Anneke knew that she hadn’t won the competition. She said this to a group of four people — a friend, a reporter and two random college students, one wearing blue plastic sunglasses and another dressed as the lead character of the vampire anime series Hellsing — while standing outside the Nokia Theatre.
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We were there for Anime Expo (AX), which, with 43,000 attendants, is the largest anime and manga convention in the United States. At AX’s 14th annual anime music video contest, 3,500 people had gathered to sing and scream their way through a mishmash of songs set to their favorite Japanese animated movies, TV shows and video games.
Anime music videos, known as AMVs, reside at the juncture where the otaku (anime enthusiast) world and music geekdom collide. As with its purely music-oriented cousin, the mash-up, the premise is simple: Take at least two sources and piece them together so that they make sense. Also like the mash-up, AMVs have been in existence for more than a decade, and their popularity has increased with the abundance of free or inexpensive editing software, file-sharing programs and user-generated content sites. AMVs have become a subculture phenomenon, with Web sites like AMV Hell providing video megamixes and hundreds of thousands of videos ranging from wonderfully edited footage highlighting an obscure piece of music to the far more common anime-plus-favorite-song mash-up littering YouTube. Currently, almost all of the many anime conventions in the U.S. host an AMV contest.
Anneke began creating AMVs in 2000. Her first piece was a school assignment that required syncing audio and video.
“Then I went to an anime convention and saw, oh, my gosh, they have contests for these,” she recalls. “I made it a goal that I would one day have a video good enough for that.”
Along with her friend Mie’Aga, who had previously studied computer animation, Anneke forms the core of Baka Deshi Productions. (Because of the legally nebulous nature of AMVs, both creators are using pseudonyms.)
“I didn’t really get into anime in a lot of detail and a lot of interest until I came to live out here and started playing with Anneke’s selection,” says Mie’Aga (who did not submit a video to AX’s contest). “It’s one of those things where you start watching it and you start getting ideas and it continues.”
Anneke and Mie’Aga don’t collaborate on videos, but they do critique each other’s work. Between the two, who are based in the L.A. area, they churn out six to 10 videos a year, with each piece taking from a few hours to several months to produce. Collectively, they have entered more than 60 competitions and won 25 awards, including eight major ones, such as Judges’ Choice and Best of Show. Most recently, Anneke took prizes for both Audience and Judges’ Choice in the comedy category at Fanime, a Northern California–based convention considered one of the most competitive, while Mie’Aga earned the Best Overall Award at Anime L.A. last January.
The most prolific creators tend to know each other through online forums and conventions. They have their own code of conduct — (only use footage from DVDs and CDs you own, a practical choice based on higher-quality audio and video as well as an ethical one; never include subtitles; and don’t enter in a smaller competition a video that has won a major — as well as their own jargon and gossip. They compete with each other, mostly for pride and sometimes for an actual trophy, but in a friendly way. This competitive element adds an air of professionalism to something that remains a legally dubious hobbyists’ realm.
“AMVs are kind of a gray zone,” says Michael Underwood, AX’s AMV contest coordinator.
While creators aren’t profiting from their creations, they are putting themselves in a precarious position by manipulating (typically) copyrighted work. Unofficially, the anime industry has chosen to leave the issue alone, at least for now.
“We’re not authorizing people to do it by any means,” says Evan Flournoy, coordinator of Brand Enforcement and Rights Enforcement for FUNimation, a major anime firm. “We just tend not to enforce our rights to take it down.”
Record labels, though, have occasionally issued cease-and-desist orders for AMVs. And as the use of “digital fingerprinting” technology, which aborts the upload of copyrighted material by a non-copyright holder, expands, AMV creators may find it more difficult to show off their work outside their community.
Despite the copyright issues, AMVs are, perhaps unintentionally, promoting both anime and music. Underwood, who notes that much of his music collection is based on what he has heard in AMVs, says that the judges’ ballots at AX ask if the video has prompted them to check out the original anime. While he acknowledges that many factors are involved in popularizing an anime, AMVs do help raise awareness, particularly of programs that have yet to be released in the U.S., such as convention favorite Ouran High School Host Club.
L.A.-based manga company TOKYOPOP has taken note of the promotional aspect of AMVs and adapted elements to fit the needs of its audience. “I think that we’re at a watershed time, where people who would, at one point, not be able to express themselves visually suddenly have an entirely new palette that wasn’t accessible [before],” says TOKYOPOP producer Steven Calcote.
TOKYOPOP, which sponsored the AX contest, has recently entered the AMV world by combining colorized panels from its manga titles with music provided by up-and-coming artists. Last spring, the company held its first Manga Mash-Up Video Contest, where art from Riding Shotgunand one track from L.A. band Far East Movement were made available for remixing purposes.
“It’s really apparent that manga and anime fans have put a lot of heart and enthusiasm into creating essentially a new type of storytelling,” Calcote adds. “The idea that once a story is told, it’s not finished.”
At AX, Anneke screened “Amnesia,” which combines footage from Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie with “Amnesia,” featured on former Bronski Beat singer Jimmy Somerville’s little-heard 2005 solo album Home Again. She had stumbled upon her source song, which pairs Somerville’s soaring vocals with an electronic backdrop offering hints of drum ’n’ bass, online. She fell for it immediately, purchased a copy and let it guide the AMV.
“I quickly thought of Utena because Utena is abstract, and the lyrics in the song really suit it,” she explains.
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The video, which came in third at Anime L.A. this past winter, works on several levels, first with the song’s hypnotic quality enhancing a surreal drama told in brilliant shades of red, purple and green. Lyrically, “Amnesia” draws attention to the memory lapses of Anthy, the Rose Bride. Meanwhile, Somerville’s gender-bending falsetto highlights the fact that Anthy’s proverbial Prince Charming is actually a tomboyish girl, Utena. This all culminates when Somerville sings, “We disconnect from all reality” precisely as Utena turns into a car, thus giving Anthy a means of escape from a life of abuse.
It was a stunning and unusual video. But Anneke was right. She didn’t win.
“I didn’t make it to win,” Anneke had said several weeks before the competition. “I made it because I really felt that the music and the anime went together.”
Winner or not, “Amnesia” served its purpose, introducing people to the world of Utena and the sound of Jimmy Somerville’s should-have-been hit in a compelling fashion. (Soon after, I ordered copies of both.) That Anneke was able to do this on a large screen in a major concert hall with impeccable sound made the event a little sweeter.