What exactly does it mean to be a virtual diva? Before we can truly understand Hatsune Miku’s popularity, it’s perhaps best to identify what exactly she is. Surprisingly though, this is quite tricky: Clearly, in the most simple terms, she’s the character designed as the face of Fujita Saki’s recorded and digitalized voice for a music production software developed by Sega and Yamaha. But at the same time, there’s the idea that she doesn’t really exist; when we talk about Miku singing, we’re using metaphors to make something that strictly isn’t alive alive. Hatsune Miku, I think, is more complex than we sometimes make her out to be.
Anime Expo 2011 was arguably all about Miku. Mikunopolis was clearly the largest event of the weekend, seeing as it was the only one that was both sold-out and at the Nokia Theater. Other guests – Crypton media’s Hiroyuki Itoh and Sasaki Wataru, DANCEROID, and Kobayashi Onyx – were brought over to supplement Miku’s appearance. Anime Expo wasn’t joking when they chose the “Year of the Fan” as the theme for the entire convention. After all, Vocaloid is about cutting barriers between the fan, the producer, and the consumer, something that Yamaha manager Kenmochi Hideki mentioned in the Mirai no Neiro panel on Day 3 of the convention.
It’s obvious that Miku has the qualities of something human, yet at the same time her existence is mechanical or virtual. The term diva alone implies not only technical ability, but it also implies a sense of popularity. Miku’s popularity, however, is elusive to pinpoint. According to Kobayashi Onyx, who spoke at the Miku Conference panel on Day 2 of Anime Expo 2011, her success lies in three parts: Miku herself, freedom during the creative process, and the global reach of the internet. While I certain don’t disagree with Onyx’s assessment, I think a further breakdown of his three points will reveal something interesting about Hatsune Miku’s existence.
Hatsune Miku as Poster Child
When the mystery surrounding Toyota’s Hatsune Miku Corolla commercials had finally been lifted, it became clear that Toyota was heavily marketing toward a younger crowd, specifically with Anime Expo in mind. Toyota brought over two itasha (cars decorated with anime or game characters) to Anime Expo 2011, an entire staff team, cute girls to cosplay as Miku in front of the cars, and thousands of posters with a child-like Miku cutely smiling over a small image of a Corolla. Despite the fact that Miku is a character designed to simply put a face to the main software, she was popular enough to become an official poster child for a car company. Although significant doubt about her marketability in America exists, nonetheless the publicity is a significant step for Miku.
Hatsune Miku is actually very humble in her origins. She began as an illustration on the box of the new Vocaloid2 series with which she was marketed; ultimately, that’s all she is. But she quickly took on a life of her own when creators across Japan began adding a personality to her by writing funny, quirky, entertaining songs and drawing or animating her. Eventually, her image became associated with a leek.
Why is this significant? Perhaps I don’t need to point out just how similar Miku is to the Touhou franchise characters. Part of the Touhou craze has to do with the fact that many of the characters in the games themselves have very little background information, thus allowing fans imaginary freedom to further develop the characters’ personalities outside the franchise and in the fandom itself. Likewise, Miku’s lack of specifics allows mini-narratives in the form of songs and videos, which in turn brings her to life in such a way that she’s more than character. She’s a representation, a concept embodying the power of user-generated products.
Hatsune Miku as Technology
The interface is relatively intuitive to use. Instead of employing musical terminology, the software uses length of notes to produce a melody on several bars, which correspond to notes on a piano. Pitch and tempo can be changed to suit the creator’s purposes, while vibrato and pronunciation can be changed at will. Further background instruments such as drums, piano, and guitar can be added to produce a full song.
According to Yamaha’s Kenmochi Hideki, who leads the speech technology development team for Yamaha, Hatsune Miku is a virtual diva because she serves as the face of revolutionary software that supplements the traditional necessity for a composer and a singer. He argues that, Miku is a software that has changed the face of the music world similar to how digital instruments did; perhaps even more so, because it attempts to mimic the complexity of not only musical note production, but speech patterns in natural language as well.
