In about a week, I’ll be heading down to Bushnell, Illinois to participate in the 2007 Flickerings program. This year’s theme is “J-Pop!,” and I’ll be giving the opening lecture on the topic “Introduction to Otaku Culture: J-Pop for Beginners.” Which besides just being a really cool topic, has also given me an excuse to watch lots of animé… er… do lots of research.
One delightful piece of animation that I’ve become quite enamored with is the opening sequence to “Daicon IV” a sci-fi convention held in 1983, in Osaka, Japan. I first read about the sequence in Little Boy: The Arts Of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, a collection of essays about Japanese pop culture edited by noted artist Takashi Murakami, and was finally able to watch it thanks to the magic of YouTube.
Created by Daicon Film, a group of animators who would later change their name to Gainax (Cutie Honey, His and Her Circumstances, and of course, Neon Genesis Evangelion), the sequence depicts a young woman in a Playboy bunny-esque outfit — who originally appeared as a child in the “Daicon III” opening sequence — battling all manner of robots, monsters, and aliens to the sounds of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Twilight.”
The first thing you notice about the short is the quality of the animation, which is just superb. Especially when you consider that it was done in the early 80s, long before CGI was a possibility. There’s a richness and energy to “traditional” animation that CGI, for all of its benefits, just can’t quite match, and “Daicon IV” is proof of that.
The second thing you notice is the sheer amount of pop culture referencing that takes place within the short. Although “Daicon IV” is just over four minutes long, countless pop culture references are crammed into nearly every frame. As such, the sequence is something of an otaku fever dream, in which the animators — themselves otaku — both cheekily poke fun at and reverently pay homage to countless icons.
The heroine engages Darth Vader in a lightsaber duel and survives an attack by the creature from Alien. She surfs through the sky on Stormbringer, the infamous sword from Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga. Meanwhile, Valkryie fighters from Macross, the Millennium Falcon, Yoda and the Star Wars robots, the Space Battleship Yamato, Aslan, and comic book superheroes including Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man appear behind her in dense collages. And that’s just scratching the surface.
As the various pop culture icons begin duking it out, the sequence culminates in a gigantic explosion of cherry blossoms that strips away all of the cities from the Earth, reducing it to rubble. And in the final scene, the giant spaceship on which the girl arrived (and which looks like a giant radish — a play on the word “daikon”) unleashes a powerful energy beam that transforms the planet into a paradise where the former combatants now live in peace.
Altogether, it’s an audacious sequence. For one thing, it subverts the apocalyptic, mushroom cloud imagery that pervades much of Japanese society (due to its experiences in World War II). As Murakami writes in Little Boy:
In the final sequence… the theme of “destruction and regeneration” is imaginatively reinterpreted. The energetic flight through the sky… is followed by the explosion of what could only be described as an atomic bomb, which destroys everything. In a pink-hued blast, petals of cherry blossoms — Japan’s national flower — spread over the city, which is then burned to ashes, as trees die on the mountains and the earth is turned into a barren landscape. When the spaceship DAICON, a symbol for otaku floating in the sky, launches a powerful “otaku” beam, the earth is covered with green, as giant trees sprout instantly from the ground. The world is revived, becoming a place of life where people joyously gather together.
Finding something liberating in the devastating power of destruction, the DAICON animators announced their revolution in pictorial form, paying little heed to the conventions of political correctness that surround the atomic bombings in Japan.
Second, there’s an exhilirating feel to the entire sequence. As someone who has always been something of sci-fi/comic book/animé/superhero geek, the sheer amount of fantasy indulgence is thrilling — no matter how many times I watch it. It’s like watching everything you ever deemed to be cool crammed into four minutes and paraded about in all of its glory.
And finally, while sci-fi/comic book/animé/superhero geeks such as myself have often suffered derision for our seemingly childish interests, the Daicon IV sequences seems to posit that, on the contrary, those same interests might just somehow save the world. Which, of course, is a pop culture reference in and of itself (just think of how many movies, animé series, and comic books involve a nebbish character suddenly swept up in a grand adventure, becoming a hero, saving the world, getting the girl, etc.).