Popular Music Meets Japanese Cartoons: a history on the Evolution of Anime Music Videos


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Popular Music Meets Japanese Cartoons:

A History on the Evolution of Anime Music Videos

Dana Springall

December 13, 2004

Many Japanese phenomena have entered American culture, such as sushi bars, various car manufacturers, and of course, entertainment. Along with sumo wrestling and The Power Rangers, Japan’s animated shows are internationally popular. Called “anime” in Japanese, these shows often have much deeper and longer storylines than traditional Western animation. Although Americans tend to classify all cartoons as kids’ fare, the Japanese animation market is aimed at young and old, male and female alike. In 2003, animated films accounted for 50% of all ticket sales in Japan.1 Recent trends show that America may be heading the same direction. Many networks, such as Cartoon Network, Fox, and the Sci-Fi Channel, now host translated anime shows. Libraries are beginning to accept “manga,” the comics that anime are based on, as part of their collections.2 The Japan External Trade Organization estimated that in 2002 the anime industry in the U.S. generated an estimated $4.3 billion in gross revenue.3

As anime continues to grow popular in America, fans reach out to take part in anime directly. Hundreds of thousands of websites dedicated to various anime exist on the World Wide Web.4 “Fanfiction,” fan-written stories based on existing characters, and “fanart,” art made by fans depicting existing characters, are popular features.5 While fanfiction and fanart cover the art and storyline parts of anime, fans have also tackled the third element – animation.

“Anime music videos,” or “AMVs,” are fan creations that are often based on existing anime footage and a popular song. By editing these together, the creator can tell his or her own story. AMVs can be created in almost any genre, such as comedy, drama, horror, romantic, parody, action, character profile, and many others. The internet has provided an ideal place for creators to share their own AMVs and download AMVs made by others. The popular website www.animemusicvideos.org has over 200,000 members and over 40,000 videos available for download.6 Many anime conventions use AMV contests as a major draw for attendees. However, the amount of time and money it takes to make these videos as compared to fanfiction or fanart means a smaller amount of people take part in making them. Despite, or perhaps because of, the small number of people involved, creators and fans have formed a tight-knit community using the Internet as their means of circulation and contact.

Literature Review

Although anime is still a relatively new medium in American pop culture, there have been a few books and scholarly articles written on the subject. Many have been written by long-time fans who simply wanted something out on the market about the subject they love.7 While some are aimed at beginners, explaining the very basics and themes, others delve into deep subjects within anime, such as how relationships or certain characters are portrayed.

Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy have put together an encyclopedia of anime that documents over 2,000 anime titles from over 80 years. From the earliest animation, starting in 1917 with Mukuzo Imokawa the Doorman, to recent productions, such as Angelic Layer and Spirited Away in 2001, this book is extremely useful in locating a specific anime. Each entry contains a synopsis, production information, type of media, and general advisories.8

Antonia Levi has written one of the earliest English books on anime. She focuses mainly on the anime scene in America, which was still a new phenomenon in 1996 when her book first came out. She writes about some of the conventions and stereotypes that regularly appear in shows and how these originated. For example, anime heroes are often different from their American counterparts. In America, heroes must be brave and fighting for an honest, pure cause. However, Levi explains that “the Japanese hero is defined by motivation. The cause is not important.” Selflessness is a major trait of Japanese heroes, who value fighting for others instead of for their own personal gain. This Japanese ideal is drawn partially from the samurai, ancient Japanese warriors. Differences like this can cause some American anime viewers to scratch their heads about the reasoning of a show’s “hero,” and Levi explains these differences with multiple examples. Throughout the book, she tells the history of anime, pointing out the well-known creators and popular series. She also relates these things to the otaku, a Japanese word that literally means “house” and implies people who are so obsessed with anime that they never leave home. Americans have adopted the word as their slogan, labeling themselves with this somewhat derogatory Japanese term.9

Gilles Poitras aims his book at new anime fans. It spells out basic knowledge about anime, such as how it is released (television, film, and video) and genres (fantasy, science-fiction, sports, etc.). Poitras also gives a broad overview of the eras of anime, from modern anime’s birth in the 1960s to the growth of English-language fandom. Differences between American animation and anime are also briefly discussed, such as longer storylines and visual conventions such as large eyes or vividly colored hair. He also goes into the root of anime, manga, and the many forms it can come in, such as magazine serials, tankoban (serials collected into a graphic novel), and doujinshi (non-commercial manga published by fans), and the manga scene in the West. There are even a few chapters on “How to Be a Fan,” including how to start your own anime club, how to survive an anime convention, and what anime products you can buy.10

