What is an anime music video? It seems like this is a question that answers itself, and especially on an AMV-centric blog such as this one, it may come across as a trite and poorly-designed question that I’m asking just to provoke a response, but I can honestly say that until I watched Shelter, it wasn’t something I had devoted much time to thinking about. For those unaware, “Shelter” is a song by Porter Robinson and Madeon, and this video is a professionally-done collaboration between Robinson, A-1 Pictures, and Crunchyroll — in other words, the animation for this video was done specifically for this video, and did not exist prior to its release.
As I was compiling my end-of-the-year list of AMVs, I found myself in the awkward position of having to confront Shelter and determine whether or not this should be taken into consideration for my list or not — a question I had been clear on when I first watched Shelter but became less clear-cut the more I thought about it. That, in short, is why Shelter is getting its own post in this year’s Retrospect series of posts — I simply don’t feel comfortable counting it amongst the other videos I’m going to be writing about starting tomorrow, and yet to ignore it completely would be absurd, especially given how incredibly popular this video became (almost literally overnight) and the discussion there is to be had regarding it.
I was originally going to go in a different direction with this post and develop an argumentative structure from which it would be possible to debate whether or not Shelter is, in fact, an “AMV”, but instead of wasting my time doing that I’m just going to say that no, I don’t think it is, and here’s why. In my experience with AMVs, one of their most important defining characteristics is the fact that they are “remixes” of a type; we as editors are (generally) not creating the music or the animation that we use to put these videos together. We’re using stuff that’s already in existence and making our own works out of them. Like it or not, this is the lifeblood of the hobby — if animation studios were the only ones making AMVs, we’d have exponentially fewer videos out there, and I’d argue that the concept of an “AMV” would be completely different from what it is now.
The fact that AMVs are a hobbyist endeavor is what gives them life, longevity, and sustains the concept at all. AMVs are — indeed, always has been — defined as an amateur artform, if you will, something that is not being manufactured by the animation studios and/or recording artists. Shelter is a one-off exception, something that (to my knowledge) hasn’t been done before, at least not with Western music — the music artist had creative control over both the music and the animation. He obviously didn’t do the animation, but this is Robinson’s story, made specifically for this song. This is largely being billed as a “short film” rather than an “AMV”, which I think is indicative of the powers that be either (a) wanting to distance themselves from the legally-grey area that is AMV culture, or (b) being ignorant that such a culture even exists. I doubt the second point, not because AMVs are so ubiquitous that everyone knows about them (look, no matter how much you think AMVs are a global phenomenon, this is still very much a geeky niche hobby), but because it’s probably the job of the animation studios and music labels to know about this kind of stuff; (a) seems much more plausible to me, if either is correct at all.
What it’s being touted as by those in control of the video’s distribution matters very little, however; when it comes down to it, Shelter is a professionally-produced piece that removes all traces of remix culture in pursuit of something completely original in its creative process, and I think that’s all that needs to happen in order for it to not be considered an AMV. This is what I would consider a “short film” or “short story”, along the lines of Makoto Shinkai’s She and Her Cat, or even Voices of a Distant Star.
For those of you out there reading this who may feel strongly that yes, this is an AMV, let me ask you something else: Do you consider anime opening/ending sequences to be AMVs? Because if not there would appear to be a logical inconsistency in your thinking; if you do consider those things to be AMVs as well, then we can talk, but you would need to reconcile that first otherwise. I will also bring up both DAICON IV and On Your Mark, two videos that were produced with completely original animation by GAINAX and Studio Ghibli, respectively, and set to pre-existing music to create kind-of music videos. Any such discussion along these lines should certainly acknowledge both videos, as they represent professional creators entering the AMV arena style-wise; however, I think both these videos still retain some of that remix culture philosophy, both using someone else’s music (in the case of DAICON IV, at least, without ELO’s permission!) that was not created specifically for the anime. Whether or not this qualifies them as definite AMVs is certainly up for debate, although I personally would be much more willing to put them in the AMV camp than I would Shelter.
I may be making a mountain out of a molehill here, but as much as I liked quite a few videos this year, no single one has made me think about things the way Shelter has — nobody ever asks “What is an anime music video?” because it seems like such a silly non-question, but Shelter challenged a bunch of my pre-conceived notions that I didn’t even know were eligible to be challenged in the first place.
So, that said, I will add that I like Shelter, regardless of how one chooses to define it. It’s a fine video, with an interesting and emotionally-engaging story. For its relatively short length, it packs a lot in, and I think it does what it does really well — it’s pretty, it contains its own world that’s about as fully-realized as something can be in the space of six minutes, and even manages to do a little characterization, however shallow it might be.
To be fair, I don’t think this is anything really phenomenal, no matter what angle I approach it from. As a short story, there are better ones out there, one of the best being Shinkai’s Voices of a Distant Star which I mentioned earlier. As a music video, it shows the same flaws many professionally-done music videos do when they try to tell a story — forget completely about good editing, and how important that can be in heightening every element of a video’s impact on the viewer. Shelter does have a couple good examples of paying attention to the song and editing accordingly, but they’re very few and far between, it mostly being hard cuts that don’t match up with the music at all. It’s off-kilter more often than not, unfortunately, and it was a difficult video to follow rhythmically, but someone less accustomed to typical AMVs may find that less bothersome than I did.
It’s also worth mentioning that Shelter could also be problematic when trying to account for where it fits into the realm of typical anime; Zergneedsfood’s review on MAL (surprisingly, the highest-voted one currently), in which he rates Shelter 1/10, touches on many points that shouldn’t be overlooked. Some of this is my own extrapolation, but whether intentionally or not, this kind of stuff lowers expectations on anime consumers’ side by packing more and more into shorter and shorter works, until we anime viewers will begin to expect this as the norm. As a result, stories will be come simpler and dumber, characters will flatten out more than they are already, and all means of shortcuts will be used to get viewers to feel as much as they can with as little effort as possible on the side of the storytellers.
One of those shortcuts, he argues, is that of using a cute girl as the primary vehicle for emotional response. If this were a girl that were not “attractive” in the anime sense, or if it was a guy, or if it was a 40 year-old woman or man, would this video have been as popular as it was? I don’t think so, not by a long shot — I like to think it wouldn’t have affected my opinion of the video, but who knows? This is a trend that’s been in anime for a long time, so it’s nothing new, but that doesn’t mean it should be praised as the best way to do things. On that note, I think Zergneedsfood is absolutely correct.
One other interesting aspect of this video (that probably directly relates to what I summarized in the two paragraphs above) is the viewer responses that have cropped up; YouTube comments are always a minefield, so I have to thank my friend seasons for showing this to me because I never would have bothered to seek it out myself, by just look at some of the comments that are plaguing this video (beware: you will cringe hard). I think a lot of that can be attributed to a lack of a filter and simply being emotionally reactive more than anything, but my goodness, you’d think this video can cure cancer or something. Maybe it’s just me, maybe this is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in video form or something and I’m just missing it, but I think Shelter brought out a lot of latent hyperbole and I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing.
Still, it’s something that you should watch if you haven’t yet — regardless of the massive amount of discussion to be had surrounding it, this video caused waves that I hadn’t anticipated and was a kind of beacon that helped to define 2016, at least in terms of anime-related things. Maybe we’ll start seeing more works like this; if so, I’m not sure how I’ll feel about it, but Shelter at least is an interesting project that could become either an example for other short films (along with all the baggage that entails) or something that is completely forgotten about by this time next year. At least it distracted us from politics for a while.