Hololive Alternative is a 2d animation project depicting the Virtual Youtubers of Hololive as active characters within a world. Two “teasers” are out currently, and they’re a treat for fans and newcomers alike. But while watching the second, the depicted interaction between Takanashi Kiara and Mori Calliope made me hyper-aware of how internet culture and its memes evolve at lightning speeds.
Kiara the Phoenix and Calliope the grim reaper are both part of HoloMyth, the Hololive brand’s first foray into the English-speaking market. Early on in their careers, they were known for having a rather flirtatious and tsundere-esque relationship, which in turn spawned the ship known as TakaMori. It was a prominent part of both character identities—even making it into Can You Do the Hololive?, a song based on all the members’ signature greetings. In it, Kiara states, “Of course the two of us come together,” and Calli responds, “Shut your mouth, Kusotori [Stupid Chicken].”
Similarly, the second Hololive Alternative teaser shows the two eating together. Kiara eagerly takes photos of everything (Calli included), and the reaper responds by grabbing her scythe and taking swipes at Kiara. The whole interaction describes the original basis for TakaMori to a tee.
The only problem: the nature of the pairing has changed over time. It still has fans, of course, and the two even recently had an in-person stream together that was made all the more impressive by the fact that one had to travel from Japan to Austria. However, both Kiara and Calli have talked about the fact that they decided to emphasize their solo identities more. The fans in the Youtube comments for that collaboration have remarked even on how the duo’s dynamic has changed (and arguably for the better).
Granted, this isn’t quite the same as a meme naturally morphing into something unrecognizable. The fact is, one can point to a conscious decision as the reason TakaMori isn’t quite the same as it used to be: a purposeful shift in direction. Nevertheless, it feel indicative of the rapid pace at which VTuber in-jokes are formed feels indicative of the general speed of the current internet. In contrast, elaborate animations—even short ones like the teasers for Hololive Alternative—take time to be made. In that gap, the ground shifted underneath TakaMori, and its depiction in animated form can feel like a relic of the past. In reality, it’s only been a little over a year, but the fact that a year sounds like forever in VTuber time makes that difference all the more stark. Online empires rise and fall in less time, and I have to wonder what else might end up coming across as a “yesteryear meme” by the time the next teaser is done.
A confluence of events has me thinking a lot about how people connect to Virtual Youtubers. Just recently, we’ve had both the final concert from pioneer Kizuna AI—who coined the actual term “Virtual Youtuber”—and the termination of Hololive’s Uruha Rushia not long after a different incident involving controversy over a rumored real-world relationship. When I think about just those two examples, I realize that their respective stories have a lot to say about the very way people engage online through these highly detailed virtual avatars.
VTubers generally exist as a form of kayfabe. They want viewers to embrace the idea that these artificial selves are real, and even when all parties understand it’s an act, the willful suspension of disbelief is important. But there are a few key differences between AI’s approach back in the burgeoning days of VTubing and the style that Rushia, as a member of Hololive, engaged in. First, AI’s content for most of her career involved uploading clips to YouTube with streaming being secondary content, whereas Rushia is the opposite in that live streaming was the foundation. Second, one of the big AI controversies was when fans thought they were trying to make her into more of a brand than an individual performer, while Rushia ran into trouble because of the perceived blurring of lines between her virtual and real selves.
The fact that streaming is live (as opposed to pre-recorded) inherently changes how viewers interact with someone. It means being there in real time, more or less. Certainly, there are things like superchat readings, where messages sent with monetary donations aren’t responded to until a later stream, but you know that when the figure on screen reacts to something, you’re seeing it right then and there (or at least with a slight delay). It’s somewhat like the difference between video chatting with a friend versus receiving a video message from them, and I don’t think it’s surprising that many would find the former more engaging.
Having things live also means that things can go in unpredictable directions. That’s often seen as a plus, but that uncut nature is exactly what brought Rushia trouble. After all, the initial ruckus happened because she seemingly received a Discord message from a guy—a male YouTuber with his own massive and intensely devoted following—which for her more obsessed fans broke the immersion they had with her character personality as a yandere wife. The situation, in turn, is made all the more complicated by the fact that devotion to VTubers is often expressed through money via things like the aforementioned superchats. This exact series of events couldn’t happen to a VTuber who only uploaded clips, or at least not nearly as easily.
In contrast, one of the biggest controversies of Kizuna AI came not from the perception of peeling the curtain back too far, but from practically the opposite. Up until a couple years ago, it was not officially known who was the voice behind Kizuna AI, but fans knew there was a singular person bringing the character to life. When Activ8, the company behind AI, started the “Multiple AI Project” that would result in her being split into multiple versions, the fan backlash was the result of fear that they were going to replace the original, ater revealed to be voice actor Kasuga Nozomi. In other words, the concern was that making AI a vessel or suit that anyone could jump into and “become” her would be essentially stripping the character of her unique identity (brought forth by Kasuga) and providing cheap imitations. If we go by wrestling terms again (a natural extension of describing all this as kayfabe), then this was a Fake Diesel and Razor Ramon moment:
I’m also reminded of the Vtuber kson, who is a rarity in that she is willing to stream both as her flesh-and-blood self and as a Virtual Youtuber. In an interview on the Trash Taste Podcast, she mentioned that her fans in Japan enjoy her IRL stuff less. While kson says she’s not sure why that’s the case, she thinks it’s because they relate to her anime form more. Here again, immersion seems to be a big factor. This is not to single out Japanese fans or anything, but it speaks to the different wants and desires from VTuber fans, as well as the power of “chara moe.” Only, now these characters can be directly interacted with on a level not seen before.
I’m not someone who thinks that having strong feelings for online performers, virtual or otherwise, is inherently a doomed path. In my eyes, it’s not all that far removed from other forms of escapism and fandom, which I think are beneficial overall. However, what’s clear to me is that the varying degrees to which people want to engage with both the virtual and the real means that every strategy comes with inherent advantages and disadvantages—especially when you factor in the desire for success as a Vtuber, however one wants to define it. Perhaps what all this comes down to is a genuine human desire for safe emotional connection and authenticity, and Virtual Youtubers allow for a taste of that in times when we feel alone. It’s just not without risks to both performers and viewers alike, and I hope everyone can maintain their sanity because doing this can make anyone extremely vulnerable.
ANIME NYC HAS REPORTED A CONFIRMED CASE OF THE COVID-19 OMICRON VARIANT. IF YOU ATTENDED ANIME NYC, GO GET A COVID-19 TEST.
One year ago, New York City was still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccines had not yet begun to roll out, and many of the annual traditions we expected had to be put on hold—possibly even indefinitely. Though not seen in the same rarefied light as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s, Anime NYC had become an annual outing for my friends and me. I was sad, though understanding, that 2020 had to be canceled.
Anime NYC is right in my backyard, tends to have some interesting Japanese industry guests, and the fact that it has thrived in one of the toughest convention cities (see the defunct Big Apple Anime Fest and New York Anime Festival, among others) meant I’ve felt a strong desire to support the event—lest it go away and be substituted by unscrupulous scams and the like. When Left Field Media announced that Anime NYC 2021 was on, I was filled with both excitement and trepidation.
Lines, Crowds, and COVID Mitigation
Vaccination rates are generally high in NYC, and we have a general mandate for indoor venues. However, the situation was different even compared to Otakon three months ago, thanks to the rise of the Delta variant, the colder weather, and concern over waning efficacy of vaccines. In the end, I decided to attend, thinking that there might be a drop in attendance that would give plenty of breathing room. After all, New York Comic Con 2021 in October saw lower numbers, right?
Not so. Anime NYC 2021 was packed with fans extremely ready to revel in the convention experience. In fact, attendance was up compared to 2019—from 46,000 to 53,000. By comparison, New York Comic Con saw a drop from 260,000 to 150,000.
I find that this contrast highlights the difference between having a larger but relative more casual and mainstream audience versus a hardcore base ready to go wild. The former will see better results in the good times, but the latter will ride with you even when it gets bad. I suspect this has less to do with loyalty towards Anime NYC itself and more to do with passion for anime and manga in general, but the results are the same.
Anime NYC 2021 was from Friday, November 19 to Sunday, November 21. It was clear that the showrunners knew how big the lines were going to get, as they began sending out alerts encouraging as many people to grab their vaccination wristband and badge on Thursday before the con. However many heeded their advice, by the time Friday rolled around, it was clearly not enough. The con opened at 1pm, but people were lining up since 9am, packed together outside in fairly cold weather, all while being unsure of whether they were on the right line. In previous years, this would have been a nuisance. With COVID-19 around, I could only hope that people kept their masks on and were smart about it.
As a press attendee, I had the benefit of being able to avoid the brunt of these problems. However, what should have been a five-minute process of “getting in” turned into almost half an hour as I was told three different things by three different people as to how to get my wristband and get into the Jacob Javits to get my press badge. So while I was fortunate to not have gotten the worst of the lines, the small taste I had made me aware of how much worse it probably was for the attendees on Friday. Saturday and Sunday seemed more organized, but I don’t know how much it alleviated any issues.
In addition to better communication and maybe even the ability to line up indoors, I have to wonder how much of the problem is that the Thursday badge pick-up hours only go to 6pm. Anime NYC is very much a commuter con, and I imagine many people are working or going to school from 10am to 6pm. Even in pandemic times, New York is still often the city that never sleeps.
Of course, the elephant in the room in hindsight is the news that one attendee had a case of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19. Any sort of precautions were inevitably taken without knowledge of its existence, but excuses also don’t treat infections. Thankfully, none of the people I know personally who attended Anime NYC (including myself) have tested positive, but between reports that the Omicron variant spreads more easily and that the person who was found to have it may have spread it to half of a group of 35 friends, it’s clear that there needs to be an extra layer of vigilance.
Take mask compliance, for example. I found it to be mostly there, but it felt like people got more and more lax. All the classic errors of masking were there (not covering the nose, taking it down to talk, not wearing it all). While this is partly on those attendees who flouted proper mask usage, I would like to have seen better enforcement by the con itself. Even the simple act of providing free masks at the con could go a long way.
The Dealer’s Hall felt like any other at a professionally run big con, but I did notice one thing in particular: People seemed very, very eager to buy stuff. It was as if two years’ worth of pent-up desires to purchase came crashing to the surface. So not only was it packed each day, but attendees were behaving like the money they had was burning holes in their wallets. Because of my wariness over COVID-19, I went in and out, trying to avoid staying in there for too long.
That said, I did purchase a few things with the intent of making them part of my convention memories, so I understand that sentiment. I got an official May hoodie from Guilty Gear Strive, nabbed some new manga, and found a booth that actually sold old Japanese movie brochures. I picked up one for God Mars and a couple for Goshogun.
Other highlights of the Hall included the HololiveEN booth where you could take photos with cut-outs of all the EN girls (including from the inaugural generation), a tribute wall to the late Miura Kentaro, author of Berserk, along with a New Japan Pro-Wrestling booth where you could hit the actual NJPW ring bell.
One of my favorite things about anime cons are the panels. While Anime NYC isn’t anywhere close to the amount of content you’d get from something like Otakon (and it’s clearly not the con’s priority), there was at least a panel track when you wanted to sit and listen.
Due to other engagements, I was unable to attend the Aramaki Shinji panel. I was told it was informative and even went over some of his work on American cartoons (M.A.S.K., Pole Position), though it seemed like Aramaki had less time than he thought.
I’ve been getting more and more into Virtual Youtubers over the past couple years, and so I was looking forward to HololiveEN Council’s con debut at Anime NYC.
