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Beyond LinkinBall Z: The History of the Anime Music Video

They tried so hard and got so far, but in the end, what do AMVs really matter?

Artwork by Jane Kim

Fandom is a form of obsessive madness. It is also productive in ways that other forms of insanity are not. Fans produce art and original fiction that responds to their favourite franchises, reinterpreting and recontextualizing particular characters and relationships. Much of this work is discredited by outsiders–and sometimes the artists themselves after a certain age–as juvenilia borne of adolescent angst. It makes sense; why claim something that was created by an uncritical mind fawning over a universe that exists only in ink or pixels? But while mall-goth Harry Potter fanfic and poorly-conceived original Sonic the Hedgehog characters have constantly competed for the title of most embarrassing fan content, few have drawn as much scorn as the anime music video.

AMVs, for the glib, are a simple form of collage: scenes from an anime series edited in some way to match a piece of music that serves as score. The practice is related to "fanvids" as well as Japan's Music Anime Dougas, both of which pre-date AMVs while the former differs from the other two in source material (live-action movies and TV series) and demographic (largely female-made as opposed to the dudes who make AMVs). 

To those who hung around internet communities like Newgrounds, DeviantArt, and various gaming forums in the post-Netscape, pre-social-media era, the reputation of AMVs has long been a shameful one, as they're known as cringeworthy expressions of teenage angst, the video equivalent of slamming the door to your room and blasting Slipknot. Speaking of which, here they are, used in a bunch of AMVs! Here's Evanescence and System of a Down, too. But of course, the one band anyone associates with AMVs is none other than Linkin Park. You get the picture; it's a lot of nu-metal. If this is your first time hearing this then you are about to experience something… really fucking awkward. The real shame is that burying and dismissing AMVs prevents the story of an inventive, close-knit DIY scene from being told, a scene that reaches back to the dawn of anime fandom in the West.

The first Western anime music video is widely acknowledged to have been made by Jim Kaposztas in 1982. Then 21 years old, Kaposztas mashed-up battle scenes from Star Blazers (the North American-localized version of the totemic Space Battleship Yamato) with the Beatles "All You Need Is Love" to #ironic effect. Kaposztas' method involved careful synchronization of two VCR players: one standard player for a dubbed cassette of music and another equipped with a "flying" erase head with which to better edit the video component of the AMV. While no version of Kaposztas' mashup is available online, nearly every aspiring AMV maker used the two-VCR method that he utilized until much later, when editing software became practical enough to afford and use.

According to British game developer and hobby AMV maker Ian Roberts' essay "Genesis of the digital anime music video scene, 1990-2001," many AMVs in the early 90s like this one were distributed by being tacked onto VHS tapes of "fan subs"; DIY translations of anime series that hadn't yet been licensed for North American release. "Fan videos have always been a strong part of anime promotion in the West," writes Roberts, "the inclusion of videos on fan sub tapes served to act as promos." 

However, it wasn't until the rise of anime conventions in the mid-90s, especially with the AMV contests they held, that AMVs began to propagate. Roberts credits these competitions as "...the catalyst that formalized many key AMV aesthetics. Late 1990s AMVs competed in comedy/fun, drama, and action categories, and techniques and a visual language were formed and purposefully used in new AMVs to win awards."

Troy Williams, a former AMV maker who currently judges AMV contests at various conventions, started his career in 1999 (using, in his words, "a very rudimentary video editing software made by Avid") and remembers the period fondly. "I made my second AMV in 2002, won [the comedy category] at [Los Angeles'] Anime Expo by being booed into winning, which was the whole idea," says Williams. "At that time, the event was judged with a decibel meter, and noise is noise, whether it's cheers or boos. They switched to ballots the next year. I miss it a lot though, because it really encouraged the audience to really cheer their hearts out." 

Williams was chiefly inspired by Kevin Caldwell, probably the most acclaimed AMV maker in the late 90s. "He was a legend," recalls Williams, "and remains a legend." Caldwell's ambitious, technically dazzling videos made the very most of the technology at the time, often using pinpoint-precise editing to make characters lip-sync to songs. His famed "Believe" video even has them synced to vocal samples. It's also a supremely wild piece of mixed-media art, so do yourself a favour and watch it.

This golden era of AMV exclusivity would soon come to an end in the early 00s as editing software got into the hands of legions of burgeoning anime nerds first introduced to the medium through its international boom in the late 90s. Williams noticed the first major wave of what he calls "LinkinBall Z" videos—a hybrid of Linkin Park's music and Dragon Ball Z fights—around 2004. "There were so many that even the veteran AMV editors started to get sick and tired of them," he says. "It was the product of a perfect storm of coincidences and innovations that caused the stars to align just right for such vids to flood the AMV community." 

