Tsukino Mito is one of the first Virtual Youtubers under the popular Nijisanji umbrella, and one of its most successful. At over 900,000 subscribers, her position is enviable. Yet, for as big a deal as she is, I had found it odd that Mito has not already cracked the million-subscriber mark, despite the fact that four other Nijsanji members have managed to achieve that milestone. I believe her to be one of the absolute funniest VTubers out there, but I’ve come to realize that Mito’s strength, that amazing sense of humor and delivery, is kind of a double-edged sword when it comes to her growth.
Reaching the million-subscriber mark as a VTuber generally means having some kind of reach beyond Japan. Perhaps they’re already fluent in another language, like English or how Kobo Kanaeru got so big in Indonesia, her songs are being played in live settings like in the video above. Maybe they sing and dance on a regular basis. Or they could be really expressive, and the emotions they display while streaming reach across language barriers.
Mito, however, doesn’t really have any of those traits. That’s not to say she isn’t talented or hardworking, and 800,000+ subscribers is nothing to sneeze at, but the essence of her humor makes it harder for non-Japanese speakers to latch onto her. Her whole gimmick is that she’s supposed to be a class president who sounds very prim and proper, until you realize that what she’s actually been discussing can be incredibly dire.
In other words, if you just listen to how she says something, Mito sounds perfectly normal, or at least soothing in a Bob Ross sort of way. In contrast, someone like Hyakumantenbara Salome plays the obnoxious ojousama role to a tee, while distinct voices like Oozora Subaru and Sakura Miko are entertaining just from how their voices sound. The example of this difference that really caught my attention was from Haachama’s video about her trip to Enoshima—many of the comments are people saying that they can’t understand a thing Haachama says, but they still love her energy.
Mito has even mentioned being told that it’s hard for overseas fans to get into her (only 3% of her viewers are from abroad), and it’s because she does the long zatsudan chit-chat streams. She’s a very fast talker, and combined with her gentle-yet-deceptive delivery, it can be difficult for non-Japanese-fluent viewers to latch onto anything she says. She inadvertently winds up relying on the clippers to grab snippets of her streams and make them digestible, but even that involves a greater amount of work compared to clipping other VTubers.
Watching her original introduction video, Tsukino Mito said her initial goal was to get 1,000 subscribers. While she’s far surpassed that marker of success, the fact that she’s still not broken that million-subscriber mark shows the point at which the language barrier starts to become a real obstacle for the majority of non-fluent viewers. Nevertheless, I hope she can hit that milestone someday.
Cover Corporation and Nijisanji, the two heavyweight companies of the Virtual Youtuber world, both recently launched a new generation of English VTubers. TEMPUS and ILUNA respectively are new steps forward for their respective organizations, with HoloTempus being the first English-language Holostars (the “dudes” counterpart to the all-girl Hololive) and ILUNA being the first mixed-gender debut group for Nijisanji English. The initial announcements were made close to each other, inevitably leading to comparisons. Among the topics of debate were who has the better character designs, with people taking sides and criticizing the other for being uglier.
Normally, I really don’t care about this sort of petty, contentious arguing. And in terms of determining who’s “better” or “worse,” I still don’t give a damn. However, what interests me is that I find TEMPUS and ILUNA to have taken different approaches to portraying attractive men. The distinction can be roughly categorized as “hardcore bishounen” (TEMPUS) vs. “mainstream bishounen” (ILUNA).
It’s not a perfect analogy, especially because each individual VTuber has a unique artist behind them. But when you look at each group’s aesthetics, as well as the actual visual styles, the comparison only grows stronger. The TEMPUS designers include Kurahana Chinatsu (Uta no Prince-sama) and Komiya Kuniharu, and the VTubers have such sharp chins and body proportions that one expects more to find in BL or even CLAMP manga—the kind of look parodied by Gakuen Handsome. In contrast, ILUNA’s designers feature among them Arisaka Aco (Bestia) and Amaichi Esora, and their VTubers have a softer appearance that reminds me of something like Genshin Impact. Given that, it’s almost no wonder that fans have found this to be a topic of contention.