One of the running jokes among the fandom is that Hololive English group streams tend to be pretty “scuffed,” and this was certainly no exception. The panel started roughly half an hour late, and there were technical issues throughout, such as audio delays. Still, it was good to see the Council get their moment in the sun at a convention, and they were entertaining nevertheless. While the panel was focused on HoloCouncil, HoloMyth (the first generation of HololiveEN) made a cameo with some messages for their kouhai.
One big difference compared to other Hololive conventional panels I’d seen online was that there was less interactivity with the live audience. Namely, much of the interactions were scripted and questions were taken from Twitter rather than a live audience, which was a tad disappointing but also understandable given the size of the crowd and the inevitable technical difficulties. Overall, it felt like a very managed experience, possibly because it was sponsored in part by the Consulate General of Japan in New York. Also, while the interactivity wasn’t as high, the fans in the audience tried to bridge that gap. It was easy to notice who got the most enthusiastic fans—Ouro Kronii’s “Kronies” certainly wear their preferences on their sleeves.
Afterwards, I got some Hololive merch thanks to a friend: A Ceres Fauna button!
New Japan Pro-Wrestling Strong Spirits
While there weren’t many guests who flew in from Japan this year, one surprising appearance came from New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s “Switchblade” Jay White, leader of Bullet Club. He was there to promote NJPW’s new mobile game: New Japan Pro-Wrestling Strong Spirits.
Jay mentioned that this was his first-ever convention appearance, and he was pretty much a natural at entertaining the crowd. My favorite thing was his insistence that he was the sole reason NJPW sold out Madison Square Garden a couple years ago, and every time he said it, a large and obnoxious image of this fact would flash on screen.
Although I had a good time , part of me regrets going to this panel because I should have expected an audience of wrestling fans to be loud and care little about the risks of COVID-spreading associated with yelling. One person in particular was loud, maskless, and insisted on shouting constantly. I also had the sense that the fans love bringing attention upon themselves.
As for the game itself, “bizarre” is how I would describe it. Unlike so many other wrestling games, it uses all existing video footage for moves, as well as green-screened video of the wrestlers during turn-based move selection. The developer of the game (from Bushiroad) even said they had to clear rights for the footage in 150 countries. There was also an example of training to improve your wrestler’s stats, and the key point here is that it also has live footage of your chosen NJPW wrestler, this time getting sweaty in the gym. This, I believe, is where the real appeal of the game might be. It will also predictably have a gacha component, but the developer claims it won’t be pay-to-win.
I’ve long known GKIDS for their involvement with the New York International Children’s Film Festival, but they’ve also been putting out some excellent titles on home video lately. GKIDS was there because many of their films were having American or east-coast premieres at Anime NYC. While I was unable to see most of them, I was glad to find out that they’re pretty much all getting limited theatrical releases, notably Hosoda Mamoru’s Belle in January and Pompo the Cinephile in Spring 2022. I was able to see Pompo at the con, and you can read my review here.
At the panel, I found out how successful Promare has been, which is quite a bit. It’s the reason the film keeps getting re-screenings in theaters while others do not.
I didn’t take many cosplay photos this year, but I wanted to at least share a couple.
In spite of an inevitable lack of Japanese guests and trepidation over the pandemic, Anime NYC came back at a time when people were champing at the bit to do something in person again. I had a decent time at the con, but seeing the crowds made me realize a truth about this new era: More success means more precautions are necessary if we don’t want worse-case scenarios happening. I hope that whatever fallout occurs due to the Omicron variant, it becomes an outlier rather than a standard of conventions.
As the days go by, I increasingly find myself looking into the world of Virtual Youtubers. I watch the clips and highlights that go around, and I sometimes tune into the live streams of my favorites. I wouldn’t consider myself a devotee of the whole concept, but I’m entertained. I know I’m not alone, as the increasing success of VTubers is a sight to behold—Gawr Gura, one of the first members of the Hololive agency’s push into English-language streaming, hit one million subscribers in just a little over a month and has since surpassed two million.
