhabitants dance like crazy to this song, played by a four-piece rock band that has apparently garnered fame, well, around the world.
All is not meant to be, however, when ominous masked figures infiltrate the party with tear gas and kidnap three of the band’s four members, leaving the guitarist behind. The resulting chase, set to the fast-paced “Aerodynamic,” is quite a thrill, but unfortunately, the bad guys win out—or so it seems. The guards of the galaxy send a distress signal to Shep, the captain of a ship shaped like a freakin’ Flying V. As he sings part of “Digital Love” and frolics in space, he dreams about the band’s only female member. But he snaps out of his dream and ends up following the ship carrying the band to Earth, finally crash-landing in a field, from where he will return.
As for the band members, they’re run through a machine that strips them of their alien garb, wipes their memories and replaces them with humanized ones, dyes their skin and hair to remove any trace of blue and gives them special sunglasses that are embedded into their heads—by way of a small mind control device. Naturally, this is the segment set to the ubiquitous “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” and it really puts the mantra of “work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger” forth. But at what cost?
Worldwide domination. Enter the band’s (kidnapper) manager, Earl de Darkwood, who bears a striking resemblance to Phoenix Wright’s nemesis Manfred von Karma—give or take 50 pounds. You’ll want to keep your eyes on him. In a montage set to the fast-paced “Crescendolls,” his new, joyless humanoid band of the same name blows up the charts, and Shep realizes during the somber “Nightvision” that this is happening to his true love. Oh, and we also get the other characters’ names for the first time: Stella is the girl who plays bass and looks like Emeraldas, sans the scar. Baryl is the geeky-cool drummer. Octave is the keyboardist and lead singer with a cool little afro. Arpegius is the headstrong guitarist who tried to escape. That’s pretty much it.
In “Superheroes,” Shep crashes and brings along a device that looks like a Men In Black Neuralyzer, which breaks everyone free from their glasses. That is, except for Stella, who gets thrust under Darkwood’s wing once again. She picks up a card with a mysterious address on it, and accompanies Darkwood to the Gold Record Awards show. And before you know it, you get a cool Daft Punk cameo during the Golden Record Awards, with Thomas expressing his happiness for the announcement of a winner with the word “GREAT” on his helmet’s LED, but Guy-Manuel showing his ambivalence towards the Crescendolls’ win with a cute little broken heart. It’s still ironic that Daft Punk would make themselves lose, but hey, whatever keeps the plot going forth. Equally shocking, on the other hand, is Baryl’s stealthy rescue of Stella, and they return to find Shep—her biggest fan—critically wounded.
The resulting dream sequence and dance, set to “Something About Us,” is one of the most powerfully moving things ever to hit animation. Manly tears could easily be shed when we see Shep and Stella dancing through roses (this IS a Leiji Matsumoto anime, after all), and every band member shedding some tears at Shep’s death. They drive his body up to a large hill and bury it near a life-giving tree during the song “Voyager,” and we end up seeing his soul ascend to the heavens. As the group drives on, Stella notices that a sign in the distance says “Darkwood Manor,” which just so happens to be the same address that she saw on that card she picked up earlier. With little else to do, the group decides to uncover the truth about Earl de Darkwood.
“Veridis Quo,” an organ-based house track, is perfectly matched to the creepy Darkwood Manor and its contents, including a book of the same that the characters find. The title is a riff on the infamous Latin term “Quo vadis,” which literally means “To what purpose?” As such, by picking up this mystical tome, the band members learn that Darkwood really is an evil genius. Not only has he been around forever, but every musical prodigy in the universe was actually an alien brainwashed by Darkwood in the same manner every time, and subsequently sacrificed. His 5ecret 5tar 5ystem has been gaining him tons of Gold Record Awards, but he needs 5,555 of them to take over the world, and The Crescendolls’ record just so happens to be the last. Earl finds the band members and takes Stella to sacrifice, but the three others end up killing him instead after they throw the Gold Record into the fiery abyss below.
But it’s not over yet. The band also learns, through the Veridis Quo, that their true identities are stored on memory disks, and Octave runs into the record company’s offices in order to retrieve them. The guards, mistaking him for an armed robber while taking a page he ripped from the Veridis Quo out of his shirt, give him a “Short Circuit” of electricity from a taser. This makes him drop the disks and gets rid of the dye in his skin and hair, making him turn back into the blue alien he once was. This prompts a media frenzy unlike any other: Darkwood’s origins are questioned, and the record label head, horrified by the news, leads an effort to return the Crescendolls to their home planet, set to “Face to Face.”
Then we get to the finale “Too Long,” which lasts for a good and glorious ten minutes on the album. A similarly epic conclusion unfolds, where the group is attacked by Earl de Darkwood’s soul, which has come back to life. But Shep’s soul does as well, effectively ridding the world of that pesky, controlling menace. The Crescendolls return to their home planet, but still have fame on Earth, and on their home planet, the group erects a statue of Shep, honoring him for his good work and sacrifice. In the end, however, we’re suddenly back to Earth, where a young kid who seems to be a huge fan of all things Crescendolls and Daft Punk is fast asleep. Yep, we’re treated to an adorable version of the typical “it was all a dream” ending, but that’s just Daft Punk’s style.
Even so, it’s hard to believe that this fantastic and epic story was told with almost no sound besides music. In a world where, previously, some of the best musical collaborations in anime included an appearance by the band Loudness in the space “epic” Odin, Interstella 5555 was—and still is—the deepest breath of fresh air imaginable. Toei’s bright and vivid animation definitely hearkens back to the action-packed world of Harlock, and is in flawless sync with Daft Punk’s amazing compositions. Even ten years after its original release, there has been nothing in the world of anime quite like Interstella 5555. The story of The Crescendolls has a rewatchability almost as infinite as space, and non-Daft Punk fans, too, might find something to appreciate. You’d be hard-pressed to find another anime film that merges music and visuals this well.
Interstella 5555 was released on DVD and Blu-ray by Virgin Records, a member of The EMI Group. There is no dialogue in the film, except for a brief bit in Japanese, as well as English lyrics in the following songs: “One More Time,” “Digital Love,” “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” “Something About Us,” “Face To Face” and “Too Long.” The film is not rated, and is suitable for all ages, but contains some mild scenes of sci-fi violence and a brief (but very tastefully done) scene of nudity.
animeDaft PunkDiscoveryinterstella 5555Interstella: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystemLeiji MatsumotoToei Animation