This @vulture article here makes a sweet update to this now dated essay on Hatsune Miku. The article below was originally posted in 2011. © Mark Oppenneer
Cited in: Sousa, Ana Matilde Diogo de (2014) “A Colaboração Massiva de Hatsune Miku: software Vocaloid como catalisador de criações colectivas, grassroots e multidisciplinares na subcultura otaku.” Revista Croma, Estudos Artísticos. ISSN 2182-8547, e-ISSN 2182-8717. Vol. 2 (3): 121-137.
Cited in: Guga, Jelena (2014) “Virtual Idol Hatsune Miku: New Auratic Experience of the Performer as a Collaborative Platform” ArtsIT 2014: Arts and Technology: 36-44.
“Hatsune Miku is clearly a more complex phenomenon
than I initially assumed. Requires further study.”
@GreatDismal William Gibson’s Twitter Feed
On March 9, 2010, several thousand glowstick-waving Japanese fans gathered at the Zepp Tokyo music hall for a concert performance by the phenomenon known as Hatsune Miku – an amazing feat when you consider that she is not human and that four years ago, Miku did not exist. Since 2007, Hatsune Miku has traveled a peculiar path from vocal synthesizer product to beloved collaboratively constructed superstar with a growing fan base across the world. This paper explores the journey Miku has taken with special attention paid to the synergistic constellation of technological, artistic, and cultural developments which has made it possible for her to “come alive.” It starts with an historical overview of Miku, moves into an examination of cultural movements and factors that catalyzed her creation, and ends with an analysis of the phenomenon in general.
PART I: HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
Product: The Beginning
In 2003, the Yamaha Corporation created a vocal synthesis engine called Vocaloid. The technology is licensed to “soundware” studios who develop sound libraries of recorded human vocals which are released as products that enable users to reproduce realistic vocal sequences by typing words into an editor and assigning note values to them. These sequences can be further modified by adjusting variables such as attack, vibrato, dynamics, and crescendo to create realistic vocal inflections (Vocaloid website).
In March of 2004, the first two commercial “vocal fonts” or Vocaloids, Leon and Lola, were released by the British company Zero-G Limited. Marketed as “virtual soul vocalists” and modeled on real professional singers, Leon and Lola allowed users “to create synthesized singing with an unprecedented human quality” (Zero-G website). The product boxes for the Leon and Lola Vocaloids featured a photograph of the mouth area of a human face, illustrative of the vocal nature of the software, but not designed to suggest a specific personality or character. In July, Zero-G released a Vocaloid based on the voice of Miriam Stockley, a well-known British singer. During this time, Zero-G’s main competition was Japanese company Crypton Future Media, who in November of 2004, released Vocaloid Meiko. Meiko’s product box featured a female character drawn in an anime style which proved to be a successful marketing strategy.
Because of the commercial success of these products, Yamaha Corporation continued to develop its vocal synthesis technology and in 2007, released the improved Vocaloid 2 engine. Crypton Future Media’s first release using the new Vocaloid 2 was Hatsune Miku, based on the voice of female voice actor Saki Fujita. Issued in August of 2007, Miku’s packaging built on the strategy that worked so well with Meiko. Her product box featured an anime-style female android character with long green pig-tails illustrated by popular anime artist Kei [see below].
The combination of Miku’s image and her vocal sound quality struck a chord within the population of people who use Vocaloid products. Within the first 12 days of sales, over 3,000 reservations for the software had been placed (IT Media News). Miku’s release also marked the first time that a Vocaloid was given a range of human-like attributes: promotional material states that Miku is a 16 year old girl who stands 158 cm tall and weighs in at 42 kg. Her genre is listed as Idol Pop/Dance music; her suggested tempo is 70-150 beats per minute; her suggested musical range is A3-E5, and her mascot, or character item, is the spring onion (Crypton Future Media).
