The two Daicon shorts, Daicon III and Daicon IV, are still today considered to be emblematic monuments of otaku culture. A large part of this reputation comes from the fame of its creators, the ones who would go on to create studio Gainax, but also from the array of references they present and the joy they convey. However, almost 40 years after their creation, it seems that some of their meaning and impact has been forgotten. Indeed, while they are rightly understood as the love letters to otaku culture that they are, I don’t think many fans realize that they are much more than that: they are also the signs of a general shift in otaku culture. And this is what I’d like to chronicle here.
Dedicated fans, from Japan or elsewhere, have been working hard to identify as many references as possible. This is a noble endeavour, but not the one I’m going to do here. What I’d like to do is to put the two shorts back in their historical context, that is the early 1980’s, and show why they mattered in this specific moment in space and time. Therefore, this article is going to be as much an analysis of Daicon as a contribution to the history of otaku. I’m going to show that the shorts indicate a triple shift in otaku culture that happened in the early 80’s, and that would go on to become key characteristics of it for the decades to come: a geographical shift, a cultural shift, and a political shift.
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Geography, or a short history of Japanese conventions
The first thing to note when discussing Daicon is what the two shorts actually are: that is, opening movies for conventions. The convention in question was the Japan SF Convention (日本SF大会), a yearly event that had started in 1962. Most of the conventions happened in Tôkyô, but each instance had a different name based on the city where it happened: the Tôkyô venues were nicknamed TOKON, the ones in Nagoya MEICON, MIYACON for Kyôtô, and DAICON for Osaka. Except for Tôkyô, the first syllable of each name was based on a different reading of the first kanji of each city’s name: Osaka’s “ô” (大) was read “dai” and the “con” from convention was added. Since it so happens that the “daikon” is also a Japanese vegetable, this explains its prominent role in both shorts.
Although the SF conventions happened all over the country, the core was obviously Tôkyô, the capital of Japan. This is important, because the division between Kanto (Tôkyô’s region) and Kansai (Kyoto and Osaka’s region) has always been important in Japanese history and, for our purposes, in the history of manga and anime. Indeed, the first major Japanese animation studio, Tôei Animation, was established in Tôkyô, which then became the core of the anime industry. The one considered to be the “god of manga” and pioneer of TV animation, Osamu Tezuka, was initially from Osaka, but he moved to Tôkyô to create his manga and establish his own studio, Mushi Production.
Because all the manga publishers and anime studios were there, Tôkyô quickly became the center of the nascent otaku culture in the 70’s – although it was not yet called that. In 1975, the first Comic Market, the biggest market of dôjinshi, was held in the capital and it wouldn’t ever move. Similarly, in 1981, it was in front of Shinjuku Station, one of Tôkyô’s major crossroads, that Yoshiyuki Tomino held his seminal “proclamation of the new century of animation” (anime shinseiki sengen).
But Daicon, as the name indicates, happened in Osaka, not Tôkyô. And all of those who produced the movie were from Osaka too. The divide between the two towns translated in various ways, such as one between universities: it was from Tôkyô’s Meiji University that the creators of the Comiket came from, and it is reportedly from Tôkyô’s Keiô University that the word “otaku” was first used to refer to anime fans [Aida, 2015, p.119]. On the other hands, all of Daicon’s creators came from Osaka University. Future Gainax creator Yasuhiro Takeda insists on the Tôkyô/Osaka gap, and explains that he and his band hosted Daicon III in part to spite Tôkyô fans:
First off, we didn’t have the purest of motivations for hosting the event. We didn’t like Tôkyô fans, didn’t like the Fan Group Association, and we sure as hell weren’t going to stand for defeat at the hands of a bunch of Tokyoites. These die-hard fans all seemed to brag about the advantages of living in Tôkyô, like how close they were to writers, publishers and other industry types. But what really got our goats was how no matter what we said, they’d turn it around and start lecturing us. We just couldn’t stand their “Sure I know that—I know everything!” attitudes. It seemed like almost every Tôkyô fan we bumped into thought he was better than everyone else, and wouldn’t stop running his mouth until he’d made himself the king of the molehill.