Apparently anime merchandise is a lucrative industry. An article by Mary Grigsby reports that in 1998, the popular show Sailormoon had a $1.5 billion merchandising franchise in Japan. Between 1996 and 1998, the show sold about $400 million worth of toys (at wholesale). Grigsby goes on to analyze why the show is so popular with girls. While on the air, the animated series had a rating of 12 percent, “high, considering the prime time competition,” according to Grigsby. She describes the basic premise of the show as a normal (blonde) Japanese schoolgirl and her friends who discover they are really the superheroine Sailormoon and the Sailor girls, who must save the world from evil villains. Grigsby says Sailormoon is a really a show driven by consumerism and uses many tactics to sell merchandise. She categorizes the character Sailormoon as a juvenile crybaby who only becomes a mature, sexy adult figure when her superheroine personality comes out. Where consumerism ties in is that “the magic that makes her [Sailormoon] a superheroine is derived externally from jewelry, make-up and prism power.” In other words, the main point of the show is to make girls want to buy make-up and jewelry to feel like their heroes. Another audience is men, who focus on the “sexy” side of the show and have developed a large pornographic market involving these short-skirted schoolgirls. The show has gained worldwide popularity through these appealing, if stereotypical, characters.11

Patrick Drazen studies common subjects in anime in depth, analyzing why they are important, how they are portrayed, and examples of them. He covers many prevalent themes, such as folklore, religion, sexual and gay themes, war, and nature. When dealing with folklore, which often is in the background of anime, Drazen discusses three folktales – “Hagoromo,” “The Peach Boy,” and “The Peacock King” – and how recent anime have re-worked these old stories. He also examines reoccurring characters such as the warrior, the teenage girl, the mother, and the pop singing idol. The second section, “Films and Directors,” features an in-depth look at specific shows or directors and their impact on society. Some of the anime Drazen deemed worthy for special consideration are Escaflowne and Neon Genesis Evangelion, along with director Hayao Miyazaki.12

Another of the recent scholarly sources is a book by Susan J. Napier documenting specific anime themes in a roughly twenty-year span. Some of the subjects scrutinized are gender identity, feminism, adolescence, and technology. For each subject, Napier takes a few anime examples and discusses how they portray the theme. With her chapter on magical girls in romantic comedies, she examines Urusei Yatsura, Oh My Goddess, and Video Girl Ai. In the sci-fi comedy series Urusei Yatsura, the female, Lum, is an energetic, aggressive, and possessive alien in love with Ataru, who is, as Napier phrases it, “perhaps the most lecherous youth on the planet.” Their relationship is full of chaos and unexpected surprises, through their own doings and the fault of others. Romantic comedy Oh My Goddess, involves Belldandy, a literal goddess and “almost a perfect dream of feminine nurturance,” and Keichi, an average college guy appreciative of Belldandy’s love. They have a picturesque relationship that is only interrupted by outside forces. The third show, Video Girl Ai, includes Ai, a spunky, sexy girl who pops out of a video tape, and Yota, a thoughtful and generous highschooler torn between his love for Ai and another character, Moemi. Ai and Yota’s relationship is complex and complicated, with neither quite sure if they should allow themselves to love the other. Each series involves a female with some sort of magical powers falling in love with a normal male, but each characterizes these stereotypes dramatically differently. Napier also takes a chapter to discuss the American otaku, how anime affects them, why they like to watch it, and what the typical fan is like, based on surveys.13