Process: The Influence of Nico Nico Douga
Hatsune Miku’s rapid rise in popularity as a Vocaloid 2 product suggested that people were interested in creating songs with her as vocalist, but it was her explosive presence on Nico Nico Douga that revealed her growing star power – and the desire for Miku fans to collaborate on song projects. Nico Nico Douga is Japan’s most popular video sharing site (similar to YouTube). Through the comments area and the site’s unique tagging system — which allows viewers to overlay comments directly within the streaming video at any particular moment — creators began garnering suggestions and critical comments from viewers. People used the site for networking: producers, visual artists, animators, musicians, composers, and other creative types began working together on what Hamasaki calls “massively collaborative creations,” music videos developed by people who likely had never met and in some cases lived far from one another.
Typically, the notes included by the individual who uploads a video (who may not be the producer or creator) will give credit to the project collaborators. For example, “Morning Call” (a Vocaloid KAITO song about Miku), uploaded by reddevils500a on YouTube, is labeled as an OSTER-Project with credit given to Worf for the movie, Tekitoh for the background, and FJNR for the lyrics. Proper crediting is not only a respectful courtesy, but also allows fans to follow the works of their favorite producers. For example, OSTER-Project is one of the earlier producers who started sharing projects shortly after Hatsune Miku was released in 2007. She (OSTER-Project didn’t reveal her gender to the Vocaloid community until April of 2010) has produced over 50 Vocaloid songs with Miku, Rin, Luka and MEIKO (Vocaloid Wiki).
Within nine months of Miku’s release over 36,700 Hatsune Miku videos were shared on Nico Nico Douga (Hamasaki, et al.). Fans and creators began using YouTube as well. As of the writing of this essay, 82,133 Miku videos are listed on Nico Nico Douga (http://www.nicovideo.jp/search/初音ミク) and 199,000 videos appear on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=初音ミク). To put Miku’s popularity in perspective, compare that last figure to the 343,000 videos tagged with “Vocaloid” (http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=vocaloid&aq=f). Although there are now over twenty “officially” released Vocaloids (i.e. from the major soundware studios), Miku currently represents 58 percent of the Vocaloid videos on YouTube.
Producing: The Tools of the Trade
Let’s summarize: Yamaha created the technology, Crypton Future Media the vocal font, and Nico Nico Douga the collaborative workshop. As Miku attracted more interest from viewers and producers, other tools became part of the development picture: free and shareware production applications and online community sites for sharing and networking. MikuMikuDance [see image below], a freeware animation program created by Yu Higuchi, allows users to choreograph, animate and produce 3D animation movies. It was developed specifically for the growing Miku phenomenon and came with several Crypton Future Media Vocaloid 3D models. The visuals of a great number of the Miku videos on YouTube and Nico Nico Douga have been made using MikuMikuDance, whose finished works have a distinct look to them. In response to its reception in the Vocaloid community, the software has gone through extensive upgrades since it first hit the scene (MikuMikuDance “Tool of God”).
Although not a tool for Vocaloid production, this next application nonetheless served to bolster the voice synthesizer craze. On March of 2008, within a year of the Miku boom, programmers Ameya/Ayame developed a shareware vocal synthesizer application similar to Vocaloid called UTAU. The program is not compatible with the commercial Vocaloid products and is in comparison somewhat limited in features, but instead offers the user the ability to capture their own voices and cultivate them into unique UTAUloids. Whereas there are fewer than two dozen official Vocaloids, there are over 570 Utauloids from creators in Japan, Brazil, Australia, France, Canada, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, and the United States (UTAU Wiki). Co-existing and overlapping with the Vocaloid community is a strong and growing online UTAUloid community as well.
Reacting quickly to the collaborative communities developing around Miku and the other Vocaloids (and in response to growing copyright concerns), Crypton Future Media created PIAPRO (http://www.paipro.jp) in November of 2007. Written in Japanese, PIAPRO is a community website for the sharing and creation of “consumer generated media” derived from Crypton Future Media’s vocal fonts. All material shared on the site is subject to a Creative Commons-style license agreement (Character Licensing Piapuro). One year later, recognizing the need for an English Vocaloid community portal, Kevin Yusharyahya began developing the website Vocaloidism (http://www.vocaloidism.com). Started as part of a school project, it has continued to grow. These are just two of dozens of Vocaloid community portals that have sprouted up over the last four years as an organic aspect of the user/creator experience.