Having opening movies for conventions was relatively normal practice at the time (see, for example, the 1984 Ezocon opening animation), but the Daicon team must have felt like they had defeated their Tôkyô counterparts when they were complimented by Osamu Tezuka himself for Daicon III and were scouted by staff from Studio Nue [Takeda, 2002, p.61]. In the same vein, it was something of a minor symbolic victory when, for Daicon IV, Hideaki Anno brought in animators from the capital, most notably his teacher Ichirô Itano, a rising star of animation at the time.
When they created the shorts, the team hadn’t yet established Gainax: at the time, they were still Daicon Film. And this is important, because the name carried in itself the convention origin, and therefore Osaka. Daicon Film was, in itself, the sign of an amateur, grassroot organization based in Osaka, whereas Gainax, with its more impersonal name, was the symbol of a more professional company, this time based in Tôkyô.
The fact that the Daicon shorts were made in Osaka was therefore the sign of a first shift, although a rather predictable one: the fact that the general SF fandom expanded far beyond the capital. It was a nation-wide phenomenon, and fans from the rest of the country wanted to show that they had as much, if not more, skill than their Tokyoites counterparts.
Culture, or shôjo versus science-fiction
Besides wanting to spite the Tokyo-based association, the fact that Daicon Film made their films for Daicon, that is for the SF convention, is also very interesting, as it speaks to another, far more important, divide: the one between shôjo and science-fiction fans.
To understand it, it’s necessary to come back to the Comiket and its origins. It all started in 1975, when a dôjin creator who applied to participate in the Japan SF Convention was rejected and subsequently criticized the convention’s management. Because of that incident, members of the dôjin circle Labyrinth created their own event, the Comiket. From the start, there was a gap between the SF Convention and the Comiket, and it came from two elements: the dôjin writer at the source of the incident was a woman, and the main audience of the Comiket were shôjo fans – that is, people who liked manga aimed at young women.
In his seminal study of otaku culture, Patrick Galbraith  argues that one of the main origins of otaku were male shôjo fans in the mid and late 70’s. Here is what he has to say about the first instances of the Comiket:
When the second Comic Market was held in 1976, the event was still primarily attended by young women drawn to groups focusing on shôjo manga, for example, Hagio fan clubs [from Moto Hagio, one of the first major shôjo manga artists of the 70’s]. […] There was also a special exhibition of works by Okada Fumiko, a female artist whose unique style had been featured in COM magazine [a pioneering manga magazine that had just shut down at the time]. As late as 1979, […] Labyrinth’s fanzine was dedicated to shôjo manga. It was, after all, their genre, what moved them, brought and held them together.
All this being said, let’s look at Daicon IV. It’s easy to be in awe before the huge array of references brought up. But there’s one thing that’s missing: shôjo manga. Indeed, if you look closely, even if most of the characters referenced come from all around the world, they’re mostly from pop culture (such as The Muppets or US superhero comics), fantasy (probable Narnia references) and science fiction (Star Wars, tokusatsu and mecha anime). The closest to shôjo characters you have are a brief apparition of Lum from Urusei Yatsura, and more noticeable ones of Nausicaä from Miyazaki’s eponymous movie and Linn Minmay from Macross. Neither of these is properly from a shôjo manga: they’re all from science-fiction stories aimed at a male audience. And there’s no way this is just an oversight: at least Hideaki Anno is known to be a shôjo manga fan.
It might be tempting to draw a parallel between the fanzine creators of the Comiket and the amateur animations of the Daicon shorts. Although both take their origin in the same kind of grassroot structures, the actual content behind these structures was very different. The members of Daicon Film were science fiction fans first and foremost, and that’s what they wanted to emphasize. Their shorts completely ignored, and made invisible, the contribution of shôjo fans to their own side of the fandom. This is very significant: they wanted to be associated with the male-oriented genre of science-fiction, rather than the girlish shôjo manga. Associating themselves with the latter would have made them look like “failed men”, one of the most enduring negative images of otakus.