Williams blames the "challenge authority" mentality of many a teen and the rise of personal computers, while blogger/critic and Anime News Network writer Nick Creamer sees the conditions more conservatively. "Most fans of anime are into anime for only a couple years, typically in their early or mid teens," says Creamer. "The art they produce as a result will often reflect that—meaning that teens who are big into angsty rock songs are going to bring that passion to their AMVs."

Incredibly, Linkin Park themselves are aware of their legacy in the anime world. "Fans have been making anime videos for our songs for as long as I can remember," says Mike Shinoda, Linkin Park's rapper and chief sonic architect. "The sheer amount of anime Linkin Park videos is kinda shocking." Shinoda says that the connection between his band and anime is "not random," pointing to their collaborations with Studio Gonzo of Kill Bill and Hellsing fame for the "Breaking the Habit" video as well as with Bandai for special edition Gundam models as proof of their kinship. 

"These are all things we grew up on," explains Shinoda. "Joe [Hahn, Linkin Park's DJ] and I went to school for illustration, and of course these things worked their way into our styles, both in the things we paint, and some of our aesthetic choices when we're curating or art directing something for the band." Shinoda notes that, for the record, his personal favourite anime include the films Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Ninja Scroll.

Goaded by an exploding drama category at conventions and the advent of YouTube, the LinkinBall Z trend became the default mode of AMVs for approximately the rest of the decade. The disparagement swiftly commenced while the videos just kept coming. Both continue unabated to this day, if this three-year-old Reddit thread of confounded DBZ fans is anything to go by. However, one commenter blames AMVs' perceived lack of quality on over-eager but "lazy" AMV makers who, in the commenter's words, "... just pick favorite clips and overlay music without any regard to timing and special effects." It seems that as per usual, stereotypes became the face of something deeper. The creators who do actually put effort and creativity into their work, like the VCR-syncers of the 90s did, are the ones who are rewarded at cons and on YouTube.

Matthew Gutierrez, who creates AMVs under the name BakaOppai, did just that in 2014 with his video "Anime 404." A strange, kinetic cross between contemporary memes and traditional, Caldwellian AMVs. "Anime 404" went viral after YouTubers shared their reactions to it, and the video currently sits at nearly 20 million views. "A lot of people outside the fandom don't understand why people would make AMVs, mostly because they don't understand why they watch anime in the first place," admits Gutierrez. "They assume some kid who had too much time on their hands had nothing better to do, and in my case, they would be correct." 

Gutierrez began his journey in 2013 by winning first place at San Jose, CA's Fanime convention with an It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia-inspired AMV. His other videos include "A Piece of Toast", which boasts "53 different songs and 40 different anime" in one video, while "One Punch Manstep" is self-explanatory, splicing footage and sound effects from the series One Punch Man into an original Skrillex-ish composition. As a sidebar: American dubstep has seemingly become nu-metal's successor as the preferred genre of anime fans, which makes almost too much sense.

Gutierrez's work is a good example of how AMVs are representative of remix culture as Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig explained it. Lessig envisioned remix culture in his 2008 book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy as a copyright-free utopia wherein works are free to be used in context with or juxtaposed against each other. In a passage from Remix addressing the idea of remixer communities and explicitly concerning AMVs, Lessig writes, "[Remixers] are showing one another how they can create… That showing is valuable, even when the stuff produced is not." The value of AMVs is in their ability to allow for both humour and indulgent gravitas to tell new stories about familiar work.

Or rather, unfamiliar work, as Nick Creamer was introduced to both Cowboy Bebop and the music of Weezer thanks to AMVs. He sees them as an intensely personal form of fan art. "…[AMVs] are still very much an expression not just of 'I love this thing' but also 'this is what this thing means to me specifically.' Through the editing choices AMV creators make, they establish their own individuality, using the original works more as reference points for their experience of them than strict guidelines for their creations." 

The AMV as avenue for connection extends to real life, as well. Troy Williams says that most of the OG AMV makers are still in regular contact with each other, communicating through the forums of the central hub animemusicvideos.org and Facebook messaging groups. "The community in the late 90s and early 2000s is still just as close as it was today, if not closer," he says. And as for the angst? Well, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that, or any other feelings for that matter. "For every emotion you can think of, there's a song and a show that will let you express what you feel," says Williams, "That's a beautiful thing."

Phil believes that this is the finest fusion of music and anime. Follow him on Twitter.