Ask John: Why Are Anime Music Videos so Popular?
What started the trend in anime music videos? Why does it seem to be something unique to anime fandom? Why aren’t there Buffy The Vampire Slayer videos or Matrix music videos made by fans of the series? Even the few American anime ones I’ve seen have been made by people who mostly do AMVs. Do Japanese fans make AMVs, with Japanese songs?
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 wholistic 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 inbalance 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 cognative intellect and our visual input equally. The same applies to Japanese fans watching Japanese animation. But for Western viewers watching anime, expecially 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.
Closely related to the psychological impact that native language film may have on a viewer relative to native language film is novelty value. Japanese studios do occasionally produce official anime music videos. Madhouse has created several based on CLAMP manga. Series including Borgman, Tenchi Muyo and Onegai Teacher have entire music video collection home video releases. But on a relative scale, there aren’t that many official, professionally produced Japanese anime music videos in Japan. Likewise, the American film industry doesn’t really produce that many official music videos for its movies or television series. This may be simply because there’s little perceived demand for official music videos based on film franchises that are so familiar and second nature to their target audiences. It may be that there’s just no novelty value to music videos based on domestic franchises that viewers are already intimately familiar with. If this is true, it may apply to both American and Japanese viewers.
I don’t want to detract from the creative ability of Westerners at all, but it does seem logical to think of something along the lines of the old phrase, “Those who can’t write, teach.” Japanese viewers inately don’t respond exactly to anime the same way westerners do because anime is in their native language. So perhaps because anime seems so natural to them, Japanese fans may unconsciously emulate anime by creating their own anime and, more prominently, manga often using existing anime characters. On the other hand, for Westerners that are a degree removed because of the language barrier of Japanese anime, instead of creating our own anime, we manipulate already existing anime by creating music videos which isolate the visual element of anime that affects us most immediately and strongly, combining it with music that further enhances the emotional, more than the intellectual, impact of anime on us as westerner viewers.