The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the success of Virtual Youtubers shouldn’t come as a surprise. They’re in many ways a perfect storm of things that appeal to people on the internet, bringing together different groups who tend towards obsession and converging them onto this amalgam of elements.
The first group is weebs. I generally avoid the term, preferring things like “anime and manga fans,” but I feel that its usage is accurate here—it’s not just about being into the media but being into that strain of Japanese pop culture. With few exceptions, Virtual Youtubers go for that anime aesthetic, recruiting famous artists and character designers to create these avatars. In a sense, they’re anime characters come to life, and that gives them a certain charm and universality that comes with being less realistic in terms of appearance. And while VTubers now exist across the world, they’re firmly rooted in that anime/manga/light novel realm, and expectations derive from the tropes found there.
The second group is gamers. While streaming has had some presence on the internet for decades now, gaming has become one of its absolute pillars. Between the transformation of Justin.tv into Twitch, the prevalence of esports, the enduring popularity of Youtube channels like Game Grumps, and the rise of speedrunning as a spectator activity, there’s no denying the draw. Live streaming your play session is just an easy and reliable way to connect with potential fans, and while streamers usually need some kind of physical or personal charisma to get things going, the sleek designs of VTubers help bridge that gap.
The third group is idol fans. While it’s like every one of them eventually gets their own original songs, what attracts people to idols is that they feel somehow distant yet accessible, and Virtual Youtubers greatly exaggerate both sides of the fantasy by their very nature. The use of character avatars means there’s no mistaking their visual appearances for being the “real” individuals, but that also means being able to project onto them an idealized version. At the same time, unlike Hatsune Miku, they’re real people interacting from behind the curtain. Depending on what level of performativity vs. seeming authenticity a viewer wants, or popularity vs. obscurity (what’s more exciting than seeing your favorite personality grow from small-time to wild success?) there’s probably a VTuber for them. What’s more, the concept of superchats on YouTube allows fans to get instant gratification by giving money to have their messages read and acknowledged.
The fourth group, and there’s plenty of overlap with the other three, is those who are into celebrities. This is a more vague and generalized group, but it’s the same energy that fuels people to follow the goings-on of their favorite movie stars and singers.
A weeb might love all things anime-adjacent but dismiss Western-style game aesthetics. A fan of first-person shooters might love watching anything and everything related to their favorite games but think anime stuff looks weird as hell. But then a Virtual Youtuber who looks like an anime character come-to-life might play Apex Legends, and so now the weebs get their real-life anime girl and the Western-focused gamers get to connect to her through their favorite game. At the same time, even if she isn’t particularly good at what she’s playing, that gives her a kind of element of relatability that an idol fan might be drawn to. And even if someone isn’t an idol fan, seeing someone suffer through a game has an established history of bringing in eyeballs. The crossover appeal is hard to deny.
Thus, when the VTubers branch into areas other than gaming, they can bring all those different groups together. It’s why they can karaoke Japanese, English, and even German songs, all to praise and fanfare. When they do something completely out of the realm of entertainment, like cook, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary even if the results can range from bizarre to horrifying. The fact that their fans don’t just come from one place also gives the VTubers the flexibility to try new things and see what sticks. Non-virtual streamers who get popular because of one game can sometimes have a hard time playing others because they might not get the viewer counts they normally would, but what makes people want to see Virtual Youtubers goes beyond specific games or titles.
I think the concept of the VTuber allows it a certain degree of freedom that flesh-and-blood streamers do not. By virtue of their virtual natures (pun intended), they invite viewers into a kind of alternate reality. From there, the ability to take that anime character identity and apply it to various domains or interests means that even activities that normally might not appeal to a person can suddenly seem interesting. It’s a lot like how manga can make certain topics more appealing to those who are unfamiliar, but with Virtual Youtubers you get both the slice-of-life hobbyism and the gutsy competition at the same time. And unlike in manga, the wins and losses are real—even if everything is ultimately made up and the points don’t matter.
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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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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