But Ultimately, while visuals do play a role in Virtual Youtuber popularity, personality is also vitally important. Picking favorites comes down to how each individual balances what they care about, though I think it would be best to not bash someone for liking one over the other, as long as the core reason isn’t some bizarre tribalism. As for me, I haven’t watched enough of them overall to pick a top guy, though finding out Vesper Noir has a thing for Carmen Sandiego makes me like him.
This interview was conducted at Otakon 2022 in Washington DC. Gugenka, Inc. is a company that describes itself as “Sales of digital goods and technical research on Japanese animation using advanced contents such as VR/AR/MR.” Mikami Masafumi is the CEO, and Kiral Poon is the CTO.
How did you get into the business of 3D, VR, AR—these sorts of subjects?
Poon: Do you mean academic side, or…?
Anything, really. If there’s an academic element, then definitely talk about it. If it’s sort of an amateur hobby, or…just what inspired you to take this up…
Mikami: We were originally making AR stuff for movie promotions, and we slowly moved that content into VR. That became for VR anime promotion, where we promote anime with our VR abilities.
Poon: One of the examples would be the Sailor Moon VR that we built. That is also, like, a movie for Sailor Moon Crystal promotion, and then we did the VR game for the event. And in the end now it’s on VIVEPORT for free, but it was originally promotional content.
I first became familiar with Gugenka through the HoloModels app.
Yeah. I found out about it from a reader, actually.
Poon: When did you hear about it?
A couple of years ago, I think?
So what was the origin of the decision to make virtual AR models? Was the plan from the start to work with established properties?
Mikami: The way it started off was, you know how we have anime figures in real life, right? What if we could make digital versions of anime figures?
In physical figures, it’s probably not a real surprise to see on your figure rack a Dragon Ball character and a Re:ZERO characters side by side. But then in VR contents, it was an uphill battle to get the understanding to have two characters of different IPs sitting on the same app.
Poon: I’d like to actually convey my two cents on that. Japanese companies are really, really, really restrictive on the IP stuff. The more I work with them, the more I think that’s so crazy about it. Masafumi back in the day, he tried very hard. One problem is, how can you line up two different IPs together without any problem with the IP company. Cause they usually want to have their own world, right? When it’s in the real world, it’s just figures, so they don’t care about it. But in digital, they usually have control with their applications. So Masafumi was actually the producer. He is the one who actually produced it and persuaded those companies to do it together. The reason he can do that is because this company has a long history with these companies and these movies. He already knew these people, and that’s why he did it. It is not easy at all, in my opinion.
I’ve heard similar things about the game Super Smash Bros. When it comes to the director, Sakurai, it’s only because he has such a strong reputation in his industry that he’s able to convince all these different…
Poon: Yeah, exactly. In Japan, when you work, it’s not only about ability, but also about how people trust you. So that’s the case.
I also want to point out why this app exists, which is that there’s limited space around the world. We usually line up a lot of figures—I buy my own figures too—they take up a lot of space. In AR applications, you stick them into the space, and you can display them anytime. It’s just like an RPG item box, where you just bring it up anytime—exactly like that. That’s really convenient, and you can do more than with actual figures. You can move the pose and change the face. With real figures, you have to change the parts, and there’ll be lines on the face you don’t want. But with digital figures, you don’t have that problem. So that’s one of the main reason I can tell you why we created them.
You actually anticipated my next question!
So moving on, Gugenka has collaborated with virtual stars of all kinds. You have Vocaloids like Hatsune Miku. You have Virtual Youtubers like Kizuna A.I., Tokino Sora—and I remember that when I got the Gugenka HoloModels app, there was Shinonome Megu.
Poon: You did a good job. People don’t even know that one.