But Japanese animation may be having an effect on more than just fans. A recent controversy has been over Disney’s 1994 film The Lion King and its similarities to Osamu Tezuka’s 1965 anime series Jungle Emperor, known in America as Kimba the White Lion. 14 Many similarities are shared between the two films, although Disney insists there is no connection. In Jungle Emperor, the lion cub Leo (called Kimba in the America version) is raised by a Japanese family after his father’s death, learns about human civilization, and then returns to the jungle to lead the other jungle animals into a more civilized society. In The Lion King, the lion cub Simba is raised by a meerkat and a warthog after the death of his father and later returns to defeat his evil uncle and lead the other animals as king. Although the storylines are different, several characters and settings are similar. For example, the evil Uncle Scar in The Lion King is a dark-colored lion and has a distinctive mark on his left eye – and so does the evil lion Babu in Jungle Emperor.15 Both lion cubs have lost their fathers, whose image appears to them in clouds.16 Yasue Kuwahara notes other character similarities such as “a baboon as an old sage, a hornbill as a comical character, and hyenas as an evil force.” Also, both works are set in a rocky terrain, despite the fact that lions live in the savanna. Even the names “Kimba” and “Simba” sound alike. In Japan, Tezuka is known as “The God of Manga” and is considered the forefather of Japanese comics and animation. The Japanese people see him as one of their country’s greatest men and were upset that Disney was apparently ripping him off with no credit. Although no lawsuit was filed, it is still an interesting point to think that Japan, which has copied many American practices, is finally having the reverse effect.17

While the commercial market has only started to be affected, anime fans have been using the show’s storylines as material for their own writings for some time. Kelly Chandler-Olcott and Donna Mahar studied “fanfiction,” stories written using “media texts as the starting point for their own writing,” in a recent article. These fanfictions (fanfic for short) often expect prior knowledge of the anime show they are based on and provide little background information about characters and settings. Chandler-Olcott and Mahar focus on two middle school students at the school they teach at who write their own fanfiction as well as draw “fanart,” drawings mimicking real anime. These two students saw fanfics as an outlet for stress, a way to use their creativity, and a means to have just plain fun. The two authors encourage other teachers to support students in these creative endeavors, but to be sensitive about how personal these stories are to the students. “We worry, for example,” they write, “about the potential of classroom instruction to strip pleasure from pursuits that obviously mean a good deal to adolescents.”18

Despite the research that has been done in the field of anime and the fan functions within it, fan-made anime music videos have slipped completely under the research radar screen. Perhaps it is because of the small number of creators or the fact that technology has just recently enabled many people to get involved. Maybe the AMV movement is still too underground for most scholars to pick up on. Whatever the reasons, AMVs, specifically the history and evolution of the videos, have yet to be studied on a scholarly level, and that is what this paper aims to do.


Anime music videos have had practically nothing written about them, with the researcher finding only two mentions of them in all printed research.19 This paper examines the history and evolution of these videos, called AMVs for short. The researcher tried to trace when and why people began making AMVs, how the methods and ideas have changed over the years, and a basic history of things that impacted the field. The researcher attended the Anime Weekend Atlanta anime convention in September of 2004 and went to several panels and workshops on AMVs and anime, such as “AMV Ins and Outs” and “Ten Years of AWA AMV” and panels by creators that provided firsthand accounts of making AMVs. The information collected during the convention will furnish some raw material for this paper.

However, most of the research was done by contacting creators directly and asking them questions about the history of AMVs and how the videos have changed over time. For example, the researcher compared why different creators began to make videos and tried to discern if any of the reasons were similar. Various other questions were asked to help the researcher gather a historic background of AMVs directly from the creators themselves. One way used to contact creators was through personal e-mail. A copy of the e-mail questionnaire is attached in Appendix A. Another way was to post a questionnaire on a popular AMV message board. Because of security issues, the researcher did not put her last name or the city where she lives. A copy of the message board questionnaire is attached in Appendix B.

Another way that information was collected was by searching through AMV message boards. A message board is much like a chatroom, but it does not require an instantaneous response. One person posts a comment or question, and others read and respond at will. Some of these message boards have years of archives, and much of the information about attitudes and ideas about AMVs during earlier years was found there.

So Just What Are AMVs, Anyway?

Before the history of anime music videos is discussed further, it may be helpful to give a brief explanation of the videos themselves. A video entitled “Gilligan’s Concubine” serves as an example. Creators often give their videos titles to differentiate them from other videos, describe what the footage or theme is about, and encourage people to download and watch them. As AMV creator Jeremy Wagner-Kaiser phrases it, “a title should be a small bit of insight into the video itself.”20 The video being reviewed was made by Brian Smith, who goes by the online name of “Vash” and is associated with the online AMV creator group “Cucumber Studios.” 21 Many creators use nicknames or studio names to better identify themselves. There may be many Brian Smiths, but there is only one Vash who belongs to Cucumber Studios. Another reason for the nicknames may be to conceal the creator’s true identity. There are many practical reasons to do this, such as identity theft, but many simply use their online name as a kind of alternate identity. After all, many people use AMVs as an escape from the real world, so their real names will not do – it is easier for them to create an identity that is used only when relaxing.