Promotion: The Prodigal Daughter Returns
When Crypton Future Media released Hatsune Miku, they could not foresee her success or the manner in which the nature of her relationship with the public would change. The synergistic play between the advances in vocal synthesizer technology, file sharing platforms such as Nico Nico Douga and YouTube, and the nature of fast-forming collaborative communities online all helped to lay the groundwork for Miku’s success. But that success also changed what Miku was. She had grown from a vocal synthesizer product into a social phenomenon, a virtual performer.
Seizing the opportunity for continued commercial growth, Crypton Future Media smartly adapted to this change by creating a record label to support the sale, distribution, and promotion of consumer generated Vocaloid media. The label is named KarenT in honor of Alvin Toffler’s daughter (who died at a young age ). It is also an homage to the man himself who coined the term “prosumer” in his book The Third Wave (KarenT). KarenT recordings featuring Miku and other Vocaloids have sold well. In May of 2010, Japanese entertainment website J!-Ent reported that Exit Tunes Presents Vocalogenesis feat. Hatsune Miku had become the first Vocaloid album to top the Oricon weekly album charts (bumping Justin Bieber to #2).
Other strategies to promote Hatsune Miku as a virtual performer were employed as well. Crypton Future Media placed her image on race cars in 2008 during the Super GT season which increased public awareness. In 2009, Miku became the main Vocaloid character featured in a Sega PlayStation Portable game called Hatsune Miku: Project Diva. All of the songs included in the game were created by well-known Vocaloid producers. The game was successful enough to warrant the development of a Project Diva sequel, released in July of 2010 (Sega). Miku has also made several appearances and cameos in other media, notably manga and anime, but also in video games and game soundtracks.
Progress: Where Miku is Headed Now
In April of 2010, Miku received an upgrade by way of an add-on product called Hatsune Miku Append. The product works in conjunction with the Hatsune Miku Vocaloid application to extend her voice capabilities by providing six new vocal textures: “Soft (gentle, delicate voice), Sweet (young, chibi voice), Dark (mature, heartbroken-like voice), Vivid (bright, cheerful voice), Solid (loud, clear voice), and Light (innocent, heavenly voice)” (Crypton Future Media). Miku was the first Vocaloid to receive this kind of extension. [Video link removed because the links go bad now and then. See this YouTube channel for hundreds of Hatsune Miku videos.]
At the New York Anime Festival in October of 2010, Crypton Future Media issued a challenge to fans: muster up 39,390 “likes” on the official Hatsune Miku Facebook page and they would create an English release of Miku (since her library was built to form Japanese words, she sounds accented when singing in English). The number is derived from a play on words based on how the numbers 3 and 9 are pronounced in Japanese. They can be read as Mi and Ku or as the phonetic sound-alike to “thank you”, San and Kyuu (LeetNeet). In the three months since that challenge was issued, 69,880 people have pressed the “Like” button for Miku. No release date has been announced for the English version of Miku, but Crypton Future Media has verified that production is underway.
The English version of Miku is not just fan service. It is part of Crypton Future Media’s plans to expand their Vocaloid line into Western markets, namely America where they are even discussing the possibility of a Miku store (LeetNeet).
PART II: CULTURAL FACTORS
In this section, I will examine several cultural factors that paved the way for Hatsune Miku to become a virtual star. I argue that Miku is a creation of circumstance that happened when and where it did because all of the ingredients were there. Specifically, I will outline social movements and practices, most of which are endemic to Japan (anime, manga, kawaii, moe, fandom, otaku, J-pop, and virtual idols), that reveal Miku’s rise to be more of an inevitability than an anomaly.
The look: Anime & Manga
In simple terms, anime is a form of Japanese cartooning which is either televised or released on DVD or video. Books featuring the visual style are called manga. There are many different styles of drawing, however some characteristics have become ubiquitous and emblematic of anime and manga: characters with pale skin, large eyes, small mouths and noses, slender bodies. Bryce has suggested that visualizing Japanese characters this way with generally unrealistic Caucasian features signifies “that they are ‘iconographic’ and ensure the mukokuseki (stateless, non-Japanese) fictionality of the fantasies and also essential ‘vocabularies’ to create the spheres of virtual realities” (2271). The characters become blank slates onto which we project ourselves.
