HATSUNE MIKU A virtual performer with real fans
Since 2007, Japan has been wild for artist Hatsune Miku. Her claim to fame? She is virtual. Songwriters, lyricists and choreographers are partnering with programmers, graphic designers and 3D animators to breathe life into this digital being. Now an international star, is she a passing fad or a social trend?
Her name is Hatsune Miku. She has a pretty teenage face, endless turquoise blue ponytails and a miniskirt. This young Japanese singer also has millions of fans around the world, fills concert halls and markets hundreds of products. Her songs, posted on YouTube, rival the popularity of Lady Gaga. But unlike Gaga, Hatsune Miku is not human. She is a virtual artist whose meteoric rise has caught the entertainment industry by surprise.
The future star’s humble beginnings date to a drawing by illustrator KEI to decorate the box for the singing voice software program Hatsune Miku (which translates to “first sound of the future”). Developed by Japan’s Crypton Future Media and introduced in 2007, the software uses a Yamaha Vocaloid2 engine and incorporates a library of sound bites from voice actress Saki Fujita. To create a song, a user merely types in the lyrics, chooses the pitch and tempo, adds the desired effects (vibrato, crescendo, etc.) and, finally, layers in the musical accompaniment.
Soon after the software’s launch, songwriters began to upload their creations onto YouTube and its Japanese counterpart, Nico Nico Douga, introducing the general public to the music creation tool’s possibilities. Attracted by the songs, illustrators began to create videos using drawings of the young singer, inspired by the KEI drawings.
Soon after, computer scientist Yu Higushi created MikuMikuDance (MMD), a free software program designed to animate a 3D model of the girl on the box. Crypton Future Media’s voice-synthesizing software sales began to explode.
In the six years since, Hatsune Miku and her miniskirt have launched 110,000 songs worldwide and 1 million drawings, while attracting more than 1.8 million Facebook fans and 80 million views on YouTube.
Why such enthusiasm for what is ultimately a synthetic voice?
“The Japanese are fascinated by new technologies, but also very comfortable with them,” explained Cosima Oka, global marketing manager at Crypton Future Media. “To them, Hatsune Miku is not another new virtual tool, but a singer capable of performing their songs.”
“Hatsune Miku is an empty shell that everyone can fill as they wish.”specialist in otaku, Paris 8 University
Teenagers are particularly attracted to the young diva’s charms. “Her unique voice, appearance and personality have attracted many young people,” Oka said. “But what has really won them over is the ability to express their thoughts, desires and feelings through her.”
Sophie Daste, a specialist in otaku (fandom) and geek-generational cultures at France-based Paris 8 University, agrees. “Hatsune Miku is an empty shell that everyone can fill as they wish,” Daste said. “Unlike real Aidoru (Japanese idols), Hatsune Miku is not responsible for her actions. As a virtual idol, Hatsune Miku represents unalterable purity. Not only will she never grow old, but her personality will always mirror her fans’ desires. This is why her popularity hasn’t declined over time and now reaches far beyond Japan’s borders.”
While the Hatsune Miku phenomenon is growing among younger people, her style is still struggling to convince older audiences. But live performances featuring Hatsune Miku surrounded by other virtual characters could break the age barrier. The Japanese composer Keiichiro Shibuya made her the heroine of “The End,” the first opera without a live singer. In this dark and melancholy show, Hatsune Miku wonders about her condition. Is she alive? Can she die? Such thoughts are far removed from those of her usual repertoire.
To attract the more mature, more demanding public, Shibuya also worked with the artist YKBX (pronounced “Yokobox”), who created the digital sets and a 3D Hatsune Miku, featuring a wardrobe by renowned fashion designer Marc Jacobs. Shibuya insisted that Hatsune Miku appear in relief and perform in a misty, even ghostly, environment. To achieve this, YKBX devised several pieces of gauze stretched across the stage. Images, generated in real time by an array of computers, are projected onto the fabric.
While many fans were confused and even shocked by their idol’s performance, other audience members were openly enthusiastic. Jean-Luc Choplin, director of the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, where the opera was performed three times in November 2013, is effusive in his praise. “It is amazing to see how this virtual being can be so lovable and conveys her emotions with almost more intensity than a human being could,” he said.
The experience has convinced Choplin that disembodied virtual artists have earned their place in the real world. “This new mode of expression enriches the performing arts and enables them to finally enter the 21st century,” he said.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Some Hatsune Miku fans are so passionately devoted that they are taking the interaction further. The Japanese computer programmer GOROman, for example, recently paired glasses that display images in stereoscopic 3D with a haptic force-feedback peripheral device equipped with a synthetic hand. When a user puts on the glasses, Hatsune Miku appears to be holding his hand and reacts to his movements. Meanwhile, Negipoyoc, a Japanese student, has developed a program that allows the user to sleep next to Hatsune Miku by wearing the glasses and lying on his side.