“Gilligan’s Concubine” combines footage from the movie Ranma ½ - The Movie 2, Nihao My Concubine and the theme song from the TV show Gilligan’s Island. AMVs usually combine pre-existing anime footage with pre-existing music to create a new product – an anime music video. Fans choose the music and footage and then edit them together, resulting in a coherent story. However, these videos are simply amateur productions, not professional. Most creators consider AMVs just a hobby. “Gilligan’s Concubine” is a fairly basic AMV, simply matching the video clips to the song lyrics. “From a creator's standpoint, lyrics are an obvious way to approach scene selection,” Chris Lee says. “All you have to do is look at your CD album cover, or go to a lyrics site and copy the lyrics down, then start thinking of scenes that match with the lyrics.”22

The first few lines of the theme song for Gilligan’s Island and its corresponding footage in “Gilligan’s Concubine” are given here as an example. As the first few notes of the song play, a stereo is shown sitting in the sand, the sun reflecting off the top. As the first line says “Just sit right back,” the viewer sees a girl in a bikini leaning back in a beach chair, the sun glaring off her sunglasses. The next scene shows a man sitting in a throne-like chair, explaining something with hand motions while the lines “and you’ll hear the tale, the tale of a fateful trip” play in the background. The editor has matched the next line, “that started from this tropic port,” with videos showing several people gathered around a table, one girl fanning herself. This scene is in shades of gray, as though in a memory. The next shot is also in grays, showing a man pointing to a picture of a sailboat, corresponding with the line “aboard this tiny ship.”23 One of the main ideas behind AMVs is to edit footage in a way that will tell a story or convey a feeling as “Gilligan’s Concubine” clearly does.

While following the lyrics is a popular way to edit, as “Gilligan’s Concubine” does, there are many other styles that are used. Action AMVs are very popular and considered the more “technical” AMVs. They often involve many quick cuts, each clip lasting only a second or so, and edited closely with the beat of the music or lyrics of the song. Action AMVs often entail many effects, such as split screens and different clips made semi-transparent and layered on top of each other. An example of an action AMV is Ian Robert’s video “Shameless Rock Video.” This AMV uses footage from the anime Furi Kuri (also know as FLCL and Fooly Cooly) and the song “Speed King” by Deep Purple. During the course of this video, much of the editing is done to the music, a new scene with each beat or word. There is even a section where the movements of a man’s eyebrows match the guitar riff. There is also a part where the screen splits into different sections, each with a different scene. Roberts splits the screen into squares, vertical rectangles, triangles, and other shapes in different parts of the AMV. He also incorporates a kaleidoscope effect, where the same scene is shown in one shot in many different angles, and a rainbow color effect, where the colors look psychedelic and swirl in the picture.24 Action AMVs also involve a lot of – surprise! – action. There is lots of movement in the scenes, and creators often use songs with quick beats. Dance AMVs, AMVs that focus on characters dancing, or timing their movements to look like they are dancing, are a form of action AMVs.

Character profiles are another common type of AMV. These types focus on a specific character and try to reveal the personality of that character. In these videos, much of the footage chosen involves that character, and while a story may not be told, the way the song and footage are edited together conveys a feeling about the character. However, different AMVs can profile the same character differently. For an example, two videos profile the character Kintaro Oe from the anime Golden Boy very differently. The anime is based around Kintaro, who travels to different places, works different jobs, and manages to meet a beautiful woman at each place. The first video, “CHIHUAHUA!,” uses the song “Chihuahua” by DJ Bobo and focuses on Kintaro as he relates to the women. At the beginning, shots of several beautiful women are shown, each followed by a shot of Kintaro looking amazed and happy. Kintaro then lip-syncs with the lyrics of the song (where the mouth motions of the character are edited to make it look as if the character is saying the words), followed by several clips of Kintaro with women and how he responds to them (dazed, ecstatic, euphoric, etc.). 25 The upbeat song shows what a fun and playful character he is and how easy it is to laugh at him for acting so crazy around these women. The other video, “A Different Side of Me,” focuses on Kintaro’s motivations and uses the song “Unwell” by Matchbox 20. This AMV begins with several shots of Kintaro in a variety of moods and the women looking surprised or thoughtful. As the lyrics start, Kintaro is shown doing several things, such as waving at a child and riding a bike. The music is slow-paced and shoots are also slow-paced, with little action and long sections of unedited video. Kintaro is triumphant in many of the shots, smiling or working hard, showing he is friendly and earnest.26 The creator, who goes by the online name of “suberunker,” wanted to create a video that showed the softer side of Kintaro. “Golden Boy's theme, the idea that Kintaro helps each individual girl and that he leaves when they realize it,” he says, “is actually very sweet.”27 Both videos pick a different aspect of Kintaro’s personality, and the viewer comes away with a different idea of Kintaro.

