Hololive EN and Multilingual Fluency Among Virtual Youtubers

Virtual Youtubers continue to be a tour de force, reaching beyond Japan to worldwide recognition. Given this success, as well as the crossover appeal of certain English-fluent VTubers (such as Fujima Sakura, Pikamee, and Kiryu Coco), it was only a matter of time before one of the big VTubers agencies would try to make an active effort to court an English-speaking audience. Thus is born Hololive EN, and with it five new streamers.

The tricky thing with something like Hololive English is striking the right balance in terms of audience desire and accessibility. Speaking in the target demographic’s native tongue does wonders for directly engaging with viewers, and offers an experience closer to what the Japanese viewers typically enjoy. Rather than Inugami Korone’s amusing struggles with English, little gets lost in translation. However, it’s also possible that part of the appeal is the existence of a culture gap—that there’s an element of exoticism found in both the language barrier and the moe idol aesthetic. Veering too far in one direction might alienate certain fans.

The route that Hololive English appears to have taken is to feature VTubers with decent degrees of spoken Japanese fluency—enough to interact with the Japanese fans as well. Their true identities remain unknown (as is standard), so it’s unclear if they’re natively multilingual or if they achieved it through study, but the result either way is that there isn’t a complete disconnect with the Japanese origins of Hololive. The style of English seems to differ from one to the next, whether it’s the cutesy affectations of Gawr Gura or the more natural-sounding speech of Mori Calliope. I think this probably a good way to hedge their bets in terms of figuring out what will garner the most fans, though I don’t know how intentional that is.

While all of them are able to speak Japanese fairly well, written fluency varies significantly between the Hololive English members (unless it’s somehow all an act). Case in point, Takanashi Kiara’s language skills are very strong to the extent that she self-translates, Ninomae Ina’nis appears to have a solid handle, and Amelia Watson can struggle with the basics. Kiara’s advantage is obvious, but I think the ones who are less fluent actually have a certain appeal themselves. Not only do they resonate with those of us who grew up speaking our parents’ languages but never became properly literate, but they’re also relatable to those currently learning Japanese or who want to learn Japanese—no doubt a common occurrence among Virtual Youtuber fans. 

For now, I don’t really have a favorite, but I wish all of them the best of luck. If they find success, I wonder if other Vtuber groups will push harder to have an active international presence.

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Nijisanji, Hololive, and the Virtual Youtuber Kayfabe

Since I last wrote about Virtual Youtubers close to two years ago, the scene has grown far beyond any one individual’s ability to keep track. One consequence of this, as I’ve come to learn, is that individual acts have started to form collectives that increase visibility for all. Two of the big ones are Nijisanji and Hololive, both of which utilize a less expensive approach called Live2D that is clearly less robust than whatever it is Kizuna A.I. has. I find the presence of groups like Nijisanji and Hololive to be curious intersections of how people interact with the internet in current times. 

Virtual Youtubers (VTubers) are essentially one part Hatsune Miku, one part livestreamer, and one part idol–the result is a kind of weird unspoken contract between viewers and creators where the notion of “authenticity” is relative rather than being some kind of absolute. One of the complaints that streamers often receive, especially if they’re extremely over the top, is that it’s all an act, and that they’re just playing to the audience in order to get more eyeballs on them. People like streamers with whom they can feel some kind of genuine connection, and a layer of “fakeness” can be a turn-off in that respect. But with characters like Tsukino Mito (Nijisanji) or Haato Akai (Hololive), there’s an obvious understanding that what you’re seeing and getting just isn’t a “real person.” At the same time, there’s still a desire that these characters aren’t fully constructed, and that some of the actual individual behind the anime mask will peek through just a bit sometimes. Fujima Sakura (who isn’t in Nijisanji or Hololive) is a prime example of this, though in that case, the person behind the character (Sally Amaki) is already well known, as is the fact that Sakura as a VTuber is part of a greater project: 22/7.

I mentioned Hatsune Miku here (and in the previous post about VTubers) not just because she’s a cute anime girl mascot who people collectively imbue with a personality and history, but because part of her charm is that her voice doesn’t sound entirely realistic. There’s an artificial quality to her that adds to her appeal, and to some extent, I can see this being the case with Nijisanji and Hololive’s VTubers because Live2D isn’t super-smooth. There’s a kind of choppiness that can drag you out of the illusion pretty easily, so you have to kind of let it work its magic on you. Perhaps it’s closer to pro wrestling in that respect. In a way, the flaws even lend themselves to a greater sense of authenticity, in that these VTubers are not presenting a supremely polished (and arguably overproduced) product. 

However, just the fact that Nijisanji and Hololive are these collectives adds another wrinkle. There’s this kind of understanding that cooperation is of mutual benefit to all those involved, but the fact that prospective VTubers basically earn the opportunity to enter these groups calls to mind the very nature of Youtube as a platform dependent on click-throughs and crossovers as a means to garner more attention. It’s not that different from something like Game Grumps, but the veneer of anime avatars makes VTubers a little more mysterious but also makes me wonder just where they’re all coming from. To what extent are they professionally honed products and to what extent are they amateur endeavors–and for that matter, does Youtube explode that difference?

It might not be such a bad thing that people can so easily become Virtual Youtubers these days. I myself have considered doing more Youtube in the past, but I’m just not a fan of putting my face out there for all to see. The way the members of Nijisanji and Hololive do it, on the other hand, provides an alternative for those who want to be out there without exposing too much of their identities. In a time when the difference between the online self and the offline self is all but disintegrated, doing this Virtual Youtuber thing can be an oasis of anonymity, albeit within a profit and attention-seeking environment.

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