Kei’s drawing of Miku which was used as the cover of her Vocaloid release resonates with the aesthetics of anime and manga (school girl chic, long legs, small mouth and nose, etc.). Because she looks like an anime character, there has been some confusion among fans new to Miku – they want to know what series she comes from. Although she has made appearances in various works, Miku does not have a story or a anime or manga-related background (as the title suggests, Maker Unofficial Hatsune Mix manga, written and drawn by Miku’s artist Kei is not connected to Crypton Future Media). It is arguable that this is a desirable quality in a Vocaloid as the creative participants of a song or video are free to partake in the shaping of a mythos. Elements or aspects of the “fanon” (a play on fan and canon) that are not accepted by the larger community will slip away. Miku is a crowd-sourced character in this regard.
In a limited respect, the “open source” nature of the Vocaloid community parallels the practices surrounding Dōjinshi, which are self-published Japanese works, usually manga or visual novels. Typically, they are the work of amateur artists, much like many Vocaloid producers. In both cases, there are occasional professional artists who use these community-based approaches to avoid the constrictions of the industries in which they work.
The feel: Kawaii & Moe
The aesthetic of anime and manga is influenced by kawaii and moe. Kawaii, a Japanese word that translates to ‘cute’, is a staple element “of the vast popular culture which has flourished in Japan during the last quarter of a century, overwhelming and threatening traditional culture. This popular culture is almost entirely devoted to “an escape from reality, and its dominant themes have been cuteness, nostalgia, foreignness, romance, fantasy and science fiction” (Kinsella, 252). A basic way to trigger understanding of kawaii for people not familiar with Japanese culture is to start the conversation with mention of Hello Kitty. The products that are part of the Hello Kitty world are meant to evoke a cute, innocent, diminutive sweetness. To the Western eye, the look is often too bright, cheery, saccharin, or silly. However, cuteness is big business in Japan. As evidenced by its all-pervasive presence in advertising, on clothing, buildings such as banks and police stations, even airplanes – essentially any surface capable of bearing an image.
Moe is related to kawaii, but kawaii is socially acceptable and moe is generally not. Moe (pronounced with an “ay” at the end) is the fetishistic love or passion for a two-dimensional fictional character. This kind of relationship is surprisingly not rare in Japan, but its nature is contested. Because moe often involves grown men professing pure, protective feelings toward a young, round-eyed, innocent female character, it is seen by critics as an extension of lolicon fetishism (a style of anime or manga that portrays childlike girls in an erotic fashion). In short, moe looks an awful lot like shades of pedophilia. In an ideal moe relationship, “a man frees himself from the expectations of an ordinary human relationship and expresses his passion for a chosen character, without fear of being judged or rejected” (Takayama). Recognizing moe as more than simply a fad, Galbraith notes that, “The appearance of a neologism to describe feelings for fantasy characters represents an acute awareness of the importance of fantasy, and as such can be understood as one important cultural development occurring in Japan at the turn of the millennium.”
Galbraith also argues that moe is a response to “characters without context or depth, and is made possible by flattening characters to surfaces upon which to project desires.” The “storyless” nature of Miku presents such a surface. Graphic representations of Miku vary greatly. A Google images search will return images of her that are miniature and adorable, flowing and radiant, severe and strong, happy and playful, submissive and helpless, or sultry and seductive. It is understandable how a constructed personality, like Miku’s, that can match one’s individual nature and desires, is moe fodder.
Popular in Japan, is the ‘characterization’ of a real person through the practice of costumed play, or ‘cosplay’ as it is known. Despite its name, cosplay is not about dressing up for play – rather think of play in its performative use. Cosplayers theatrically become their character (usually their favorite anime or manga character) through the accuracy of costume details, as well as the study of postures, expressions, phrases, manners of speaking, and so on. In becoming a character this way, “the cosplayer learns scripts from the mediated image of the character, enacts them and then becomes an image. It is precisely because the cosplayer becomes an image that the moe response is possible” (Galbraith). The cosplayer straddles the liminal line between fantasy and reality. Honda (as cited in Galbraith) refers to this state as “2.5 dimensional.”