So what do you think about the fact that people are embracing virtual characters, and have you noticed any changes in the degree to which people are embracing them?
Mikami: Right now, everyone has their own different characteristics, and everyone would probably be able to express themselves differently in different bodies. I believe that our app would enable everyone to express themselves in their own body of their choice.
Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the concept of virtual spaces to the forefront, as friends, families, and businesses try to gather online through various chat programs but also in creating virtual space. How has the pandemic affected your approach to virtual spaces? Has it cast a new light on them?
Poon: So with virtual space, during the pandemic, we have actually been trying to increase our opportunities with all these restrictive companies. In my point of view, usually Japanese companies tend not to do remote work and exhibitions lots online. But because of the pandemic, they start thinking about it, and they approach us. Of course, sometimes we approach those companies—“Hey, do you want to do it?” Usually, it’s the case that they will ask us about doing online exhibitions. Before, there were, like, no exhibitions, but because of the pandemic, we have those events hosted by Gugenka.
For example, the closest one would be the MF Bunko J one that we just did with Kadokawa—the light novel one. It’s a really popular real-world event in Japan. And there’s live concerts, like the Sanrio Virtual Fes. We tried to make it realistic, and we have a very good reputation on that event with VRChat. And of course, we also connect with all these partners from Japan—VRCast and other platforms. And I connect with all others across the world and have partnerships with them, like VRChat. After that, people started realizing what we’re trying to do to make people closer in distance, and display things in HoloModels, and also create your character through MakeAvatar.
You’ve worked on many events, and I know it’s hard to pick a favorite, I guess, but I’ll ask anyway: Do have any events you’re surprised that you managed to work on?
Poon: I guess I’ll let Masafumi answer first, and then I’ll answer.
Makami: I would say Kitty-chan’s Sanrio Virtual Fes is probably my favorite. I can take pride that I participated in it. The reason is that the people who are enjoying the real stuff Sanrio produces, as well as the artists and VTubers—they all come together in one event, so I thought it was a good event.
Poon: I’ll add two cents about the Sanrio virtual event because there’s not many people who know about the event in the US. After I did the panel, people were all surprised. This is a real diverse event that includes actual artists like AKB48—famous, real artists like HoneyWorks. There were also virtual artists like Kizuna A.I. and other VTuber characters. And then there’s also the system that we created so that we can bring this all in, and with synchronization with the timing we can make it feel like a live event.
What that means is, what if you join late but your friends have been in for five minutes? In a usual game, well, you start from zero, and you play it, right? But in real life, you’ll be seeing things five minutes late. What you’re seeing with friends is the same thing, and when you wave, and when you sing, you’re doing the same thing. This is what makes a huge difference with the Sanrio Virtual Fes event. We created a synchronization system to make sure everyone had the same experience, same timing to all these artists. And it’s a huge event because there’s more than a hundred songs. I didn’t sleep for two to three days just to check the songs, and it was crazy. I wish one day we could join us for the second one. So that’s the Sanrio Virtual Fes.
That actually makes me think: Sometimes, due to the pandemic and the increasing use of online spaces, people want to get together for a karaoke session, right? But due to the differences in synchronization, it can cause problems for people who want to sing together. Is there a possibility of creating a space like that for regular users?
Poon: So there’s a lot of problems in terms of people’s preferences. During the event, there’s a separate instance we created to adapt for each person. For example, if your computer is weak, but you still want to enjoy the event, there’s something called shitei [appointed] instance, which means you are pointed to that instance, and we make sure you can have the best experience in that instance. But because it’s a social VR, if you want to see the group, there’s something called jiyuu [free] instance. But if it crashes, or you just want to enjoy the experience with your weak computer, you can still go to the appointed instance.
But also, furthermore, for the paid content, there’s outfits using the MakeAvatar app. It’s like when you dress up as Mickey—or Marvel characters because Disney owns Marvel—and you go to Disneyland. So it’s the same thing as when you go to Sanrio Puroland; you dress as Mochipoly, as they call it. It’s really cute, and you can buy the hat from Kitty, or Keroppi.
