COOL JAPAN | MUSIC (ACCJ Journal)
First Sound from the Future
Hatsune Miku weaves her magic for US audiences this fall
By Roland Kelts
Not all trends sweeping the domestic market in Japan strike gold with overseas audiences. The exceptions are headliners such as Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and the manga series One Piece, with its record-breaking 345-million print run worldwide. Most Japanese pop culture phenomena are for the home crowd only.
Sports manga, such as Slam Dunk, rarely find a mass audience in the United States. Even trendy fashions, like last decade’s yamamba girls with their towering platform soles and bronzed faces, fail to charm most foreign tastemakers.
In the 80s, when I was a teenager set free in Tokyo streets by my Japanese mother, I was entranced by quirky Japanese idol groups, fantastical haircuts, and animated television graphics. Still, I didn’t think any of it would register with my peers in America.
It was altogether too light, too cute, too whimsical and self-conscious: a brightly twisted mimicry of Western tropes. Why opt for a cheery, slippery copy when you can get the hard-won original in New York, London, or Los Angeles?
I was wrong about a lot of it. After Godzilla became a global sensation, several Japanese pop icons filled the screens and streets of Western cities.
Sushi went from weird to cool. Obscure Japanese rock icons such as The Yellow Magic Orchestra became cult classics, and the band’s chief composer, Ryuichi Sakamoto, moved to New York.
Animator Hayao Miyazaki’s confections became DVD standbys for American parents, and Miyazaki won an Academy Award in 2003. Animated rock bands became cutting edge via Britain’s Gorillaz.
American monster and sci-fi movies such as The Matrix, Cloverfield, Pacific Rim, and this summer’s blockbuster Godzilla nodded homages to their land of origin.
Parts of the colorful Japan I encountered as a teen had arrived on the global stage. But which parts? And how would they stick?
Enter Hatsune Miku, Japan’s virtual pop star. Her name translates roughly as “the first sound from the future.” Like Hello Kitty, she is a blank slate—an animated pop star whose songs are created by her fans, written for her via a software program called PiaPro.
She dances, gyrates, and croons via computer, and her only defining characteristics are visual and statistical. She is a diminutive five-foot-two-inches tall and weighs all of 96 pounds (44 kilograms).
She has very long, blue pigtails and wears a big necktie with a very short skirt. She is a drawing in the imagination. When she performs live, she is a hologram swaying and prancing before a backing band of live musicians.
“She doesn’t exist,” said her creator, Hiroyuki Itoh, of Sapporo-based Crypton Media. “Never has.”
That may be technically true, but she’s about to appear before a sea of American fans in Los Angeles and New York via a project called Miku Expo.
The shows are slated for October: two in Los Angeles, at the Nokia Theatre L.A. LIVE in the newly revamped downtown district, and two in New York, at The Hammerstein Ballroom.
Miku was the opening act for Lady Gaga’s North American tour in May. Crypton’s Kanae Muraki said the exposure helped drive interest in this month’s expo.
“We want it to be more than just a concert. Through exhibitions and workshops, we want to introduce works created by many contributors, to make the event one where the audience will be able to participate in the entire act of creation.”
It’s hard to argue against the success of a pop star who has no hang-ups. Miku, by virtue of being virtual, won’t have drug addictions, spousal fights, or pneumonia on tour. She will be what you want her to be: cute, pig-tailed, live, and alive.
Naomitsu Kodaka, cofounder and CFO of TokyoOtakuMode Inc., which provides platforms for otaku (obsessed fans) via its website and a Facebook page with nearly 16 million “likes,” said Miku may be the network’s most popular character.
“I think one of the reasons she’s so popular is because otaku can collaborate openly with the character without commercial concerns,” he says. “Plus, they can be both artist and audience, creators and consumers.”
Consider Facebook and Twitter: All the content is user-generated, and the creative team can relax at their desks and enjoy the stream.
“Other Vocaloids (avatars) are popular, just not as popular as Miku,” said Ian Condry, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is a specialist in Japanese popular culture and teaches a section on Miku.
“[She] was the first to cross the threshold of quality voicings, the first to be presented as a character with a look.”
Putting the pop in popular
The US shows in October will be expensive and labor intensive, with a team of over 20 technicians from Japan manning computers backstage to make the hologram look alive.
But will the experience be magical?
The answer, from fans in the United States, seems a resounding yes. Tickets for all four shows were selling briskly at the time of writing, according to the show’s US promoter.
Overseas fans of Japanese pop culture are well-acquainted with the naked artifice. “We don’t care if it’s real,” one Miku fan told me at this summer’s Anime Expo in Los Angeles. “We just care if it feels real.”
Hatsune Miku’s global success mirrors that of Hello Kitty, who just turned 40 years old. Recent articles asked if Kitty was really a cat or a girl, English or Japanese.
It is liberating to realize that such questions are beside the point. Kitty is very much what you want her to be, like a haiku poem, or a Zen koan (a paradoxical question that forces meditation and reflection).
“To me, it seems hard to frame [Miku] as simply a user-generated content platform,” argued Rebecca Suter, a professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney.
“Miku has a name and a gender, much closer to an anime character, something artificial but personified enough to become an object of emotional investment. What is interesting is that Miku’s appeal goes well beyond the relatively niche audience of Japanese [and non-Japanese] otaku.”
For Suter, Miku’s trans-cultural draw is rooted in the character’s tabula-rasa (blank slate), enabling fans and users worldwide to see (and hear) in her whatever they want.
“It reminds me of Haruki Murakami’s literature in the way she appeals to different audiences for different reasons.
“For a Japanese customer, Miku can be read within familiar frameworks of idol culture and the attraction to manga and anime characters, which she resembles; for a foreign customer, she has the exotic charm of ‘Cool Japan,’ and can be the object of techno-orientalist fascination.”
Miku’s version of Cool Japan hits LA and NYC this month. We’ll soon see if she can strike chords in American audiences as well as she can sing to them.*
*Roland Kelts is a half-Japanese American writer, editor, and lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of the acclaimed bestseller Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US and the forthcoming novel Access. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Psychology Today, Playboy, and The Wall Street Journal. Kelts authors a monthly column for The Japan Times, and is also a frequent contributor to CNN and NPR.