Relationship profiles are also used to show how two or more characters relate to each other. Many AMVs focus on the romance between characters, showing footage of them together, smiling, hugging, kissing, and other romantic actions. There are also relationship profiles that reveal other kinds of relationships, such as Meri Cantoni and Mike LaBrie’s AMV “Sex, Lies, & Roses,” which focuses on the volatile relationship of two characters from Revolutionary Girl Utena, Utena Tenjou and Akio Ohtori. This AMV has many shots of Utena (the girl) looking helpless and sad, while Akio (the guy) looks scheming and cocky, giving the audience a distinct idea about their relationship.28

There are many other categories of AMVs. Comedy AMVs aim to make the viewer laugh at the antics or situations of characters and often use fun, upbeat songs. A creator who goes by the name “Cyanna” defines comedy AMVs as something that “makes you laugh or it's just a lot of fun to watch.”29 Horror AMVs try to send a chill up the viewer’s spine, and the songs are usually creepy or harsh sounding. Ben Wires says the most common type of horror AMV is “action horror,” featuring fast pace, running, screaming, all the things we have come to expect in American horror movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Scream.30 Trailers use the audio of actual movie trailers and match footage to the words. Drama AMVs often use more serious or slow songs and try to tell a story through the scenes. “Drama is one of those things that is extremely broad,” Wires describes the category. “A short description of what drama can be is ‘anything unfunny.’”31 Parodies may spoof the song’s real music video, another AMV, or many other things.

Something that nearly all AMVs have in common, however, is that most try to match the lyrics of the song, at least at some points. For example, if the lyrics of the song mention “the phone,” many creators will try to match this with footage involving a phone. They do this to help the AMV flow better, since the people have something to refer to. For some videos, it helps viewers follow the story the AMV creator is trying to tell. For others, the lyrics serve as a guideline to help creators pick the footage they want to use. But some creators take this lyric-matching to an extreme. One AMV fan known as “jehutia” says it’s good “to literally sync the actions to the lyrics[;] however when it is over used the video becomes extremely predicatable [sic].”32 When used effectively, however, lyric-matching helps create a cohesive video.

Some creators, however, have expanded into videos that do not have lyrics to match. Instrumental videos have become popular recently, some creators even preferring instrumentals because of the flexibility with editing.33 Creator Sami Juvala says, “Instrumental pieces give the creator more freedom to edit what they want.” 34 Another creator, “FoxJones,” feels “instrumental songs are easier to edit to because I'm not restrained by lyrics.”35 On the other hand, Wagner-Kaiser says instrumental music is harder to edit to. “No lyrics, no lip-sync,” he says. “It's a lot more difficult.”36 Chris Lee describes the difference by saying, “Since there are no lyrics, it forces you to listen to the phrases and verses of the song, and what the music in itself is trying to say.”37

But whichever style AMV creators prefer, the basic premise of video edited to music remains the same. Even the title “anime music video” is misleading because many videos use non-anime animation or live-action as footage. Some have even involved original work. Elizabeth Kirkindall’s video “Failed Experiments in Video Editing” has several scenes that were drawn with a Sharpie marker by Kirkindall and then scanned and edited in as part of the AMV.38 Roberts created the character Asuka in 3D for his AMV “Virtua Anime” and animated her on his own.39 The possibilities for AMVs are nearly limitless. In future years, more and more AMV creators will continue to push the limits and produce more innovative works.

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