It’s also possible to go further than this, because the shôjo heritage is clearly visible in at least one aspect: the main character of both shorts, the Daicon girl. In both shorts, she illustrates a major female character archetype: the lolita in Daicon III, and the bishôjo in Daicon IV. In that, the two shorts are very significant of the “lolicon boom” that was going on in the early 80’s, in which male fans grew increasingly attracted to anime and manga characters, including prepubescent ones.
According to Galbraith , the lolicon boom largely grew out of the male shôjo fans audience, with its most prominent member being mangaka Hideo Azuma (whose characters appear in Daicon III and IV). The fact that the shorts included references to Azuma but not to shôjo further demonstrates the invisibilization of the latter: the way they represented female characters owed more to the male, sexually charged lolicon movement rather than to women’s comics.
Politics, or otakus and capitalism
That’s it for what you might call the gender politics and dynamics of the burgeoning otaku movement between 1975 and 1983. But there’s also more than that, as the Daicon shorts, and the works of Daicon Film more generally, make a very interesting use of political imagery and thus need to be read through the lens of otaku’s relationships with political ideologies.
Here, too, it is necessary to go back in time, as far back as the 60’s. At the end of the decade, following social upheaval and most notably the protests against the Security Treaty between Japan and the US as well as the Vietnam War, leftist zenkyôtô movements started getting more radical and violent. This was not without consequences for the anime industry: Tôei studio knew a wave of strikes and syndicalist activity throughout the 60’s, but the most notable figures were the two creators of Mobile Suit Gundam, one of the most important science-fiction anime of the pre-Daicon era. In university, Yoshiyuki Tomino was the underclassman of one of the leaders of the United Red Army, one of the most radical leftist groups of the early 70’s, while Yoshikazu Yasuhiko was expelled from his own university because of his involvement in student activism [Otsuka, 2015, p.xvi].
The same could be said of manga in the 70’s. Julien Bouvard has retraced the career of pornographic or erotic artists that started out in this decade and shown that they had been involved in leftist movements. Writing pornography and breaking society’s taboos about sexuality could then be read as resistance against a moral and oppressive order. But the most interesting for the purposes of this essay is the analysis he gives of the origins of the Comiket. He demonstrates that the collectivist and anti-commercial rhetoric used by the founders of the Comiket is close to that of the zenkyôtô movements:
It is therefore in very political terms that this group of manga fans that would later create the Comiket was formed. Here, we can note the references to the student movements that would make the link between manga fans and a taste for politics and revolution. In the same way, the core of the event is an act of resistance against the world of professionals: it follows from the need of independence expressed by the fans.
It’s in such a context that we must understand the work of Daicon Film, and most importantly one of the live-action movies they produced between the two Daicon shorts, the super sentai parody Aikoku Sentai Dainippon. The title is already suspicious, as Dainippon was one of the ways Japan was referred to during the imperialist era. But the movie also included many parodies of leftist figures for its antagonists, such as Desumarukusu, which could be understood both as “Death Mask” or “Death Marx” and Kasutoro Maô, a mix-up of Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong. [Bouvard, 2017, p.75]
The movie caused a strong polemic among Japanese science-fiction fans. In his recounting of the events, Takeda plays it down a bit and blames it on the jealousy of older generations of fans, but he does mention some of the grievances:
On the whole, it was well received, but one sector of the fan community denounced the film, complaining of “antisocial” and even “right-wing” story elements. What an idiotic thing to say. It was just the kind of half-witted argument sci-fi fans love to toss around. Seriously, the whole point of our film was simply to make you laugh, and crack jokes about what fools we were making of ourselves onscreen. If you gave it half a second’s thought (if you even had to think about it at all) you’d realize that Dainippon certainly wasn’t trying to foist any kind of nationalistic ideology off on the audience—we were just having fun. I guess that concept was lost on some of the more marble-headed members of the sci-fi community.
Although the Daicon shorts were nowhere near as polemical, they did include some ideologically meaningful imagery. I am especially referring to the end of Daicon IV, when the daikon spaceship shoots its beam and Earth’s nature is suddenly rejuvenated. This sudden ecological/cosmological transformation is very reminiscent of Space Battleship Yamato, in which the objective of the protagonists is to revive planet Earth, which has been destroyed by nuclear bombings. In that perspective, it must be understood that the “plot” of both Daicon shorts is no more than a retelling of Yamato: a heroic figure encounters aliens that offer to give them a device to save Earth, but they must first defeat various enemies to reach their goal.