There are two reasons for that. First, is because of the story. It’s best delivered that way. It feels like part of them, and it’s real good. When you look at pictures, it’s really nice. Second, is the performance. We want weak computers to also get in easily. So we think about all that and plan the event that way.
I know a lot of people around my age became anime fans in part or in whole due to Slayers.
So I was pleasantly surprised to see both a HoloModel of Lina Inverse—I saw the author, Kanzaki, constantly promoting it—
Poon: Man, I’m surprised you know Slayers, and that we did that?
And you created the Slayers 3D Live event. Were there any fun, creative challenges involved with working with this property?
Poon: Actually, Masafumi was talking about Sanrio, but my favorite event was Slayers. The reason for that is the equal system that I was trying to build. I’m actually the director of the concert for the live event in Tokorozawa Sakura Town.
So we actually have the live event, and then the sequences. We have HoloModels of Slayers, and usually it would be a waste that you can’t use them on other games. It’s really expensive to build a really high-quality CG model. We have the models, we have the live event in Sakura Town in real life, so it feels like Lina Inverse is there, and she does the song. Then, we host this event online in NeoChat so everyone can join. And then in the end, it’s sold on blu-ray. So this whole flow is the equal system that we try to tell those IP companies that we can balance promotion and also maybe earning a little money for the company. That’s why it was my favorite event, because all the systems of the Sanrio event are based on the Slayers event.
I’m surprised. Even though I didn’t do a lot of promotion for it, I’m surprised that you and—actually, one more person at the panel, he said he knew it, and he actually joined the event. I’m actually touched because I want North America—like myself from Canada, and there’s also the US—I want them to join us. But there’s limited resources, and there’s a problem that we didn’t have enough English translation at the time. So in the future, I’m trying to push everyone to do more English support. Good question. I want to talk more about Slayers!
Kiral, one of your interests, as written in the Otakon guidebook, is creating technology to help make life easier for animators. There’s an ongoing issue about animators being overworked and underpaid? Do you think your work can help deal with this issue?
Poon: Do you know Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero? That is one of the good examples of using good 3DCG in movies that doesn’t feel weird. Because sometimes it feels weird in 3DCG. There’s one good example, that you can have an efficient way of moving, and then you can have more stories to deliver to people.
So that is great, and it’s efficient, but to your question, can it solve the overtime and overwork problem? In some ways, but it comes down to the culture in Japan. Let’s say you need less people for the same project, right? Well, you just hire less people for the same work—there’s a chance like that. But it depends on the company. They could be, like, “Oh, there’s less work now, so now everyone doesn’t have to be doing overtime, and they can go home, right? So there’s two approaches, and it comes down to culture, I think, partially. But the reason I want to focus on technology and I keep improving that, like with Slayers, is to try io make it more toon-like with cel shaders—to make it more efficient. But can that solve the core problem is the question.
Are there any Gugenka products or services that get less attention that you think people should know more about?
Mikami: In regards to what I want people to know more about, it’s basically everything: HoloModels, MakeAvatar, virtual events. But I kind of believe there are two major points that I think we need to focus on to have a wider number of people know about us and these events.
One is that there is a time difference between Japan and the US. While we were able to get past the problem of distance because we could bring people together from vastly different parts of the world, we can’t really get past the problem of time at the moment. So, I believe what we want to do in the future is maybe have different events for different time zones to address the time issue.
The other thing I want to focus on is basically localization of the English versions for these apps that we have. We need to be able to disseminate this information about the apps and events, and it’s not as easy as Google or word-for-word translation because sometimes they miss the mark or have different words we would like to use. Also, the thing about media is basically that over here in the US, it’s not like we have a strong understanding of where the media pipelines are. So I believe what would be best is if we could get to know the media people here, and how to best communicate with our fans so that we could disseminate the information to everyone interested in an effective manner.
