Procrastination Destination: Anime Music Videos

I took this as a sign that, during finals week, I was meant to write 1200 words on weird musical anime videos.

I took this as a sign that, during finals week, I was meant to write 1200 words on weird musical anime videos.

Part of the beauty of the internet (for all its ugly features) is how its many oddities and curiosities can exist online and nowhere else, only venturing outside into the real world once they’ve been shared as a meme enough times. But what might be considered just a weird cyber trend in some circles may be a huge cultural phenomenon in others. Take Japanese game shows, for instance. Or, another transplant from Japan: anime music videos.

Oh, so like Gorillaz? Or that Daft Punk movie? Not exactly. Often referred to as AMVs, these videos that can be found all over YouTube are not “official” by any means. They aren’t made or commissioned by Japanese animation studios, nor are they promotional videos for the songs/artists featured in them. By their definition, AMVs are 100% fan-made. And yet, for some, they’ve ascended to the status of high art.

It’s not difficult to see why. Even if you’ve never watched a single episode of anime in your life, you can get sucked into watching an AMV like the one above for its upbeat music, perfectly-timed editing, and sense of humor. (Full disclosure: I can count the number of anime series I’ve watched on one hand, which gives me little authority on the medium itself, but does mean I know some most all of this song by heart.)

AMVs have a surprisingly rich history that transformed them from a dorky fan hobby into…well, still a dorky fan hobby, but one that now gets screened at international contests with thousands in attendance. The video format had humble beginnings in the basement of one Jim Kaposztas, a 21-year-old American college student. In 1982, just as anime was beginning to gain a following in the States (mainly through home video distribution and a genre boom that rode off the cultural success of Star Wars), Kaposztas got the bright idea to combine violent scenes from the series Star Blazers with “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles. He hooked up two VCRs together, played the gruesome scenes and the cheery tune at the same time, and just like that, the first anime music video was born.

(Unfortunately, I couldn’t track down Kaposztas’ original creation online, but you can watch an interview with him here.)

Interest in AMVs grew and evolved as video editing entered the digital era; software such as Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere made it easy for anyone to create their own mash-up of anime clips and pop songs. And yes, most AMVs are set to popular music (either Top 40 or EDM tracks) or soundtracks to musical films like Disney – you won’t find a lot of these videos set to John Cage pieces, although I dare anyone to give it a shot and send me the results. Notoriously, there was a period in the mid-aughts when newbie AMV makers started mashing together their favorite Dragonball Z or Sailor Moon clips with songs from Evanescence and Linkin Park, producing hilarious results. Luckily, those days are (mostly) over.

Although the format is certainly well-known in Japan (various anime conventions in Tokyo host AMV contests), AMVs began and developed in the United States and remain especially popular here. At Anime Expo, the largest anime convention in North America with well over 100,000 attendees every year, thousands of fans line up to watch the finalists for the AMV Contest screened in one of the convention’s largest halls. Next to cosplay contests, it’s easily the most attended event of the weekend.

Another kind of AMV contest is the “Iron Editor,” held at conventions across the country. Also know as “Iron Chef Weeb Edition,” two or more editors compete with each other in real time, whipping up a video in a matter of hours based on a theme or set of clips given to them at the beginning of the competition. As you can probably imagine, AMV creators take this shit very seriously.

So why are AMVs so popular here in the States? John Oppliger, columnist of the fan site AnimeNation, has a pretty good theory behind it:

“If I had to guess, I would say that the popularity of fan produced anime music videos among Western fandom has to do with the visual language of anime in both a reductive and a holistic sense. To the best of my knowledge, Japanese fans generally do not produce anime music videos. Instead, they prioritize creating original animation, or much more commonly, doujinshi. Furthermore, westerners generally don’t produce all that many music videos based on live action films. There may be Star Wars and Matrix and Buffy music videos, but relatively not that many of them.

I suspect that part of the explanation for this imbalance lies in the fact that, especially for Western viewers, anime is a more purely visual medium than films like Star Wars or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Cinema in our native language tends to engage our cognitive intellect and our visual input equally. The same applies to Japanese fans watching Japanese animation. But for Western viewers watching anime, especially in Japanese language, the visuals make a greater impact on our senses because we don’t understand the spoken language or story with the same understanding that we grasp the visuals with. In other words, for a native English speaker, English language film seems to be equally visuals and story. With foreign language anime, especially because of its brighter and more primary coloring than real life, unconsciously we emphasize visuals alone, so we feel a stronger attraction toward just the visuals and the emotional impact of the visual aspects of anime.” (You can read Oppliger’s full response here.)

There’s one big issue with AMVs, though, which is the legal gray area they fall under. Again, these videos are 100% fan-made, which means they’re not commissioned by Japanese animation studios nor the musicians whose work is featured in them. Luckily for AMV creators, Japanese studios are fairly permissive and even encouraging of fan-driven content that expands upon their series; not only does it pay tribute to the original anime, it may also introduce the studio to a wider audience and act as free promotion. American distributors feel very similarly, with booths for FUNimation, Crunchyroll, and other online streaming services appearing alongside established AMV editors at conventions.

Creators run into real trouble, however, when it comes to American record labels. For years YouTube has come under a lot of fire for its handling of copyright claims, and AMVs have certainly been affected by this, with many videos getting taken down without warning due to violations of fair use. But for the most part, the AMV community has largely managed to get by in spite of these issues, thanks to non-YouTube AMV libraries that have allowed for videos to continue to be shared. And, of course, public authorized screenings of AMVs ensures that they’ll continue to have an audience.

Perhaps AMVs’ greatest triumph, however, is how they’ve managed to take on a life of their own, garnering a following that’s almost an entirely separate entity from the anime fan community at large. AMVs have become an unlikely format for up-and-coming video editors to demonstrate their craft, and as more and more new editing software and digital effects get introduced, the possibilities for these sometimes-silly, sometimes-stunning videos as a form of creative expression continue to grow.

P.S. In the spirit of finals week, here’s some AMV-style motivation: