Anyone who has ever responded to a call for papers has, at one point or another, experienced the perverse pleasure of stubbornly latching onto a topic that was not mentioned therein and running with it. It was in that contrarian spirit that, upon reading the “Sound and Animation” prompt, I thought to myself, “but what about anime music videos (AMVs)?” It’s not that AMVs (i.e., fan-made shorts which edit scenes from one or more anime works together with music and/or sound effects) have remained unexplored in scholarly literature. It’s just that there is a conspicuous absence of pieces willing to engage with the fan studies implications of Russian rap YouTube tributes to Fyodor Dostoevsky – not the actual author, but his slim, purple-eyed anime incarnation.
Dostoevsky, a.k.a. Fyodor D., a.k.a. “demon Fyodor,” is the main antagonist of the third season of Bungo Stray Dogs, a studio Bones anime which recasts famous Japanese and Western authors as superpowered detectives and criminals who possess special abilities named after their most well-known works (Crime and Punishment, in this case). Fyodor also plays a major part in the feature-length film Bungo Stray Dogs: Dead Apple (2018), in which he schemes, commits several murders, and almost destroys Yokohama, eventually finding time to also lecture a skull about chaos, dualities, and sin (Figure 1). Of three Russian authors featured on Bungo Stray Dogs so far, Dostoevsky remains the central figure (Ivan Goncharov is a relatively minor character, and the less said about this show’s take on Pushkin, the better). Unpredictable, cunning, and mysterious (the exact nature of his special ability remains undisclosed), he has caught the attention of his compatriots, resulting in fan edits of his signature scenes set to popular Russian music. This blog post will briefly consider some of them in relation to questions of cultural re-appropriation by local fan communities, focusing on the role of “home-grown” sound in Russian fans’ reframing – and indeed reclaiming – of this fictionalized Fyodor.
It is not my aim to discuss AMVs more broadly. Others have already done so, from several angles, including analysis of their formal elements (Milstein 2007), a broader study of digital-age DIY media (Knobel, Lankshear and Lewis 2010), and a discussion of twenty-first-century prosumer culture (Manovich 2009, 322), to name a few. Nor will I suggest that Dostoevsky has any real claim to best boy status among contemporary Russian otaku, given the existence of figure-skating anime phenomenon Yuri!!! On Ice and its popular Russian protagonists (Chao 2019). Nevertheless, I believe that it is this character – a Russian literary giant turned smooth(ly animated) criminal – that can most productively exemplify the role of sound in fine-tuning the cultural resonance of anime content through the established formal rules of AMV fan editing.
Take, for instance, YouTube user Black Angel’s video, set to the contemporary pop song “Crazy Russian” (Sumashedshii Ruskii), performed by Elena Temnikova and rap artist ST. This is an apt song choice – and an instantly legible cultural in-joke – for two immediate reasons. First, this track is part of the official soundtrack of Guardians (Zashchitniki, 2017) a Russian superhero film that shares Bungo Stray Dogs’ obsession with flamboyant special abilities and shapeshifting animal-man hybrids. More importantly, both the song title and the general mood of the piece correspond with Fyodor’s canonical representation in the anime. The track’s refrain – “Who, who, who, who is that crazy Russian?” – could easily play over most of his violent, unpredictable, and often insufficiently motivated actions within the narrative. But this is where the similarities with Bungo Stray Dogs’ Fyodorend. By the song’s final notes, Dostoevsky will be playfully recast – through careful matching of anime footage with evocative rhymes – as a tough, patriotic defender of Moscow.
Like the rest of the Bungo Stray Dogs cast, anime Fyodor operates in – and appears primarily concerned with – a fictional version of Yokohama. AMV Fyodor, however, is all about Moscow. A long shot of the character outlined against a cityscape, taken from the opening credits of season 3 (Figure 2), is accompanied by rapper ST’s introductory lines: “This is my Moscow, but it’s in foreign hands.” This is “my land,” he explains, and then goes on to lay out the situation: “You have a choice – choose which [gun] caliber I’ll pick. If you knew our [people], you would’ve known that they will hit back.” The rest of the edit unfolds in a similar fashion; combined with ST’s verse, Fyodor’s actions become defensive, righteous, and more than a little smug (the last one, at least, is true to the anime). “The world is still not ready, but we are ready for the world,” ST intones, as Fyodor’s scheming grin fills the screen. “We resemble our climate, and the climate in Russia is harsh,” the rapper continues. At the same time, on screen, Fyodor empties his gun into a defenseless victim.
Thus, this fan video embraces Fyodor’s chaotic evil persona while leaning into the overtly nationalistic tone of the Guardians soundtrack to reframe his actions as those of a bona fide Russiansuperhero. Some YouTube commenters appear to have taken this entirely at face value, expressing patriotic investment in his fate in the anime. User Veins and Blade’s comment, alluding to the finale of season three, in which Dostoevsky finds himself locked up, reads: “I hope the last season isn’t the end. Russians don’t surrender! I’m rooting for us (our people) till the end!” Others choose to focus on the humorous aspect of this remix, piling on more cultural references. For example, user Liza Hleb teasingly asks if “anyone has already made the joke about ‘We are Russians! God is with us’,” connecting a famous quote attributed to the military leader and national hero Alexander Suvorov to Fyodor’s tendency to call himself a god in the anime.