Poon: I actually have the same feeling. When we do the panels, people actually come to me and say, “I didn’t know Gugenka before—MakeAvatar, HoloModels—but now I’m going be a core fan and support it.” So I’m touched, and also really happy that people enjoy our service.
Like, with MakeAvatar—I don’t think you even know this much yet—but this allows us to use different parameters. The tech part is really hard—I tried so hard on this tech from January—and finally, you can use different kinds of morphs to different kinds of faces. The idea is, usually anime characters are a little bit more the shounen youngtype, but I want elderly people to also be cool. Even if you’re old, you should be really handsome because you do your own thing. You could be chubby, you could be muscular—allowing the diversity is human, and it should be possible in your own character. That’s why we have all these features.
Of course, we have the SD character, that is, the small one. The main reason we built this one is because we support Quest, cell phone, and browser, so we want the workload to be lower. But we have new, high-quality MakeAvatar that allows you to change clothing and stuff. And the business model would be to buy the cosplay—the costume—and the IP company gets paid, and the user is happy. So you can export to VRChat, VirtualCast, to see online on Vroid Hub, or browser games.
We think in the future maybe we can do more promotion in the US and more people could take advantage of this. You could become a VTuber easily. I could host a panel and just teach you to use the app, and you could be a VTuber for free. And we have the face-tracking support in this, which means it can detect your muscles and move. In normal characters, it only supports simple expressions like A-I-U-E-O and smlle, angry, crying—that’s it. But we support really detailed motions on this.
Since her debut, Hololive’s La+ (pronounced Laplus) Darknesss has become one of my favorite Virtual Youtubers. Her premise states that she’s both a mighty alien (?) demon (?) whose power has been sealed off—as well as the founder of Secret Society HoloX, an organization with designs for world domination. In practice, however, La+ comes across as a cheeky and overconfident brat. It’s within this context that the biggest surprise about her characters was revealed: the fact that she’s actually a fantastic dancer. I find myself re-watching her dancing clips, even though I normally don’t do that—not with VTubers, not with flesh-and-blood performers, and not even with the many anime dances over the years.
To those who are unfamiliar with Hololive and specifically the process by which its Vtubers go from “2D” to “3D,” most start off as flatly animated characters. In this “2DLive” format (named after the program used to rig their animations), La+ and others like her are able to move and tilt their bodies and heads to some degree, but it’s generally not meant to track the entirety of the performer’s physical movements. Over time, a Hololive member receives a 3D polygonal model, and can use more robust motion capturing to match the movement of their entire bodies. In other words, you generally can’t tell how comfortable a VTuber is with physical activity like dancing before they make their so-called 3D debut.
La+ was the last of HoloX to become 3D. Prior to that, she was primarily defined by two things. First, despite being the leader of her clandestine group, she’s actually the smallest; her oversized horns further emphasizing La+ as a relative pipsqueak. Second, she has an extreme amount of ego that swings wildly between being justified and unjustified. So when she started busting a move, I felt a degree of cognitive dissonance. “Wasn’t she supposed to be bad at this sort of thing?” In a later collaborative stream with the rest of HoloX, the sheer contrast in dancing ability between La+ and her subordinates (who are usually her betters in a variety of ways) hammered home that she’s a cut above the rest.
I think the reason this aspect of La+ works so well is that it ends up making her feel even more like a being of contrasts. She has that aforementioned “shortest but most important” quality, but in terms of competence, it’s like you never know if she’ll be a Hellmaster Fibrizo (Slayers) or a Katyusha (Girls und Panzer). If this really were an anime or something, La+’s dance reveal would be that moment where Yoda or Shifu from Kung Fu Panda gets serious. It’s a winning trope, generally speaking.