It should not need to be said that Miku has become a popular cosplay character. As the previous two sections have attempted to show, she is desirable because she is like a canvas that we, as creative actors, can fill with our own desires and passions. As a cosplay character, she becomes the embodiment of our most intimate self as played out on that canvas.
The attitude: Fandom and Otaku
The backdrop to cute culture, moe, and cosplay is the realm of fandom. Fandom is an appreciation of anime and manga styles and works. Fanboys and fangirls run the gamut between casual enjoyment and extreme fanaticism. The obsessive fans are termed otaku – a contentious phrase that is more often than not derogatory in Japan and a point of pride in America. It can be applied to any subject much like the word geek: one can be computer otaku, cosplay otaku, Star Wars otaku, anime otaku, and so on. With the popularity of Miku and the Vocaloids, it is no wonder that the phrase “vocaloid otaku” appears on over 40,000 web sites (per a recent Google search). It aptly describes the enthusiasm fans have, whether as producers, songwriters, lyricists, or animators for what she has become over the last four years.
The sounds: J-Pop, Teen Idols & Virtual Idols
J-Pop is a term used to distinguish the newer sounds of popular Japanese music from the more traditional classical or Enka styles. Most of the songs that Miku sings can be described as J-Pop. One could argue that Miku’s path to the top of the charts was paved by the arrival of “idols” in Japanese culture. Idols are typically attractive teenage girls who will come onto the scene as media personalities (as singers, minor actors, models). Their celebrity may last only weeks or can span years. In the 1990’s idols began to fall out of favor as newer music styles began to appear that didn’t sustain the ideals of idol cuteness, such as rap and rock.
The 90s also saw the introduction of a new kind of idol, the virtual idol. In August of 1994, popular Japanese anime series Macross Plus introduced an artificial idol named Sharon Apple. Sharon is physically a black box, yet she can manifest herself in the form of a hologram. It is in this form that Sharon performs concerts as an idol. In 1996, two other virtual idols vied for the public’s attention. One was a fictional character in William Gibson’s novel Idoru (which is Japanese for idol). Idoru featured Rei Toei, a virtual idol who was adored by a human man who wished to marry her. Rei is a composite AI who can customize herself to the likes of her viewers. Although Idoru is not Japanese in origin (the author is American-Canadian), it places Rei’s character in Japan which suggests the potentiality of virtual personas in that geographic region.
Two months after Gibson’s novel came out, Japanese entertainment company HoriPro, Inc. unveiled a virtual idol named Kyoko Date [see video below]. Kyoko was a digital creation whose movements were motion captured and rendered by Visual Science Laboratory. Unlike Rei, who existed only within the covers of a book, Kyoko was introduced as a “real” virtual performer who released songs, appeared in videos and made public radio appearances. A music video was produced that showed Kyoko dancing through the streets of Tokyo (her digital form was superimposed over familiar landmarks and areas). She enjoyed a brief moment in the spotlight, before losing the public’s interest. By the time the Western press began to report on Kyoko Date, “they knew little about Japanese pop music trends, and thus her appeal in Japan was more a novelty news item” (Dire Wolff).
The factors introduced above – anime, manga, kawaii, moe, fandom, otaku, J-pop, and virtual idols – together form a kind of social scaffolding, unique to Japan in the new millennium, that has allowed Miku to be built from the ground up. Miku did not come into existence in America because we do not have as large an anime and manga fandom, we are not emotionally invested in cute culture nor do we have the attachment to images that is prevalent in Japan. And although there are fanatics of all makes and models in America, they typically don’t engage in the kinds of theatrical otaku enactment associated with cosplay. In short: the path of Hatsune Miku was not anomalous or accidental, but in some ways inevitable considering the combination of available technology and existing cultural factors as outlined above.
PART III: ANALYSIS
We have explored the what and the how, but not the why of Miku. I have argued that she was born at the crossroads of the technology and cultural movements of a particular time and place. But what explains the meaningfulness of this creation? What makes her such a captivating entity? As mentioned earlier, she is a blank slate – literally just an image and a box of phonemes. And yet, that handful of material has spawned a phenomenon that is reaching from East to West. In this last section, I will examine a few theoretical perspectives in an effort to contextualize an understanding of Miku. I have organized this section around questions that Western critics might lodge against her.
