Saturday, 16 November 2013

“Something to hum while thinking about the end of the world”: Hatsune Miku’s Vocaloid Opera

Last night I saw a pop star, an international celebrity with adoring fans who imitate her style and travel miles to see her. A true global phenomenon. Hatsune Miku took the stage of Paris’s 150 year-old Théâtre du Châtelet dressed in a series of outfits drawn exclusively from Marc Jacobs’s forthcoming spring collection for Louis Vuitton. Her voice soared above a torrent of cascading string arpeggios, white noise bursts, and digital glitches, all emanating from one man with a wild hairdo hunched over in a booth towards the back of the stage, albeit dispersed about the room through a 10.2 channel surround sound system. The stage was decked with vast screen walls receiving over 10,000 lumens from seven different projectors. 

So far, par for the course in an age when spectacular concerts are increasingly a major source of revenue for singers worldwide. Except for one thing: Hatsune Miku never stopped off those video screens. Because Hatsune Miku does not exist.

In 1996, William Gibson wrote a novel called Idoru about a rock star named Rez who falls in love with a synthetically generated Japanese Idol singer named Rei Toei. As her handler Kuwayama explains, Rei Toei is “the result of an array of elaborate constructs that we refer to as ‘desiring machines.’ … aggregates of subjective desire … an architecture of articulated longing …” Her only reality, Rez elaborates “is the realm of ongoing serial creation … Entirely process; infinitely more than the combined sum of her various selves. The platforms sink beneath her, one after another, as she grows denser and more complex…” 

By the time Hatsune Miku started playing ‘live’ arena concerts and opening major rock festivals, she was being described in just these terms: as a virtual Idol singer, the endlessly splintered product of a series of ongoing negotiations and collective fantasies on the part of numerous artists, corporate backers, and fans. But she was not designed as an Idoru like Rei Toei. The creation of Hatsune Miku was much closer to the programming of a new guitar plug-in on Garageband than the grooming of a new pop star.

Miku’s developer, the Crypton Future Media corporation, is a joint stock company (Kabushiki gaisha) founded in Sapporo in 1995. Up until just over five years ago, their business revolved around the production and sale of CDs and DVDs of sound effects, production music and background music, as well as software synthesizer applications for music hardware manufacturers like Roland and Yamaha. When Yamaha released its Vocaloid speech synthesis program in 2004, they contracted Crypton to design two of the virtual singers-in-a-box that came with the package, Meiko and Kaito. Users could buy either of these singers, and simply by entering their desired lyrics and melody, have them sing whatever they wanted.

But three years later, Crypton decided to try something different. When Yamaha released their updated Vocaloid 3 engine, once again they asked Crypton to develop a voice library to sell alongside the software editor. Crypton sampled the Japanese actress Saki Fujita uttering the full range of phonemes, just as they had (using different actors) for their previous Vocaloid products. Then they opted to take this one a step further. So Crypton invited manga artist Kei Garou to design an “android” singer in the distinctive turquoise-blue colour of a Yamaha synthesizer. 

With the image complete, Crypton posted online a personal ‘data sheet’ for their creation, listing her age (16 years old), star sign (virgo), height (5 foot 2), weight (42 kg), birthday (31st August), and best vocal range. They named her Hatsune Miku after the Japanese words for “first” (hatsu), “sound” (ne), and “future” (miku). She was to be “the first sound of the future,” according to her creators, “an android diva in the near-future where songs are lost.” 

To begin with, Miku was marketed, like her predecessors, towards professional music producers. But within four days of her release, fan-made videos of her started to appear on the Japanese video-sharing site Nico Nico Douga. Within twelve days, the Hatsune Miku Vocaloid library had sold un unprecedented 3,000 copies – a figure that has since risen to over 70,000. Canadian fan, Scott Fairbairn claims she is not only “the most illustrated character” of all time, but also “the most prolific singer in history”. Today, lists over 2,000 songs for sale attributed to Miku, many of them by amateur producers, and there are many, many more on YouTube and Nico Nico Douga. Crypton claim there exist over 30,000.