La+ Darknesss is neither fully an anime character or a fully flesh-and-blood performer, which is why the combination of her character background plus her strength as a dancer shine through. Like other VTubers, she lives in that transitional space between the real and fictional worlds. The fact that she’s so physically talented is inevitably to the credit of the performer, but it’s the surrounding setting that gives La+ the stark contrast to render her moves to be even more unforgettable.
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.
One of the biggest transformations that occurred from the internet of my younger days to that we have now is the integration of the web into our flesh-and-blood lives. Whereas once you could reasonably maintain some kind of distinction between “online” and “IRL,” the latter term isn’t even really used anymore because it’s kind of pointless. Every major platform wants you to integrate because it helps them make money.
I’m under no false assumptions that Virtual Youtubers are some defiant rebellion against the greed that makes companies share information, but what they do represent is a purposeful separation of selves between who you are among close friends and who you are to an audience—while also making it obvious that there is a distinction in the first place. Of course, there are plenty of famous cases of performers being very different in public and private (see Freddie Mercury for one famous example), but the use of stylized moving avatars reduces the chances of the two sides being conflated.
The way VTubers have reintroduced and even kind of re-normalized an element of pseudonymous presentation makes me wish that they arrived sooner. Perhaps the internet would look different if VTubers were more quickly embraced before Facebook, et al could make everyone think that putting photos of yourself everywhere for all to see should be the default.
Very broadly speaking, that’s what online icons and avatars were for. And when it comes to hiding your face but wanting to communicate, things like chat rooms and voice chat have and still fulfill that function. But where VTubing is able to go a step further is in its ability to convey facial expressions that add an additional layer of interpersonal connection while also keeping that active and outright facade in place. How much more comfortable might people be talking “face to face” if the faces are virtual?
In the video above, Apex Legends player discusses his favorite Virtual Youtubers, but also brings up all the points I’ve made above. Namely, he likes the fact that it gives viewers something to look at while still maintaining some semblance of privacy for the streamer, even if it’s for someone who shows their face normally.
I understand the programs used by VTubers can be expensive and time-intensive, especially if you want something professional-looking like your favorites. Still, I imagine a world where this sort of thing becomes accessible to a great many more people, and they can maybe engage with their online communities more comfortably.
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.
“What do the virtual youtuber Akai Haato and the late pro wrestler Brian Pillman have in common?”
As I’ve continued to fall down the VTuber rabbit hole, I constantly find similarities to pro wrestling. When VTubers stream, they get immediate feedback from their live chats. They’re not static performers, having to respond to and reciprocate with a chat that’s eager to make their opinions known. “That applies to all livestreamers!” you might be thinking, but the added virtual layer changes the streamer’s relationship with their audience.
While stream viewers might seek authenticity, the VTubers themselves are not expected to be “real,” and there are no illusions about it. In my eyes, there’s a real resemblance to the concept of wrestler gimmicks—especially in how varied they can be, and how they can be embraced to such different degrees. Some VTubers are like the Undertaker, leaning fully into their outlandish characters. Others are like Kobashi Kenta, a more down-to-Earth approach meant to convey a more personal connection to the audience.
And over time, these gimmicks can undergo changes both great and small as the performers, both VTuber and wrestler, adjust to the audience reactions and refine their craft. One common theme in stories about wrestlers, especially in the old territory days, is the need to figure out what keeps the audience coming back to pay good money while avoiding overstaying your welcome. Similarly, it is fascinating to look back at how VTubers behaved in their introductory videos compared to how they present themselves in more recent material. Rarely is there a VTuber who manages to stay perfectly within the original boundaries set for themselves.
That brings me back to the question I asked at the beginning, and the answer is this: Both Akai Haato and Brian Pillman began as more conventional performers who found themselves in difficult times, and ended up reinventing their personas into larger-than-life yet authentic-feeling identities that pushed the envelope of what is possible and accepted in their respective fields.