Kenmochi demonstrated his point efficiently during his presentation. First, he illustrated how difficult it was to make Vocaloids produce sounds that were natural to the human ear. Next, he used the English Vocaloid software Sweet Ann to produce a simple Happy Birthday melody in a very short amount of time. Then he emphasized that Vocaloid is not simply attempting to copy the human voice, but that it is, in the sense, the future of music because of its special properties. It can have its library changed to make it suitable to an extremely wide range of genres. It can produce sounds at such a fast rate that the human ear cannot understand the words. It can sing for longer stretches than any singer. Just look at one of the most popular Hatsune Miku songs, The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku, and it becomes obvious that these aspects of the software have been taken advantage of by producers from a relatively early point in Vocaloid’s history. In essence, Vocaloid is marketed just as much for its human-like vocal qualities as its machine-like aspects.
Marketed toward both professional musicians and amateurs, Vocaloid arguably has tore down boundaries that traditionally existed in music, allowing those with relatively little musical knowledge to produce songs generating thousands to millions of views. It allows not only artists, but internet savvy individuals to produce songs geared toward an audience that they are familiar with.
Hatsune Miku as Pop Culture
It’s undeniable that the main hub of Vocaloid activity in Japan is on Nico Nico Douga, the video sharing site that contains rankings of the most popular vocaloid songs, in addition to rankings for other types of videos. Thus, Miku’s success is not solely dependent on her own abilities and that of the creators or software, but also the ease by which users in Japan can find aggregated information on the newest songs produced.
Miku’s popularity doesn’t stop with just her voice. Communities have sprung up on Nico Nico that piggyback off the Vocaloid community, such as the “Utattemita” (I tried singing) or “Odottemita” (I tried dancing) ones which now have their own categories on the Nico Nico main page navigation bar thanks to their popularity. Viral, Miku’s spread across anime and game communities has crossed national boundaries, relying on the information disseminating abilities of both producers and fans alike.
Back to my original question: What exactly is a virtual diva?
Miku’s “virtuality” in essence stems from Onyx’s first and third points. She is a barebones character that has taken root in the imagination of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, unlimited by anything human on her part. At the same time, because of the fact that there is little infrastructure and legal framework to govern the growing, fan-based Vocaloid community on the internet, she is relatively unaffected by copyright issues. In fact, the tolerance Japanese companies give to user-generated and fan-created materials is almost shockingly lenient compared to what the English-speaking Youtube community is familiar with. Technologically, Miku’s unbound ability to be sung by anyone provides the popularity and broad appeal necessary for any diva to be recognized.
Theoretically, Miku’s viral pathway to stardom lies in her lack of content rather than being a fully created character. To draw from Azuma Hiroki’s work on otaku behavior and postmodern patterns of consumption, Vocaloid and Hatsune Miku serve as the database from which individual mini-narratives, located in the songs and videos produced by users of the software, are born. At the same time, the technological feat achieved by synthesizing the human voice provides a modern breaking of the traditional roles within the music industry; consumer, producer, fan, musician, technician—individuals of all kinds have united into a community that is as organic as Rousseau’s image of government three hundred years ago.
I argue that Hatsune Miku is a two-part phenomenon. Miku herself is rooted in the behavior of individuals in an informatively ubiquitous world, produced by the imagination of a collective global community. The software is the product of technological innovation that has transcended previous boundaries to such an extent that it would be a mistake to underestimate how technology has played a role in Miku’s development.
When the lights dimmed for the Mikunopolis event, and Hatsune Miku made her first appearance on stage, the roar of the thousands of fans in the crowd could not be mistaken. Projected onto a screen that produces an optical illusion of solidity and embodiment, Miku has rapidly progressed from her 2-dimonsional origin as the decoration for the Vocaloid box cover to becoming a sci-fi pop star. With Vocaloid’s potential to develop in upcoming years, the Mirai no Neiro panel was certainly right to coin the name: “the Sound of the Future.”
The Nihon Review and Anime Instrumentality have teamed up to provide a report of Miku-related events at Anime Expo. For a detailed report of the concert itself, see zzeroparticle’s thoughts over at Anime Instrumentality.
A sincere thank you to the dozens of individuals I’ve had the pleasure of discussing ideas with over the past weekend, including fellow writers Shinmaru and Eternal, as well as Alex Leavitt and the Mikunopolis/Mirai no Neiro staff who are now back in Japan.
For those of you who don’t quite know what Miku’s about, there are lots of English resources available online. Perhaps the only thing that is really limiting the foreign community is lack of easy access to Nico Nico Douga, but with ample interest and some smart searching on Youtube, you can find almost everything that’s posted on Nico.
Feel free to contact me via Twitter: @KylaranAeldin