How The Weeknd and Juice WRLD’s Vibrant Videos Are Moving Anime Into the Mainstream

Inside the Rise of Anime-Inspired Music
Emma Kumer

Late Thursday, the Weeknd dropped the music video for “Save Your Tears,” featuring Ariana Grande (and her seldom-heard lower register). The video, in classic recent Weeknd fashion, begins with a dismembered head. It’s a brightly-colored tour through an assembly line that translates the song’s unmistakable ‘80s vibe into fuzzy, globoid visuals.

Produced by London-based studio Blinkink, it’s like a ride through Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but instead of candy the factory produces a robotic doll of Ariana Grande in three minutes and 25 seconds. The animation is modern in its use of round, exaggerated forms (often credited to Facebook’s Alegria), but its elements of heavy shading and detail shots draw on a different art form: Anime.

The video’s director, Jack Brown, says he wouldn’t exactly describe his style as anime — he was raised on ‘90s cartoons like “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Johnny Bravo” — but like most animators, he’s taken elements from it.

“Hayao Miyazaki [famous Japanese animator and co-founder of Studio Ghibli] said that animation is a way to smooth the hard lines of reality,” Brown says. “That’s always the approach I take to my animation, smooth lines and smooth moves.”

Anime is a well-known style of illustration originating from Japan, but with over 11,000 anime series in existence, it actually describes a variety of illustration styles. Most anime artists are recognizable for their exaggeration of the human form: Characters have oversized heads, augmented eyes, vibrant hair colors and overstated facial expressions.

This isn’t the first time the Weeknd has incorporated anime’s influence into his music videos. In 2013, he implemented cartoon cats and Japanese characters in the part-pornographic, part-typographic video for “Kiss Land.” And last year, he hired Japan’s first Black-owned anime studio, D’Art Shtajio, to produce the autobiographical “Snowchild” music video, which currently has more than 18 million views on YouTube alone.

If you’ve noticed more anime in your life — on Netflix or TikTok, in music videos — you’re not alone. In the first few months of 2021, streaming services have been in an anime arms race, with Netflix and HBO Max adding anime television series and films in rapid succession. On TikTok, the formerly declining art of fan-made anime music videos, or AMVs, has forged a new community of creators and consumers. Musicians like Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Nas X flaunt their anime obsessions on social media. While anime has been on the periphery of pop culture for years, has it cemented a place in conventional entertainment?

In official music videos, anime-style illustration was a rare find before the pandemic, but the unofficial music video scene is another story. Anime Music Videos, or AMVs, are a popular subculture of anime fans who create music videos using anime footage, dating back to VHS mashups in the 1980s and reaching to today’s thriving communities on TikTok.

The massive community surrounding AMVs is historically powerful. In 2004, AMVs featured so many Linkin Park songs that the band hired Japanese anime studio Gonzo to create a video for their 2004 song, “Breaking the Habit.” The video was an immediate hit, winning the 2004 MTV VMA Viewer’s Choice Award and racking up more than 250 million views on YouTube  — and countless AMV fan remakes.

Naji Grampus, the director of urban strategy for the music distribution company the Orchard, also has noticed anime is rising in popularity.

“When I was young, there were only certain kinds of kids that watched anime — it wasn’t, like, a thing,” he says. “But now, Megan Thee Stallion talks about anime on her records. There’s a real culture.”

Earlier this year, Megan became a spokesperson for the game “Mortal Kombat 11,” cosplaying as one of its character for promotional videos. Grampus says that the art styles of anime and digital renderings in video games already have an audience — and aligning that with a music artist can garner new fans for both.

“I think those cultures intersect at certain points,” Grampus says. “I like to say, ‘Niche is the new mainstream.’”

Inherently, anime is an art form used to tell a story — so when it appears in a music video, audiences can’t help but follow along. “Snowchild” does this well, but perhaps the best example is the posthumous release of Juice WRLD’s “Righteous.”

The video has some of the usual attributes of anime: emphatic bursts when punches land, glowing eyes as characters focus, blurred edges as limbs fly through space. When Juice WRLD’s face fills the screen, his trademark number “999” is superimposed on his eyeball, a reference to the jutsus or sharingans in the anime series “Naruto.”

The video was created by Tristan Zammit, a minor celebrity in the narrow realm of animated rap music videos. His illustrations combine aggressive linework with angular, harsh shadows, a blend of his childhood intake of Takeshi Koike’s anime films and Todd McFarlane’s comic book illustrations.

“A lot of that comes into play probably from my subconscious,” he says. “And it just all culminates into what I make into my own style.”

Zammit’s process begins with drawing what are known as model sheets: depictions of the video’s characters, shown in their outfits and often displayed from multiple angles. “One of the things I learned early on was that, as long as the artists kind of resemble themselves, people tend to be happy,” he says. “That can be a real drawback, with labels and artists wanting things to look too realistic and not really giving enough room to have artistic identity.”

Tristan Zammit

Alongside his work for Lil Yachty, Tory Lanez and 6lack, he’s also known for creating videos for Juice WLRD and XXXTentacion, who died in 2019 and 2018, respectively, and YNW Melly, who’s currently in jail. When called upon to depict artists who can’t appear in their videos, Zammit speaks with their friends and families to get an idea of how to portray them.

“I’m just coming at it as someone who is a fan, through the lens of people that were in their lives,” Zammit says. “I’d rather make work that is an extension of their legacy.” His thoughtful animations have been widely praised by media outlets, YouTube commenters and social media shares.

The still-growing popularity of anime music videos proves that this Japanese illustration style is no longer obscure — but maybe it never was. As one of last year’s most popular sounds on TikTok proclaims, “Anime is an important part of our culture!”