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.

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