The AMV posted by user Monya’s takes a much more straightforward approach to Fyodor’s persona by transforming him – with the aid of “Kalashnikov” by rapper Toni Raut (ft. Talibal) – from a cocky anime gangster into a cocky Russian anime gangster. As user Yaroslava Koroleva puts it in the comment section, “Russians rule even in anime!!!” Befitting a track named after an AK-47, the song is an extended boast dedicated to the lyrical hero’s toughness, love of bullets, and penchant for shooting sprees. Sequences from Fyodor’s pivotal conflict with a character named Ace – whom he outsmarts completely, even tricking him into committing suicide on his own turf – are underscored with lines such as “Yes, I’m the one who brought death to your home.” The two larger-than-life figures seem to merge and mirror each other perfectly in this fan tribute to the criminally cool. In fact, as noted by user Lidia Fedotova, in this context, Raut’s lyrics appear to describe Fyodor’s mysterious ability. Notably, one of the song’s most-repeated lines, “I’ll start talking and you won’t survive” captures the nebulous nature of the threat constantly emanating from Fyodor, who has repeatedly demonstrated his power to kill instantly by (as of yet) undisclosed means. Thus, unlike the previous example, the song chosen for this AMV does not reinvent Fyodor; instead, it reinscribes him within a local version of the same discourse. If the ushanka fits, wear it.
Some AMVs do not even have Russian-language lyrics – nor do they have to. The short Dead Apple fan edit of Dostoevsky footage uploaded under the name “by tsu” is set to the beats of “Katyusha (Trap Remix).” That’s it; that’s the joke. For those in the know, it is enough (or not quite, as users have demanded the “full version of this gem” in the comments). For everyone else, a brief explanation is in order. “Katyusha” is an immensely popular Soviet Union folk song. Since it was first popularized as a wartime anthem in World War II, it has remained ubiquitous and has been performed in many versions by a myriad of stars. Still, a trap remix of “Katyusha” – the very definition of traditional song – sounds ridiculous. And this is precisely why it is such a fitting choice for a Fyodor AMV. After all, the existence of an incongruous, edgy remix of something like “Katyusha” is precisely as absurd as the existence of an incongruous, edgy remix of Dostoevsky himself, and just as amusing.
In her study of Russian anime fans, Yulia Mikhailova (2006, 182) writes that “although in their […] works Russian otaku try to follow Japanese patterns as closely as possible, their creative and organizational activities reflect the specific social and cultural context of the local society.” While she is not specifically referring to AMVs, the examples discussed above model similar ways of reflecting local cultural context while preserving much of the original. Bungo Stray Dogs is a good candidate for this approach to creative fan labor because it already incorporates some nods to Dostoevsky’s life and works. The name of his criminal organization, Rats in the House of the Dead, alludes to The House of the Dead novel. His own nickname is likely a reference to Demons. A pivotal card game scene in the third season (featured extensively in the “Kalashnikov” AMV) evokes both The Gambler and the real Dostoevsky’s gambling addiction. Visually, Fyodor’s signature look is an amalgam of Russian sartorial items, including his ever-present white ushanka hat, fur-trimmed cape, Cossack-style boots, and kaftan-style shirt. Still, that is by and large the extent of it; Dostoevsky’s anime representation remains rather superficial and often stereotypical, leaving room for inventive fans to fill in the blanks. In that sense, the Russian-language AMV soundtracks I have discussed here do not simply “translate” a fictionalized historical character back into Russian; instead, they reappropriate its cultural meanings and expand its discursive potential within contemporary Russian-speaking fandom. The very fact that this blog post has required me to overexplain all the references and jokes – thereby irrevocably ruining them – is proof of the successful relocalization of Fyodor achieved by these AMVs.
Many thanks to Caitlin Casiello, to whom I (half-) jokingly wrote, “I am here to tell you that the genre of AMV that combines Fyodor footage with contemporary Russian rap is probably what my entire education has been leading up to.” Caitlin responded with “You’re the only one qualified to understand this,” thereby inspiring this blog post. Also, thanks to Daria Ezerova for discussing Fyodor’s Anna K. fashion with me.
Chao, Tien-Yi. 2019. “Russia/Russians on Ice: Imagined Identity and Cross-Cultural Communication in Yuri!!! On Ice.” Interface: Journal of European Languages and Literatures 9: 59-87.
Knobel, Michele, Colin Lankshear and Matthew Lewis. 2010. “AMV Remix: Do-it-yourself Anime Music Videos.” In: DIY Media: Creating, Sharing and Learning with New Technologies, edited by Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear, 185-205. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
Manovich, Lev. 2009. “The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production?” Critical Inquiry 35 (2): 319-331.
Mikhailova, Yulia. 2006. “Apocalypse in Fantasy and Reality: Japanese Pop Culture in Contemporary Russia.” In: In Godzilla’s Footsteps: Japanese Pop Culture Icons on the Global Stage, edited by William M. Tsutsui and Michiko Ito, 181-199. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Milstein, Dana. 2007. “Case Study: Anime Music Videos.” In: Music, Sound, and Multimedia: From the Live to the Virtual, edited by Jamie Sexton, 29-47.Edinburgh University Press.
Mihaela Mihailova is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan Society of Fellows. She has published in animation: an interdisciplinary journal, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, and Kino Kultura. She has also contributed chapters to Animating Film Theory (with John MacKay), Animated Landscapes: History, Form, and Function, The Animation Studies Reader, and Drawn from Life: Issues and Themes in Animated Documentary Cinema.