This element of collective, user-generated creation has been the key to Miku’s success. As Fairbairn explains, “One fan might generate an idea for a song and post the partially-finished product on the web, only to have another fan carry on with the project, adding to the original composition and perhaps coming up with a finished song. Then an illustrator might create an image to go with the song, leading to another producer creating a video based on the illustration. Others might create a cover of the same song using the voice of a different Vocaloid.” The process then repeats ad infinitum.

“She’s a wiki-celebrity,” claims MIT professor Ian Condry. “Enough people act on her that she takes on a life, but not of her own – everybody else’s.” While for William Gibson, “Miku is more about the fundamentally virtual nature of all celebrity, the way in which celebrity has always existed apart from the individual possessing it. One’s celebrity actually lives in others.” 

If Crypton were initially taken aback by the scale of Miku’s success, they were quick to catch up and eager to capitalise. They now have their own web community, Piapro, for fans to upload their own Miku-based art and music to, as well as their own record company, KarenT (named after Alvin Toffler’s daughter) to release the best of the fan-made songs. Lucrative corporate sponsorship has come in the form of endorsements for Toyota cars, Google Chrome, the Family Mart supermarket, and Sega video games, who have their own line of Miku games called Project DIVA (an extensive range of projects, nonetheless outnumbered by the huge array of fan-made software applications that bear her image).

In 2009, Hatsune Miku played her first ‘live’ concert. A holographic singer with a full live band. The illusion was created by a technique known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ – a 3D-seeming image projected on a forty-five degree-angled glass plane (the same technique was later used to resurrect the dead rapper Tupac Shakur at the Coachella Festival in 2012). And while her first gigs were at Anime Expos, she has since played vast arenas in front of tens of thousands of people and taken the stage at prestigious rock festivals like Summer Sonic. In November 2012 she even sung with the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra.

And now, this performance at the Théâtre du Châtelet, her first show in Europe. Billed as ‘The End: A Vocaloid Opera’, the piece consisted of a series of distinct numbers united by the running theme of Miku’s reflections upon her own mortality. It makes for a very peculiar experience. Crypton have never specified anything of Miku’s personality and Fairbairn insists this has always been a crucial part of her appeal. She exists as a pure tabula rasa, which according to Fairbain “makes it very easy for each fan to perceive in Miku those qualities which they personally hold in high regard. Each fan’s experience of Hatsune Miku is unique.” 

This poses obvious problems for the development of a music drama with a continuous storyline. As a result, much of the dialogue, written by award-winning playwright Toshiki Okada, sounds like the listless spiel of a Turing Test-failing chatterbot in the midst of an existential crisis. It’s remarkable, in fact, quite how little happens for an hour and a half, beyond Miku’s eventual acceptance that she may die “like humans do” but that’s ok, just so long as she has “something to hum while thinking about the end of the world.”

But beyond the obvious urge to legitimise, through the high cultural cachet of a nineteenth century theatre and the mystical aura of ‘opera’, what is essentially an expensively-branded software instrument; what are we to take from The End?  Principally, perhaps, the experience of an increasingly tenuous line between the real world and its virtual twin. Such doubling is one of the opera’s themes. Right from the beginning, Miku finds herself confronted with someone with the same length and colour hair as her. “What are you doing here?” she asks, “What have you come to say?” A fairly confrontational pair of questions considering the number of audience members who had arrived in full Miku cosplay. 

At the show’s end, Hatsune Miku walks onto the stage and takes a bow next to her composer. In doing so, she steps momentarily into a world in which ‘real’ pop singers are almost universally augmented by digital autotune and plastic surgery, and Tumblr blogs are maintained by ‘otherkin’ who may ‘present’ as human but self-identify as any number of imaginary beasts from comics and computer games. In such a world, it becomes increasingly difficult to think of that line between the actual and fictional as anything else but a highly mobile continuum.