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Andrew Osmond on Hatsune Miku and virtual idols

Wielding a luminous forest of lightsticks, the crowd cheers lustily as the blue-haired starlet struts birdlike on the stage, her voice a piercing high warble. The audience is flesh and blood; so are the musicians sharing the stage with the diva. Hatsune Miku, though, is 100% anime. Her pale skin and train of blue hair glow in the auditorium like the lightsticks raised up to her. Projected onto a clear screen, she’s a cartoon image with a fanbase in the thousands. Last year, that image was etched on metal plates and sent into space aboard the Japanese unmanned Venus probe, Akatsuki. It seems only fitting, given that Miku’s “live” music videos look like something out of science-fiction.

When Miku isn’t being a stage projection, she has a second career as a videogame sprite. Go to the Sega World games centre in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district, and you can see her perform pop numbers on a vast TV screen, projected from one of the many arcade booths where players struggle to follow her rhythms. The game is called Project Diva, a “hit the buttons in the right sequence” affair with dozens of different Miku videos (there’s also a version for the PlayStation Portable).

Officially, Miku is neither a stage projection nor a game character, but a piece of software based on Vocaloid technology. The Vocaloid – in the words of Hiroyuki Itoh, CEO of Crypton Future Media, the company which owns Miku – is “an engine that produces a singing sound.” Other Crypton Vocaloid characters appear alongside Miku in her games and stage shows. There are the boy-and-girl twins Len and Rin Kagamine, and Megurine Luka with her strawberry hair and her deeper, funkier voice. Miku’s own voice has been described cruelly by her detractors (as Morph on a megaphone, or a strangled chipmunk) but her singing partners balance her out quite a bit.

One things which fascinates people is what Miku’s popularity says about her fans. How on earth can people in a pop stadium respond so enthusiastically to a cartoon character who –sorry folks – isn’t real? Inevitably, a lot of the press talks about Miku in terms of crazy Japanese pop-culture, or crazy otaku pop-culture. Actually, her lineage goes back before either idea was in circulation. Decades before Jurassic Park or Jar Jar Binks, cinema audiences were already used to the idea of actors interacting with characters who weren’t really “there.” Indeed, they responded to these characters themselves; they laughed at Bugs Bunny, blubbed at Bambi, and cheered at Gene Kelly dancing a duet with Jerry (from Tom and Jerry). Other characters provoked more, ahem, interesting responses.

In 1943, mad animation genius Tex Avery released a saucy cartoon called Red Hot Riding Hood, the centrepiece of which was a song and dance routine by sexy singer “Red,” wearing very little, very attractively. One can only imagine how a crowd of on-leave U.S. soldiers would react to that kind of spectacle (unsurprisingly, Red returned in several follow-up cartoons in the ‘40s). Skip forward forty-five years, and it was Jessica Rabbit wowing audiences in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, breathing “Why don’t you do right,” and getting Bob Hoskins’s dander up.

In anime, who can forget Sharon Apple (another redhead), the femme fatale cyber-goddess in Macross Plus, floating over her adoring fans like a luminous angel? It’s interesting to note, though, that in the anime story she’s the dream of a flesh-and-blood woman, her alter ego, whom she seeks to destroy. A similar idea is used in Satoshi Kon’s film Perfect Blue, where the singer-goddess is a creation of a psychosis; not that that makes her any less forceful as she skips atop lamp-posts and mocks her creator from a computer screen. An earlier virtual anime singer was Eve in the 1980s video series Megazone 23, whom the public believe is real, but who is actually the A.I. of a supercomputer.

The first “real” virtual idol in Japan was the crudely-animated Kyoko Date in 1997, who released a single called Love Communication. She was followed by Yuki Terai, who was packaged with early 3DCG software, appeared in pop videos and released a DVD. Hatsune Miku’s impact has been far greater, but her forgotten predecessors remind us even virtual pop-stars are transitory. Will we be talking about Miku two years from now, let alone five or ten?

The “live” concert footage of Miku is breathtaking, but according to people who were actually at the events, it’s also misleading. Reportedly, the illusion that Miku is on stage is only perfect if you’re placed watching the projection head-on; otherwise Miku and her chums look rather ghostly. Nonetheless, the potential of the stage technology is obvious. If it can simulate a pop concert, then why not a story, a whole anime drama played on stage with anime characters? An audience with Gollum, or Astro Boy, or Haruhi Suzumiya (or better still, all three)? Or how about a Roger Rabbit-style stage spectacular, with live and anime performers? Once you let a blue-haired, squeaky-voiced diva on stage, then brace yourself… It’s her world now.

“Hatsune Miku Live Party 2011” will be shown at the Apollo Piccadilly cinema on Monday November 28 (at 6.30 pm) and on Tuesday November 29 (at 8.30 pm) Tickets can be booked on the cinema website.

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