Although it does end up delivering a pacifistic message, the Yamato series has always been politically very ambiguous. Its opening theme has become a classic of the Japanese right-wing catalogue, and multiple entries in the series use a rhetoric similar in its structure to that of the militaristic uprisings that Japan had to face in the 1930’s and that led it further down the road to imperialism. Most importantly, Yamato tells the tale of the rebirth of Japan, and Daicon IV especially can be understood in that light, especially since it uses the traditional image of the cherry blossom.
Does that mean, however, that the members of Daicon film were dangerous right-wing nationalists? They surely were conservative, and it’s worth studying in further detail the links between the works of Toshio Okada and Hideaki Anno and Japanese conservatism. But here, it’s interesting to see the way in which Takeda framed Aikoku Sentai Dainippon in the quote I cited. He tries to explain that what he and his friends were doing was just a game, that they had no bad intentions and were just making fun of their overly serious seniors.
Basically, what Takeda’s explanation shows is that the new generation of otaku that was emerging in the 1980’s was considering itself as distanced from politics. For them, political symbols weren’t serious, but there to be played with and made fun of. In that, they anticipate the wider change that would hit the Japanese youth in the 80’s: with the country reaching unprecedented levels of economic prosperity, a part of the population felt that they didn’t have to get involved in politics since economy was enough to make them so rich.
In other words, what the Daicon shorts illustrate is a new position of otakus towards society, and capitalism. Both science-fiction fans and dôjin creators were at least partly anti-capitalism and anti-war. But the Daicon generation started to think that capitalism wasn’t so bad, since it gave them the money and opportunities to revel in their fan activities. Beyond Daicon, the best illustration of this change is the Macross series, especially the movie Do You Remember Love? in which the late-capitalist, consumerist megalopolis is framed as a modern paradise.
The Daicon shorts are often presented as “love letters to otaku culture”. This is a valid description, but it is also a limited one. Indeed, they do not take for object otaku culture as a whole – if that ever existed – but a certain kind of otaku-related tastes and practices. Their focus is on science fiction and fantasy, and the most notable fan activity they directly show is cosplaying; but by doing this, they overshadow manga, and especially shôjo fandom and dôjin production. This is but the most obvious example, but I have also shown how many power struggles are at play, between an older, Tokyo-centered and leftist generation, and a younger, playful team from Osaka. Keeping all this in mind is important, not just because it highlights a new dimension of the Daicon shorts: it also sheds light on the entire following history of Gainax and the legend that surrounds it. Indeed, the members of Gainax have framed themselves as the quintessential otaku, and many have simply believed this narrative. But otaku culture has always been a diverse field crossed by many different kinds of people, tastes, and conflicts. Daicon is but one of the places where such differences are the most significant.
Aida, M. (2015). “The Construction of Discourses on Otaku: The History of Subcultures from 1983 to 2005”. In Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan, P. Galbraith, T. Huat Kam and B.-O. Kamm (ed.), 2015, Bloomsbury.
Bouvard, J., 2017 “Les Fantômes des Mouvements Zenkyôtô dans la Culture Otaku” [Ghosts of Zenkyôtô Movements in Otaku Culture]. Japon Pluriel, vol. 11, pp. 69-80. Available here: https://www.academia.edu/35823737/Les_fant%C3%B4mes_des_mouvements_zenky%C3%B4t%C3%B4_dans_la_culture_otaku
Galbraith, P. (2019). Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan. Duke University Press.
Otsuka, E. (2015). “Foreword: Otaku Culture as ‘Conversion Literature'”. In Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan, P. Galbraith, T. Huat Kam and B.-O. Kamm (ed.), 2015, Bloomsbury.
Takeda, Y. (2002). The Notenki Memoirs. ADV Manga.
Watzky, M. (2019). Militarism and Otaku Identity: from Gundam to Macross. Available here: https://animetudes.wordpress.com/2020/03/19/militarism-and-otaku-identity-from-gundam-to-macross/
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