She’s so fake. Why do you find her interesting?
Fakeness is a matter of taste and perspective. From their penchant for fake food displays to theme parks such as Huis Ten Bosch in Kyushu which replicates a Dutch city, the Japanese, as a culture, seem very interested in artifice. In regards to virtual idols, Hamilton notes that, “Artifice becomes part of the charm and much of the reason that these images are appealing to their audience.” What to one person may seem like an empty digital throwaway may be a muse of creative possibility to another. There is a kind of purity to the constructed persona of Miku. She will never go to rehab, never suffer a career ending scandal, or become old or obese. She may be fake in some regards, but she’s flawlessly so: “These images are free of any material referent. There can be no flaw in a synthetic girl, and there can be no deception from a person who is overtly 100% artificial” (Hamilton).
It should be noted that members of the Vocaloid community not only recognize aspects of fakeness or artifice, but use it to their creative advantage. Start with the fact that Miku is an android. Its okay for her to not seem quite real, even imperfect, because she is not supposed to be or sound exactly like a human (vocaloid is a portmanteau of vocal and android). In one well-known Miku song, Melody.exe (music by mikuru396, model by kio, and motion and editing by ussy-P), she thanks her producer for giving her life, and acknowledges her non-humanness:
When I was so alone, so alone
you held me out caring hands
I was a digital bit Vocaloid
but you gave me song and soul.
One could argue that to be perfectly human-like is not desirable (i.e. the uncanny valley). Hamilton reasons that Kyoko Date’s 15 minutes of fame is tied to her being too lifelike: “If it is the artificiality of image that attracts young men to virtual idols, then perhaps the error was in Horipro’s intense efforts to make Kyoko appear and act human.” Where Miku is endearing because of her androidness, Kyoko was not because of her humanness.
Another way to approach this is touched on by Edwards and Newell in their examination of theater and human-computer interaction:
We are trying to create a similar relationship between the human and the synthetic character as exists between the audience and the actor. No one in the audience believes that the man on the stage is about to murder the king, but that does not mean that the audience is unmoved by the performance. There is a deal struck implicitly between the participants regarding what is true and what they are willing to pretend is true. The case is even more apparent in opera. (140)
Producers who use Miku are not expecting their listeners to believe that the synthetic character of Miku is a real person, but they are hoping the listener will nevertheless be moved by her performance.
She’s no different than the teen pop stars we already have.
Not so, if we assume the similarities are described by words such as talentless, derivative, hollow, bland, too processed, etc. These are words one might associate with pop stars who have “attributed celebrity” which has more to do with concentrated representation and media saturation than talent and ability (Rojek, 18). However, heavy mediation is not necessarily bad. As people who live under the spotlight, pop stars are heavily mediated. They cannot exist in the public eye without a network of “cultural intermediaries who operate to stage-manage celebrity presence in the eyes of the public . . . agents, publicists, marketing personnel, promoters, photographers, fitness trainers, wardrobe staff, cosmetics experts and personal assistants” (Rojek, 10). It is no exaggeration to say that Miku also exists in the public eye because of the “cultural intermediaries” that help to stage-manage her celebrity presence. In addition to the thousands of Vocaloid fans who listen, review, contribute, create, and so on, there are also Miku’s corporate handlers: the programmers, designers, stage hands, promoters, planners, all of the other people it took to execute her “39’s Giving Day” concert. Black gets to the heart of the situation here:
The virtual idol seeks to simulate a particular kind of human body: the celebrity who is already heavily mediated and virtualised through her relationship with and dependence upon technologies of representation and the careful construction of a public persona. The celebrity is a particularly appropriate subject for digital simulation given that the careers of living media celebrities already follow a trajectory which carries them towards virtualisation, and the virtual idol’s blurring of the boundaries separating the biological and digital bodies highlights a contemporary propensity to see little difference between the two (Black).
