Welcome to VTubing with Quinley. This column is a space for me to explore a sometimes fascination sometimes hyper-fixation of mine: Virtual Youtubers. The idea for this column came about from a comment I made in the Weekly Japanese Pop Culture thread, and based on the feedback I received, I decided to go ahead and try to make this into a regular column. My goal for this column is to try and cover a wide range of topics regarding the culture, industry, and the Vtubers themselves. This first entry is a more formal version of the original comment that started this, and functions as something of an introduction to the column. I’ll try to follow up with original content monthly. With all that out of the way, let’s dive in.
About a month ago, I started following a bunch of Virtual YouTuber translation channels on YouTube after seeing this clip on Twitter:
Everything about the clip was just so incredibly funny to me. A cute virtual anime dog-girl playing a game that probably came out before she was born, boldly assuring her viewers of her skill in said game, only to end up in a lava pit not a second later, and after a beat or two of silence verbally asserting her newfound lack of confidence with the exact same delivery. In the context of 2020, the clip manages to succinctly articulate the dichotomy of feeling experienced when navigating a year where the world as we know it appears to be teetering on the edge of an existential hell-mouth. Whether because of the former or the latter, the clip spread like wildfire.
Before this year, my experience with Virtual YouTubers was relatively limited, in that I was still under the impression that VTubers were a subculture that only the Most Online of us engaged in. I was vaguely versed in it when it started blowing up after the debut of Ai Kizuna a few years ago, but decided to look into it a bit further after seeing just how many new VTubers had come onto the scene since then. After a couple hours of research however, I was disappointed to find that the VTuber subculture’s current iteration is essentially just another arm of Japan’s Idol Industrial Complex.
VTtubers like Ai Kizuna and Akari Mirai are definitely corporate products, and made that known at the outset. But at the same time, I always got the impression that they were the exception and not the rule, at least back in 2016 when the VTuber craze really took off. In the early years, VTubers like Eilene, Café Zombi-ko, and even Kaguya Luna to an extent seemed to be independently run affairs: the technical approach was amateurish, the structure loose, and the content was all over the place, but they nonetheless appeared to embrace a DIY ethos that allowed them to make a virtual space for themselves and inhabit it however they saw fit to do so. So it was disappointing to read through the VTuber wiki–’cause there’s always a wiki–and find that many of the independent VTubers that got their start during the early part of the boom aren’t really making content anymore.
From what I can gather, during the surge in popularity around VTubers, agencies and media companies were formed to recruit talent specifically targeting VTuber audiences, and soon began flooding platforms with VTubers that more closely fit the mold of your run of the mill Idol. These corporate sponsored VTubers from agencies like Hololive, Nijisanji, and Upd8 were able to amass a huge amount of followers really quickly through debuts and media campaigns. Independent VTubers that weren’t offered corporate financing opportunities just couldn’t amass a large enough following to keep their channels afloat. The ones that did sign with corporate entities had the content and structure of their channel somewhat changed, and in cases where a company dissolved, had to try and seek backing elsewhere to keep the current quality and format of their channel going or stop producing content altogether. Some of them still have enough of a following to still function independently: Eilene and her cohort, who were initially apart of the Mirai project that produced Akari Mirai, have since left the project and returned to doing their own thing, and BANs, a group of VTubers who have been banned from YouTube for reasons ranging from copyright infringement to lewdness, have established fanbases that will follow them regardless of platform. But the in the current landscape, the vast majority of VTubers are agency-sponsored idols with media-ready personalities, curated social media presences, and professionally illustrated and modeled avatars.
There are some interesting elements that seem to be specific to VTuber culture and its industry though. One thing that surprised me was the emphasis on reaching global audiences. Both Nijisanji and Hololive have VTuber groups that are dedicated to viewers in South Korea, China, Indonesia, and English-speaking markets, with Nijisanji having 3 VTubers based in India. There are also some VTubers that while not “officially” English-language channels, make concerted efforts to learn the language to reach out and better interact with their overseas audience. Korone Inugami, the VTuber in the first clip, is probably the most prominent example of this trend, which can arguably be attributed to her success as one of the two Hololive VTubers to reach one million subscribers. Another thing that interested me was how accessible a lot of the tech used to produce this content actually is, with streaming apps on iOS and Android (though the one Nijisanji uses is an in-house app that is not commercially available), allowing their VTubers to stream content using their 2D and 3D models without the need for a studio, and allowing for some flexibility on how and when their content is produced. The agencies will also provide equipment for streaming content if the VTuber needs it for free or an undisclosed rental fee. There’s also the matter of recruitment, which is done largely through applications and online auditions, as opposed to traditional scouting–while the latter isn’t unheard of, it appears to be less common nowadays. Hololive in particular seems cognizant of the fact that content creation isn’t always going to be the VTuber’s primary source of income, with their audition guidelines stating that the VTuber “must be able to deliver content at least 3 times a week (content provided after getting home or on your days off while you’re studying or working is fine).”
Despite my reservations on the corporate aspects of VTubers (nature of the contracts, VTuber’s actual earnings, Idol Culture in general, the looming specter of late-capitalism and its associated knock-on effects), the more I think about it…the less I can actually bring myself to be that mad about it. For instance, Gorillaz, one of my all-time favorite bands, initially began as a side-project intended to satirize the artifice of modern pop narratives. But in the 19 years since the project’s inception, Gorillaz has fully embraced the artifice and consumerism of the very thing they were lampooning, to critical acclaim, credibility, and more than a few sponsorships (hell, the cartoon drummer of the animated band is even hawking hot sauce now). The band’s current iteration runs completely counter to their original premise, but despite that, I don’t love them any less that when I first heard them. And as uncomfortable as I found the Miku Hatsune/Vocaloid phenomenon as a concept, in hindsight it’s hard to imagine that VTubers as a whole could be anything other than a curious novelty without her continued presence. Given that Miku is still out here chuggin’ along 13 years after her debut with a sprawling media empire under the hem of her signature black and teal skirt, there was clearly something that Miku’s creators saw in the future of pop culture media that us detractors didn’t, and VTubers probably would’ve been a passing trend without the precedent of Miku’s massive success. It’s probably safe to say Virtual YouTube as a concept would not exist without Miku Hatsune, and virtual creators from all over will be paying tribute to her for the rest of their digital lives.
On a more existential note, as I watched more and more of these videos, an intriguing tension became more and more apparent. These VTubers are “virtual content creators”: a literal fabrication, where ostensibly the only “real” thing about them is the voice behind the mic. The artifice is blatant, and arguably the point, so one might expect their content to be a lot more manufactured or scripted as a result. But a surprising amount of it isn’t, and instead relies on the same kind of improvisation and community interaction that one sees with livebloggers, social media influencers, or Twitch streamers. But unlike those content creators–whose “brand” slowly becomes inextricable from their actual personality and real-life identity over time–the true personalities and real-life identities of VTubers is (generally) shrouded in secret. It’s this separation that relieves some of the pressure of being “always on” or “bringing their Whole Self to work”, the way a lot of content creators do. This dichotomy allowing equal space for those behind the mic to perform themselves–or even be themselves as the case may be–is perhaps the most compelling aspect of VTubers. That despite ostensibly being as artificial a concept as the digital age of capitalism can offer, their in-character snickers, giggles, curses, sputters, and tears belie an air of sincerity behind their digital masks. In fact, these virtual anime people often ended up feeling more “real” to me than their real-life human counterparts who force their enthusiasm by yell-screaming their way through games, strip mine seemingly any and all aspects of their personal lives for the sake of providing “content”, and imploring us to “smash that like button” after rattling off the mandatory sponsorship message from Nord VPN.