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You definitely remember this.
Before YouTube, before Facebook or Twitter, and even before Myspace, not just anyone could upload video of their vacuum cleaner scaring their cat for the world to see. In fact, most of us were even a little hazy on what “upload” meant. The Internet was for checking your email and downloading (the opposite of uploading) the occasional .jpeg of boobs.
Only extreme nerds and weirdos were really using the Internet creatively at that point, and if you saw one of their creations, you couldn’t post it on Facebook for all your friends. You had to either email them the link, or, more commonly, actually sit down with them and watch it together.
Into this realm of empty space and artistic possibility, in the spring of 2001, came Hyakugojyuuichi, a video so strange that even today, when people are uploading 300 hours of video to YouTube every minute, it still stands out as uniquely bizarre. The entire file is just 1.98 megabytes.
The video was created in a single day, by a 14-year-old, homeschooled, self-described “Youthful Dipwad” named Neil Cicierega. It was actually the second of what Cicierega called “Animutations,” Flash animations characterized by pop culture references set to Japanese music. In this case, it was a song from the original Japanese Pokémon series. In fact, Hyakugojyuuichi is Japanese for “151,” the number of original Pokémon.
The video was popular enough to grab the attention of the media, and Cicierega described its origins during an interview with Salon shortly after its release.
Last summer Jules, a friend of mine, used to bring over CDs he got from Japan featuring several Pokémon songs. I liked them so much they stuck with me. Finally, one day I cracked and had to find some MP3s to make music videos out of.
Eventually the video found a home on an Albino Blacksheep—a website that was hosting all sorts of potty-mouthed/immature/hilarious Flash animation videos that helped suburban middle schoolers feel subversive.
Thom Atkinson, Social Media Strategist for Indiana University, described it this way in a Facebook message to the Daily Dot:
From my perspective, Hyakugojyuuichi, and the later animutations it inspired, are basically the Worldwide Web era’s equivalent of Dadaism, except lacking in any attempt at social commentary or political criticism. Chaos for chaos’s sake. An act of icon appropriation where even the icons have no meaning. Amateur Discordianism for a generation raised on Japanese cartoons. We are entertained by its senseless energy. And, devoid of any meaning, it allows us to attribute to it any meaning we desire. But we are a society that ultimately believes all meaning has been lost, and so we revel in the absence of meaning as justification for our own hedonistic modern existence, in which we flit from one soulless sensory experience to another.
Atkinson makes some good points, but he leaves out the fact that it’s also, very, very funny.
Hyakugojyuuichi, along with videos including Weeeeeeee!, End of Ze World, and Schfifty-five, made being a weirdo seem cool—more like a member of a surrealist movement with fart jokes—and when YouTube came along four years later, they paved the way for artists to use the site in a way they otherwise might not have. I mean, maybe some people want to live in a world without The Dog of Wisdom, or He-Man singing 4 Non Blondes, but those people are joyless fools.
It’s easy to write all this stuff off as unimportant, but if there’s no one around to mock popular culture, we might start treating things like Drake’s secret Snapchat account or Taylor Swift licking herself way more seriously than we ought to. And although we’ve had artists to fill that role since long before Jonathan Swift picked up a pen, or Andy Kaufman picked up a microphone, each generation needs its own brand of hero to carry the torch. So thank you, Neil Cicierega, for clicking your mouse and making us laugh—we really needed that.
By the way, Cicierega, is still out there fighting the good fight. In addition to writing the 2005’s iconic Ultimate Showdown of ultimate Destiny, he’s also the creator of Potter Puppet Pals, which is exactly what you probably think it is, and he recently layered all four Chipmunk movies together and slowed them to half speed, because, you know… why wouldn’t he?
David Britton is a writer and comedian based in Rhinebeck, New York who focuses on internet culture, memes, and viral news stories. He also writes for the Hard Times and is the creator of StoriesAboutWizards.com.