Appreciating Cipher: The Video

Cipher The Video is an interesting cartoon. An half-hour OVA based on the shōjo manga by Minako Narita, it’s essentially a collection of music videos that convey the gist of the manga’s premise and of its twin leads, Jake “Shiva” Lang and Roy “Cipher” Lang. I stumbled across it in 2022 through a high quality scan of the LaserDisc release by the fan group Kineko Video, and although it’s often described as a “so bad it’s good” kind of anime, I ended up sincerely enjoying it as a series of mood pieces.

I don’t have enough knowledge of the manga, nor an appreciation of the overall production of the OVA, to get into further details of the aspects that didn’t strike me. For that, I’d highly recommend Chad Smith’s excellent overview on SHIN MECHA GUINGOL, and suggest you watch it for yourself if you’re able to do so. What did strike me, and what I’d like to talk about for this article, is its use of licensed music.

Licensed music is one of many tools used in the art of storytelling, to convey an idea or emotion considered important to the work by way of pre-existing music. It acts as a shorthand: rooting the world of the fiction in something closer to ours, informing the style and substance of the work, and playing on our associations with the songs used to create a more specific connection.

It’s also a tool that I’m ambivalent to, where I find it perfectly enjoyable in some situations and utterly unbearable in others. A lot of this comes down to context, of course. Every work has a different reason for using the songs it does, and it’s silly to apply the same logic and judgement to all of them. There are plenty of works which feature licensed music in ways that I find creates a specific texture, enhances ideas already present, or simply introduces me to great songs I’d otherwise never know of.

But there are many instances where it distracts from my ability to enjoy something or even wrecks it outright. I particularly hate it when songs – especially songs from decades past – are chosen that are assumed to be universally beloved, creating a shortcut to the brain that basically says “you like this song, this song is in that piece of media, you like that piece of media now”. It’s emotionally manipulative in a way that I find deeply dishonest, and one that often doesn’t work out the way its creators intend. 

I’ve regularly gotten pulled out of the moment by a licensed tune, either because I have an association that clashes with whatever it’s trying to convey here or I just dislike the song and so its appearance gets on my nerves. I get reminded of the gap between my feelings on a song and what’s generally assumed to be the public opinion on that song, and how much I used to beat myself up about that in my teens. Even with works I do highly enjoy, it’s hard not to be thrown off by this bit of transparent trickery.

At the moment, there’s been plenty of discussion on licensed music in the world of cartoons thanks to the recent release of that movie based on a popular 80s video game (The Great Giana Sisters, I think it was?). I’ve no interest in that specific movie, but it was with this context in mind that I ended up appreciating the way that Cipher: The Video used its own batch of licensed music.

Cipher is this big love letter to 80s American culture. It takes place in New York and California, the most famous states on the East and West coasts, with sequences dedicated to showing off their many iconic landmarks and sights. The entire short is in English, so as not to break the illusion that we’re watching American characters go about their lives. There’s a particular focus on media glamour, featuring its leads working on films and TV shows that we catch snippets of.

The licensed music works from this same idea, utilizing covers of popular 80s tunes such as “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” and “Footloose” along with more obscure songs of the era like The Thompson Twins’ “Kamikaze” and Mescaline Drive’s “I Don’t Like”. From the moment that “Against All Odds” plays against a quiet morning in New York, the use of music establishes the OVA’s sense of style effortlessly.

This trickles down into the specifics of the filmmaking: shots are timed to cut on the beat of the music, the construction of sequences is done to match the tone and pace of whatever song is taking center stage, and the songs being in English maintains the idea of this being an entirely English-language presentation. It’s also worth noting how there’s a good effort to keep the songs distinct from each other, going from solemn ballads to upbeat pop to hard punk rock among other genres. It makes for an entertaining, well-paced series of music-driven montages that never drags despite this taking up nearly all of the OVA.

My favourite part of this is that the use of songs date Cipher to a specific point in time. While some of the songs have gone on to become nostalgic classics, that obviously wasn’t the case when this was made. At most, they were very popular tunes from the mid-80s that could just have easily faded from memory as the years rolled on and on. That they’re used along obscure Japanese rock songs with equal weight is proof enough of that.

These weren’t beloved hits deliberately picked to tug on the heartstrings and memories of those watching so they’d like the film more by association. Like the focus on New York’s many landmarks, or the fictional behind-the-scenes showing of movies and TV shows the characters star in, the setlist is an expression of the creators’ love for 80s Americana.

There’s something poignant about it, considering this came out in 1989. The 80s was coming to an end, and while that was definitely a blessed relief for most involved, there is a subtle kind of melancholy the production gains through the passage of time. The way the World Trade Center prominently appears in the New York skyline in many shots is the strongest example of this. It’s a different time, one that can’t be returned to.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about how I enjoy being able to tell when a work reflects the time it was originally created. One of the reasons is that it acts as a kind of mirror to see the past through, to get a glimpse into a different world temporally and culturally, even though that mirror is always fractured in some way. Licensed music can act as part of that mirror, letting you see the kind of music that was popular at the time or whatever resonated strongly with the people who created it.

Like I said way up top, every example of licensed music – even down to the individual tunes, really – has a different reason for being used depending on the context of the work. But I prefer it when licensed music doesn’t try to pray on nostalgia as a shortcut for praise, and instead exists as a collection of songs that represent a specific, distant point in time. Cipher: The Video‘s quite a good example of why that’s worth considering.

Special thanks to Kineko Video​, LonelyChaser Fansubs, zawa113CJ and Tanks for providing the aforementioned release of Cipher: The Video, in addition to a bonus behind-the-scenes documentary behind the OVA.

FrDougal9000 writes for as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.

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