So, yes, today’s pop stars and Miku are similar in that they exist only as mediated constructions (Miku a little more so). However, to suggest that she is talentless, hollow, etc. misses the point that she is a massively collaborated user-generated surface onto which fans project themselves. Behind any given teen pop sensation, one might actually find a shallow, spoiled, hack – it is possible because there is a human underneath the mediated form. As for Miku, there is no “veridical self” behind the media mask. She is, at the end of the day, an idea.
She’s a flash in the pan: a pre-recorded hologram gimmick.
On November 10 of 2010, some major Western media outlets – The L.A. Times, The Huffington Post, Britain’s Daily Mail, PC World online, among others – began posting stories about Miku’s “39’s Giving Day” concert which was just being released on DVD (it was recorded in front of a live audience on March 9 of 2010). The vast majority of articles featured headlines including the word ‘hologram’ which must have started with one outlet and been passed around. The main focus and interest of the articles was “Hatsune Miku is a hologram.” Unlike Japanese audiences who have known the phenomenon of Miku for three years, the Western media didn’t know what to make of her and thus her appeal, like Kyoko before her, “was more a novelty news item.” In the concert footage, Miku appears to walk, dance, and gesture as a 3D digital image on stage. The effect is startling. It is created by a back-projected image onto a thin, transparent surface suspended across the stage by a lattice framework. In videos of the performance, one can clearly see the screen’s outline as well as the reflection of glowsticks being waved by audience members. Much to the chagrin of the Vocaloid community, the debut of Miku onto the world stage was tainted by the mis-reporting of her as a performing hologram and not as a massively collaborated, user-generated creative phenomenon.
If she were only a gimmick, it might be true that time would erase her from our memory. But the sheer number of people who partake in the designing, composing, animating, writing, recording, sharing, viewing, adapting, and other roles within the Vocaloid user/creator world suggests this is not an endeavor likely to fail on the merits of being a gimmick. Rather, Miku might become obsolete as new technology appears (Yamaha will soon be releasing Vocaloid 3), or she might experience rifts in the fandom due to fickle followers who become divided along lines regarding whether or not to use the forthcoming English version as opposed to the original or the Append version of the software.
Why would I want to spend money to see a ‘live’ pre-recorded virtual concert?
One would do this for the same reason she or he would purchase a movie ticket. We want to be transported to a place of imagination and play. As humans, we enjoy immersing ourselves in narrative, losing ourselves in other worlds, suspending our disbelief so that we may experience intense emotion. Although Miku doesn’t have a story, each song accepted into the ‘fanon’ adds to her shape as a narrative entity. In many ways, her community operates along rules akin to oral traditions. There are tellings, retellings, adaptations, covers, parodies, calls and responses – all taking place in the digital space of Nico Nico Douga and YouTube. “Despite superficial differences, both technologies [the Internet and oral traditions] are radically alike in depending not on static products but rather on continuous processes…” (Pathways Project).
One commenter on a Miku-related blog post explicitly drew lines between Vocaloids and mythos: “Actually, the whole nature of the vocaloid community does put one in the mind of ancient mythology, where you likewise had many interpreters and story-tellers at work yet having a discrete body of ‘canon’ myths that would resonate with people and survive through repeated tellings” (Vendredi).
These aspects of performance and reperformance “bring communities of people closer together with a shared language and shared values” (Meyer). Going to a Miku concert as a fan is going to be a much different experience than going to see a movie. The audience in a movie most likely will not have written parts of the dialog or the score. They won’t have called shots or framed scenes. A movie is a passive, receptive experience in that regard. Miku’s audience members are likely to have many shared values surrounding the Vocaloid community. They may have even contributed creatively to the songs being performed. Laurel (as quoted in Edwards & Newell) notes that “People who are participating in the action aren’t audience members anymore. It’s not that the audience joins the actors on stage; it’s that they become actors – and the notion of passive observers disappears.”
To our Western sensibilities, Hatsune Miku may seem a strange trick, a clever bit of flash and sizzle that flits across the fast-moving stage of modern entertainment. This essay has attempted to challenge that perception by exploring the synergism between the technological tools, the artistic community of user/creator fans, and the cultural moment that laid the foundation for Miku to appear when and how she did. Her star continues to shine, at least for the moment, as her second “39’s Giving Day” concert has been announced for March 9, 2011 in Tokyo once again.
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