Lo-Fi's Visual Aesthetic - Anime

Artwork by Em Spooner

Artwork by Em Spooner

by Lis Steinberg

We’ve all done it before, log into YouTube, search for a study playlist, and watch as the search results become flooded with lo-fi compilations joined by anime thumbnails. Seldom  thinking twice about it, we click on one of the various “beats to chill to” videos, ignoring the still from Cowboy Bebop or Wolf Children; anime films that get robbed by the content creators behind these playlists. We see this same theme with lo-fi album covers, often taking an image from the animovies of Mamoru Hosoda, CoMix Wave, or most frequently, Studio Ghibli. The blend of these two worlds, lo-fi and anime, poses the question: Why is anime the chosen visual used for lo-fi music?

To understand the duo let’s go back to one of the parents of lo-fi music: hip-hop. Many hip-hop artists have revealed a somewhat nerdy side to their acts. For example, MF Doom  took his name straight out of the comic books, revealing himself on stage wearing a metal mask similar to that of the Marvel Comics’ villain Doctor Doom. Oftentimes his album art is reminiscent of 80s comic book art and his lyrics reference comics as well. His entire album, Operation: Doomsday (1999) chronicles his rise to power and the struggles that come with it.

MF Doom isn’t the only rapper who incorporates a love of comic books in his songs. Snoop Dog’s love of Batman is evident in his track “Batman and Robin,” in which Snoop places himself in the classic story as Batman himself, “Shit I'm there in a flash, Batmobile on 3s.” Rap icon and Wu-Tang Clan co-founder Method Man is another great example, occasionally referring to himself in Wu-Tang Clan tracks as Johnny Blaze, the anti-hero often appearing in Marvel Comics, sometimes called Ghost Rider. He even wrote a Ghost Rider vs. Krampus story for his first Marvel Comic in 2016.

Eventually anime did make a significant crossover into hip-hop, with one of the most referenced series in the rap game, Dragon Ball (1984-1995). RZA, the de facto leader of Wu-Tang Clan, references Goku, the protagonist of the show, “Then I charge up like Goku, Dragon Ball Z” in his song “Must Be Bobby.” Soulja Boy references Goku as well in his songs “Anime” and “Goku.” MF Doom uses a sample from a scene in Dragon Ball called “Cooler Hecheman Attack” in his track “Mullein.” Mac Miller’s producer Flying Lotus utilizes a sample as well in the song “S.D.S” from the movie “Dragon Ball Z: Broly the Legendary Super Saiyan” (1993). The sample features protagonist Goku telling Broly that his name isn’t Kakarot, but Son Goku.

Dragon Ball is referenced far and wide in many different contexts, truly validating the impact that the series has had on hip-hop. It’s fair to say that hip-hop has used the world of animation for inspiration, which makes anime’s presence in the genre prevalent. However, it isn’t a one way street, hip-hop reciprocates in the exchange of creativity from one subculture the other.

Samurai Champloo first broadcasted in Japan on Fuji TV on May 20th, 2004 and was the first anime series to utilize lo-fi music. The series was scored by Jun Seba, known by his stage name Nujabes. He was one of the first music producers to mix atmospheric instrumental mixes sampling hip-hop and jazz, contributing to the genre that is now known as lo-fi. Seba’s compositions for Samurai Champloo were the first to create a clear crossover of lo-fi into anime. The beats are synchronized perfectly with the animation developing a new aesthetic that eventually migrated to the United States due to its popularity. This caught the eye of many up and coming producers and fans who enjoyed the appeal of anime and lo-fi together, thus creating AMVs (Anime Music Video) which are compiled clips from various anime films synchronized to individual lo-fi songs.

Although this may explain lo-fi and anime’s pairing origin, it fails to explain why the two work so well and why people enjoy them mixed together. My opinion is that anime tends to deal with real emotions that tend to stem from the same feelings that music evokes. For example, in the TV series  Durarara!! (2010) the theme of living in the present moment, opposed to living in physiological time. A famous line from the series is, “If you wanna run away from your past fine. But whatever you do, don't run from the present. Or worse, your future.” In an episode of the animated series Nagi Asu: A Lull In The Sea, the ebb and flow of love is described as being a wonderful lesson in life, regardless of the intensity of your relationship, “Love is probably like the sea. It's not all just fun and love. You also have to embrace the sadness, pain and everything else. That's when new feelings are born.”

These heavy themes are present in lo-fi music as well, oftentimes utilizing dialogue from anime films and series, such as in Cowboy Bebop (1997-1998). One of the underlying themes in the series is the baggage that every character carries with them throughout the show, influencing their nuances and flaws. In one episode we experience one of the characters, Faye, who has only ever experienced betrayal and loneliness throughout her life, watch a recording of a younger version of herself, giving her current self-advice. In the song “bebop” by lo-fi producer [bsd.u], a sample from this episode is used as a jazz-influenced beat plays in the background, which creates a groovy, upbeat vibe. As the song progresses and we hear Faye talking to her older self, the contrast between these two pieces of media influence each other becomes more evident. The clip from Cowboy Bebop itself is incredibly sad, yet the beat that [bds.u] chooses to accompany the dialogue ironically makes the song feel therapeutic and relaxing.

This leads me to my final interpretation of this relationship. Underneath all of the symbolism, history, and theory, the mere soothing feeling one gets when watching anime is similar to the feeling you get when listening to lo-fi music. Both aesthetics compliment each other in a relaxing and hypnotic way. Maybe there is a psychology to why the two work together, however, I also believe that humans simply resonate with emotion in art. When two subcultures chock-full of emotion combine, it is almost impossible for their combined compassion and empathy not to resonate with the consumer. Whether this fusion is therapeutic or simply aesthetically pleasing for its audience, lo-fi and anime create magic when joined in harmony.