The words accompany a video that piques your interest, stopping you from scrolling further on social media. The video features a black man as the titular anime character in a fighting stance, looking on intensely at his enemy. Then, he cracks a smile and starts dancing. A group of fighters behind him follow his lead as the encounter transforms into a heated dance battle — and only the ones with the best dance moves are left standing.
Viral anime-based comedy videos has become more prominent in the late 2010s thanks to black social media creatives CalebCity, King Vader, and RDCworld1. Some are short clips that highlight the absurdity of very specific anime tropes like how slow time moves or parents unconcerned with their children going on life-threatening adventures. Others are longer videos that are parodies of reality TV shows like Big Brother or The Real World, featuring well-known anime characters like Goku, Naruto, and Vegeta trying to live together without killing each other. Caleb, Vader, and RDC’s work serves as an introduction to anime for the curious and unfamiliar, and a reinterpretation of it for those who are already fans — all while providing a necessary representation.
For both Caleb and Vader, their earliest anime experiences was with Dragon Ball Z.
“I was a kid and my older brother was watching this Dragon Ball Z movie [Broly — The Legendary Super Saiyan],” Vader said. “I just didn’t understand it…I’m watching people scream and people with their shirts off. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Caleb discovered Dragon Ball Z through Toonami, the action-animation block that debuted on Cartoon Network in the late ’90s. Toonami also broadcasted other anime like Mobile Suit Gundam, Outlaw Star, and Sailor Moon during the day and at night. But the two’s appreciation for anime didn’t come until they watched Naruto. The anime tells the story of Naruto Uzumaki, a young ninja who aspires to be the leader of his village. The series made its U.S. debut through Toonami in September 2005 and concluded in January 2009.
Toonami was the gateway into anime for countless American millennials. Like Dragon Ball Z, Naruto transcended its anime beginnings and has been adopted into other cultures — like rap. Lil Uzi Vert, Denzel Curry, DRAM, Saba, and the late XXXTentacion have all made references to Naruto in their music.
“I think instead of rappers becoming fans of anime it’s more so fans of that when we were younger are just growing up and becoming rappers,” Father said of Naruto‘s influence on contemporary rap to Pitchfork. “It’s really replaced Dragon Ball almost in terms of the parallels between all the different characters.”
That sentiment — of anime fans growing up and referencing it in their music — extends to Caleb and Vader. Their anime fandom is still with them as young adults and creatives and influences their work. The two’s first foray into making anime-type videos was through Vine. The social media platform was known for its short, six-second videos, which were viewable on loop.
“We used to inspire each other. We gave each other motivation to continue,” Caleb said. “It’s good to have peers around you that are also where you’re at and understand how you feel when you feel like taking a break…We all feel tired or overwhelmed sometimes but there’s always someone in the group who can get us out of the hole.”
Because of Vine’s video length, comedic timing was of the essence. Aspiring content creators had to take into consideration not only how and what was being said but the pacing of it too — as well as how the video was going to be shot. The introduction of captions helped to alleviate some of this stress by providing context. But users were essentially their own director, producer, and writer, having to create compelling and entertaining videos that separated them from the millions using the platform.
“People thought that creating content on Vine was easy because it was so short. But the fact that it was short made it more difficult,” Caleb said. “I’m not saying go practice making six-second comedy videos to get your comedic timing down, but I’m also not gonna say it didn’t help.”
The evolution of Caleb’s comedic talents becomes evident when you watch the very first Vine he made, in March 2015. He is portraying a teacher who’s promoting his mixtape in the form of a math equation. It’s amusing but lacks the precision and execution of his subsequent Vines. That same month, he created his first anime-type Vine — “This is how animes would look like in real life.”
The delivery is confident. The aesthetic he went on to use for most of his anime-type Vines — the abrupt zoom-ins, the internal monologues — is present here. The video ended up receiving over a million loops.
“When I first started making anime-type Vines I was like, ‘They not even gonna get this,'” Caleb said. “But they did.”
There was something about the anime videos that resonated a little more than his other videos, which also touched on video game tropes, procrastinating on homework, and more. Whether it was highlighting how a villain always seems to get a power boost right as they’re being defeated, or applying an anime monologue to real-life situations like stubbing your toe. The appeal of the videos is Caleb’s acknowledgment of anime’s subtleties and how integral they are to the artform — despite being absolutely ridiculous.
“Anime characters do not act like normal people, bro. When you put their personalities into real world situations it really doesn’t make sense,” Caleb said. “They really be trippin’, bro.”
There are many videos Caleb has made on his other social media platforms that speak to this (including one he uploaded to YouTube earlier this year titled, “Basically ANY main character in a detective anime“). An earlier standout is the 2016 YouTube video, “If your best friend was an evil character in an Anime.” The minute-long video finds Caleb portraying the friend and evil character in different scenarios, including one where the two get cut off as they’re driving. Seeing his friend distraught, the evil character says the following:
“First, we capture them. Then, we tie them up and burn them, and listen to their cries of agony and ignore their begs for mercy.”