Brian Pillman was once most famously known as Flyin’ Brian Pillman—an astoundingly athletic wrestler who could dazzle audiences with his acrobatic moves. However, after a car crash, Pillman had to drastically alter his style. Instead of emphasizing his now-compromised high-flying moves, he decided to blur the boundaries between the real and the fictional as a “Loose Cannon,” culminating in an infamous moment where he seemingly tries to shoot “Stone Cold” Steven Austin.
Hololive’s Akai Haato, in turn, first introduced herself to the world as a traditional tsundere character, and was even used as a model of how a conventional idol-esque virtual youtuber should behave. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the person behind Haato was stuck in Australia for months. Unable to stream the way she normally would have, her conventional tsundere self gave way to the more chaotic and creative “Haachama” persona. From talking about smelling her own feet to cooking a tarantula to split personalities and time-distortion, Haachama has developed an even wider fanbase. She’s currently on hiatus, but fans await her return.
Given the commonalities between pro wrestling and virtual youtubers, an important question comes to mind: what if there was a virtual youtuber tournament of some kind? Plenty of them will compete with each other in video games, but what if there were promos and smacktalk and the like? What if the PekoMiko War was more than a song and a Minecraft video, and lines were drawn in the sand, with tickets sold for the event?
In conclusion, VTuber pay-per-views are the future.
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.
Augmented reality is a funny thing to me because its appeal feels somehow both obvious and yet elusive. Whether it was participating in Pokémon Goat the height of the craze or seeing people on Twitter post videos of their iDOLM@STER characters occupying “real” spaces, I end up thinking “that’s really cool” and “but do I really want to blur that line?” simultaneously.
I was asked this month, by Patreon request, to discuss HoloModels, which is an AR figures app by the company Gugenka. Essentially, rather than having physical PVC or resin kit models, you collect virtual ones that you can pose and “place” wherever you want. I had actually seen images of it without realizing what exactly I was looking at, thanks to retweets of the Lina Inverse HoloModel that have been filling my Twitter timeline. “Was it some video game? Maybe a fan project?” I thought.
Before trying out the app itself, my understanding of HoloModels led me to think that the advantage was basically like that of ebooks: the ability to keep a bunch of models without any of them taking up physical space. They can be placed and posed any way you want, so there’s also a certain degree of freedom for creativity. However, when I saw that HoloModels can be resized to pretty much any scale, I realized that the potential I had pictured was too limited.
The versatility of HoloModels means you can have life-size models, as if they’re less figures and more characters who have entered our world. Perhaps you can even pretend that they’re a friend or a lover. And even if you’re not into that sort of thing, you can still use them in a variety of different ways. You can use them in virtual dioramas or even as action figures after a fashion. What’s more, you can’t really “damage” them by accident. And of course, even this view is still probably a drop in the ocean of possibilities.
Because of the proximity of HoloModels to Virtual Youtubers—they’re essentially two ways of blurring fiction and reality together through anime aesthetics—I also had to see if there was any stronger connection between the two. It turns out that the default model you get when you first install HoloModels, Shinonome Megu, has since become a Virtual Youtuber with 40,000+ subscribers as of December 2020. I believe the HoloModels figure came first, based on comparing news articles announcing HoloModels with the oldest video on her channel, but if anyone has more information, feel free to share.
Am I interested in sticking with them? Not really. HoloModel figures are awfully pricey in my view, as less expensive characters run around 3,500 yen, and the Lina Inverse mentioned above is 5,000 yen. I might just be the wrong person to understand the true value of these AR characters—I’d still rather have a physical one, even if I can’t make it Godzilla-sized. That all said, if we compare HoloModels to another form of “virtual character collection,” i.e. mobile game gacha, the luck element is completely removed. That does make me wonder if that gambling high is part of why mobile game character lotteries work in the first place, but that’s another conversation for another day.
This post is sponsored by Ogiue Maniax patron Johnny Trovato. You can personally request topics through the Patreon or by tipping $30 via ko-fi.