February 23rd 2021 will go down forever as a historic day in Music history. After 28 years of working together, and 8 years after their last album release, the electronic duo Daft Punk uploaded a video to their youtube channel entitled “Epilogue”, a 7 minute short film revealing the retirement of the duo and the end of their legendary career. Now there is a chance that you’re reading this and wondering why I’m talking about a music group in a column about animation. Well, early on during the recording sessions of Daft Punk’s album Discovery, the duo came up with the idea of an anime-inspired film that would use the album as the soundtrack. Eventually the duo sought help from Leiji Matsumoto, to produce what would eventually become Interstella 5555.
Now if you don’t recognise the name Leiji Matsumoto, I’m hoping you recognise the term “space opera”. Often used in the West to describe things like Star Wars, in the world of anime the term is synonymous with shows like Legend of the Galactic Heroes and Mobile Suit Gundam, but lying behind these bigger names you’ll often hear about shows like Space Battleship Yamato and Galaxy Express 999 serving as the influence for many modern-day creators. As you may have guessed, these later two are two of the most well-known works (alongside Space Pirate Captain Harlock something that Daft Punk have explicitly stated was an influence on the duo during their childhood), but if the point still isn’t clear…..it was a pretty big deal that he agreed to supervise the production of the film.
So alongside the legendary Matsumoto, Kazuhisa Takenouchi was brought on board to direct. Now I expect that Takenouchi is a significantly less well known name for many people but for the Dragonball fans out there they may recognise him as the director of the third Dragonball movie (don’t worry I will absolutely be covering the highs and lows of the Dragonball movie franchise on this site eventually), but he has also served as episode director and storyboarder for shows ranging from Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, Inuyasha all the way to Yuri on Ice. So while not on the level of Miyazaki, Takenouchi is still a prolific and talented director within the industry. Needless to say the production was stacked from the outset, and when you throw in Daft Punk’s best studio album (fight me) into the mix, it’s no surprise the results are pure cinematic gold.
The film’s narrative is pretty straightforward, an alien rock band is kidnapped by an evil businessman who brainwashes and alters the band’s physical appearance and memories to make them appear human before selling them off to a record label on earth. But a Space Pilot, who is deeply in love with the band’s lead singer, hears about the kidnapping and follows the businessman to Earth in an attempt to rescue the band. Now this is all pretty standard and barebones for a space opera, ticking all the major boxes without concerning itself with any deeper exploration, but while this sounds like a criticism it isn’t. The depth of this film doesn’t come through the world or politics of the space opera, but rather by focusing on the band being exploited because of their musical ability the simple space opera plot serves as a scathing critique for the real-world music industry. Ideas like the prevalent whitewashing of the music industry are explored through the sequence in which the band have their physical appearance and memories (which can be seen as a stand-in for cultural memories, i.e. the roots of where music comes from) digitally altered into human memories. It should be noted that one of the band members is Black in their human form, but despite this I still think a very clear point is being made in this scene and I wonder if the term white-washing was prevalent back in 2003 whether this same decision would be made and I believe the conclusion offered is the same despite this. Similarly the most obvious metaphor that the film offers is the fact that the band are enslaved and sold into a record contract, which is a very clear criticism of the exploitative nature of artist contracts, something that has been a source of controversy in the industry for years. But this blend of traditional space opera themes and concepts with these strong criticisms of the music industry really shows how the filmmakers worked hard around the limitations of their production. Without the use of dialogue or any room to explore the politics and nature of the universe, they still manage to add a whole extra layer to the plot by mirroring the struggles of their characters with the real-life struggles many artists face in their profession. But despite these criticisms the film is also very optimistic in it’s assessment of the music industry, with the record label executive helping out the alien band once he discovers their true nature, and the eventual partnership Earth and the Alien planet create due to their shared love of the band’s music all present a hopeful and optimistic image of the music industry’s future.
But where does Daft Punk come into this? Well as mentioned before, the film contains no dialogue and the duo’s album Discovery plays over the entire film, with each sequence being dedicated to a song from the album. The bouncy dance song ‘One More Time’ is the fictional band’s breakout hit that alerts the evil businessman of their profitability, ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ a very electronic and almost mechanical song plays over the memory-wiping and body-altering procedure the alien’s go through, ‘Digital Love’ a song about someone’s adoration with someone they cannot be with sets up the Space Pilot’s infatuation with the alien band’s singer, and ‘Something About Us’ serving as the emotional climax for the film when the Space Pilot finally meets with his love for the first, and last, time. By themselves, these songs along with the rest of the album, are all great songs, the whole album is fantastic and a great listen by itself, but when you take the abstract lyrics of ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ and present it over the image of the mechanical destruction of these character’s personalities and lives the words and production take new meaning. The fun, bouncy nature of the track becomes eerie as the robotic melodies almost come from the machines stripping away the lives of the aliens. One choice that I thought was really interesting was the use of the instrumental tracks over the montage sequences, as the band members are playing ‘One More Time’ around the globe, instead of offering a reprise of the song these instrumental tracks serve as a distortion, there’s no fun, no joy, no pleasure like we get in ‘One More Time’ but these devolving electronic tracks that highlight the degradation of the character’s mindset.
Daft Punk have been ever-present in my life, they were one of the first bands I found out about when I started using the internet (due to that viral video where the guy performs ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ with the lyrics written on his hand) and have been listening to their work ever since. In fact for many years I wasn’t even aware of Interstella 5555’s existence and just thought the music videos for many of the songs were individual and stand-alone concepts. But ever since finding the film and watching it years ago it’s been a constant source of comfort for me. At 65 minutes long it’s perfect to put on whenever, and with the combination of the beautiful animation and the stellar work by Daft Punk on the album I always find myself returning to this film whenever I want to experience the album again.
Going back to their retirement, Daft Punk have always been a very conceptual band, from their signature style to their body of work, and nothing serves as a greater example of this than Interstella 5555. A bold, beautiful and unique piece of work from one of the greatest bands of all time in conjunction with one of the world’s best animation studio’s of all time. Personally, there was no better way to salute the band that brought me so much joy over the years than watching this film. And finally I want to end this column with a simple message to Daft Punk: Thank you.