Caleb delivers the line in a stereotypical anime villain voice off-screen, while the camera pans to Caleb as himself looking on annoyed, likely wondering why he befriended someone who’s so fucking extra.
Caleb continued to make Vines until January 2017 when he announced his departure from the platform. (That same month the app was renamed “Vine Camera,” where users could still record six-second videos but only upload them to Twitter.) While he was still on Vine he transitioned to other platforms like Instagram and YouTube, and continues to create videos there. He has close to 750,000 followers on the former and 1.6 million subscribers on the latter.
Where Caleb amplifies anime’s subtleties, Vader specifically focuses on anime’s battle scene trope, reinterpreting fighting sequences as choreographed dance battles.
Like Caleb, Vader first rose to prominence on Vine. Some of those Vines foreshadowed the anime dance-off videos Vader went on to create and become known for. In March 2016 he uploaded this video where he and his friends are threatened with death by a “Highschool music graduate” if they don’t dance. In August that same year, he uploaded one where a kid warns a bully that his father is the “Hokage of the hidden leaf village,” a Naruto reference. The videos received 10 million and 6.4 million loops, respectively.
Naruto served as the inspiration for his first multi-part anime video series; he debuted Hood Naruto on Instagram in February 2017. The second part came three months later in May. But it’s the third part that came to define the series. Released in March 2018, the video featured Vader as Naruto as he faced off against Sasuke (portrayed by fellow social media star Dan Nguyen) in a dance battle. Backed by a trap remix of “Strong and Strike” — a song from the Naruto: Original Soundtrack — the pair Milly Rock, Shoot, and do other viral dances alongside their own team of dancers. For those unfamiliar with the anime series, scenes of people running across the screen with their arms stretched behind them — Naruto’s ninja run — or Vader conjuring new dancers out of nowhere, a nod to Naruto’s Shadow Clone Technique, will likely go unrecognized. But for fans, it’s a brilliant reinterpretation of the series, made better by the special effects Vader employs throughout.
Vader said that he doesn’t consider himself a dancer but he incorporated dancing into his videos because of its universality.
“It’s something that not only we can understand here in America but someone in a different country can enjoy the video and they can understand it,” Vader said. “Dancing is something that all humans do. Something that connects us all.”
A lot goes into making these videos. First, Vader decides on a concept. Then, he’ll begin working on a script. After that, he’ll schedule a day to shoot the video and put out the ask to people interested in participating. Once filming starts, Vader takes on multiple roles at once. He’s directing his production team, Wolf Graphic, and the dancers, as well as acting in front of the camera. Shoots often last six to seven hours. From there, he’ll edit the video, which can take anywhere from a week to a month (he’s often editing multiple projects at once), before getting a special effects team to add the final parts that help bring it to life. He’s currently filming a Hood Naruto movie and the second part to his Hood Cowboy Bebop series, as well as working on an Avengers: Endgame video.
“It’s a lot but I gotta do what I gotta do,” Vader said. “I gotta make the people happy.”
Vader’s work has even been recognized by Funimation, the American entertainment company that licensed Dragon Ball Z in America.
RDCWorld1’s anime-type videos are a hybrid of Vader’s and Caleb’s. Mark Phillips, the founder of the collective, was already making anime-type videos of his own on Instagram around the same time Caleb started on Vine. A month after Caleb posted his “This is how animes would look like in real life” Vine, Phillips posted “When People Take Anime Too Far” on Instagram. The clip finds Phillips trying to conjure attacks from popular animes, only to get his ass kicked as his friends watch on. The video features fellow RDC members Leland Manigo and Ben Skinner.
Since then, the collective has created many anime-type videos, most recently their ongoing “Anime House” series. The brilliance of the series lies in its concept. Popular anime characters like Goku, Naruto, Vegeta, Spike Spiegel (Cowboy Bebop), and Light Yagami (Death Note) all living together, RDC using the premise to make light of the characters’ defining qualities. Despite the length of the series’ episodes — two have been released and are over 10 minutes long — they’ve been well-received, each one receiving between two and four million views.
RDC also hosts its own anime and gaming event called Dream Con. Started in 2018, this year’s iteration of the event featured appearances from Caleb and Vader, as well as cosplayers, voice actors, and manga and comic creators.
“To even be at the point where they’re having their own convention and they’re inviting me to showcase my work at their convention…It’s an amazing feeling to know how far I’ve come from being a supporter to being friends with these people and seeing what’s possible, especially when we work together,” Vader said of RDC.
Although RDC’s Dream Con was “for everyone whether you’re Black, White, Brown, Purple or Green like Piccolo,” as the event’s website stated, countless black anime and gaming fans attended this year’s festival, and many of its notable guests were black or people of color.
Caleb, Vader, and RDC serve as a testament to the importance of representation in anime culture, having cultivated a new subculture within it that resonates not only with black anime fans but anime fans in general.
“It throws people off when they see a black Naruto or a black Iron Man. But at the end of the day people have to realize that the reason these characters were made in the first place…was based off their message and that message can resonate with anybody and that’s why anybody can play these characters,” Vader said. “I think if we’re not the pioneers then we’re definitely what’s making it popular as of now.”
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