In May 2022, a Japanese-style anime girl began appearing in commercials running on Taiwan’s MRT subway system.
Green-eyed, pink-haired with updos and bangs, Momosuze Nene, sprints away from the viewer’s gaze, heading to “millions of subscribers” on her YouTube channel.
Nene fans can log on to a special website to find out more about her, while the ads hope to spread the word among her growing fan base in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australia and the United States, as well than in his native Japan.
And there’s one thing that helps this YouTuber in a dirndl miniskirt stand out from her crowd of competitors right now: she’s not real.
Part of a growing phenomenon of virtual YouTubers (VTubers), Nene is “an otherworldly girl” who nevertheless plays video games like her contemporaries, commenting and laughing as the game progresses, and chatting in real time with viewers leaving messages at a rate of several seconds in the chat window.
She also sings and dances, chats with viewers and reads their messages. Although her shows are in Japanese, her anime persona and upbeat attitude have made her a hit far outside of Japan.
And its expansion is being funded by fans like tattooed Taipei resident Chiu Wei-chun, 31.
“The advertising agency has no faith in us,” Chiu said. “They said the average fan would probably donate between 30,000 and 50,000 Taiwan dollars.”
Pop idol approach
When he went to the bank to pay for his donation in person, the cashier said taking money in the name of a virtual character was a first.
“In my 25 years as a cashier, I have never heard of such a request,” Chiu quoted her as saying.
Many VTubers are the brainchild of two Japanese companies – Hololive and Rainbow Club – and tend towards a pop idol approach, although virtual hosts are also found in other video genres, including tech videos.
With energy similar to that of an actor playing a cartoon character at a theme park and motion capture technology similar to that used to generate Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, these VTubers are in done by human actors behind the scenes. .
Many VTubers draw heavily from anime and come in all shapes and sizes, from vampire nurses and mob bosses to demons and pirate captains, as well as the ubiquitous sexy anime girl.
They can do just about anything a real live YouTuber can do, including sing, play games, make art, and chat with their audience in real time. Others talk about their favorite comics or star in variety shows, or travel to uninhabited islands to survive.
The idea of a virtual pop idol is not new to Japan.
Miku Hatsune is a Vocaloid software voicebank developed by Crypton Future Media, represented in live performance by the image of a 15-year-old teenage girl with long turquoise twintails.
The act opened for Lady Gaga and performed at Coachella, will soon have its own animated series.
The COVID-19 epidemic accelerated the development of industry in Japan, and it quickly spread to neighboring Taiwan.
From white-collar fathers to high school students
It’s the potential for personal interaction with VTubers that makes them so popular, and they generously use fan sponsorship to take their programming to the next level via the graded, color-coded SuperChat donation feature on YouTube.
Higher donations buy fans stickier posts, increasing the likelihood that the host will see the post and interact with the viewer in some way.
The fanbase includes white-collar dads and high school kids, with some people willing to drop half their monthly salary on their favorite virtual idol.
Chiu’s first meeting with Nene was in September 2020, since then he has been a devoted fan.
The head of the biotech production line estimates that he spends a good part of his monthly disposable income on sponsoring Nene, and wonders aloud if he should curb him somewhat.
“I’m going to marry my girlfriend next year, so I have to save a little more,” he says. “But I will still need to invest money in Nene, of course.”
He said he was drawn to the character for his childlike innocence and relaxed demeanor.
“Kind of like a daughter; maybe I’m practicing to spoil my own daughter,” Chiu said.
According to YouTube’s Super Chat sponsorship rankings for all of 2021, only one of the top 10 is a real person.
VTubers are mostly female and are mostly streamed in Japanese, English, Chinese, Indian languages or Korean from a number of countries.
“Different voices, different genres”
The most popular VTuber in the world today is Hololive’s English VTuber Gawr Gura, with over four million subscribers.
Otaku culture expert Liang Shih-you says VTubers are popular because they’re so much fun.
“VTubers allows you to play a completely different me from the get-go, different voices, different genders, whatever, so it creates tons of possibilities,” Liang said, citing the example of VTuber Uncle Fox, who looks like a girl with a fox. ears but has the voice of an uncle.
Taiwan has its own up-and-coming VTubers, including Loco Lost, who debuted in June 2021, calling himself a “17-year-old alchemist”, but later mistyped it as 217, earning him the nickname “grandmother”.
She said in an interview with The Reporter and RFA’s Mandarin Service that fans often tell her “I work watching Grandma’s show” or “I play games and watch Grandma”.
In a riff on the ambiguity around her age, she then changed her avatar to a little girl, using a child’s voice for an entire livestream.
Meanwhile, Taiwan VTuber Vox incorporates the soothing sounds of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) videos into cooking shows, inviting fans to suggest dishes to prepare.
For Liang, the VTuber phenomenon is about soundscapes, the details of a person’s tone of voice or form of expression, which has its roots in Japanese “sound culture” evident since the early days of virtual characters.
In a world overwhelmed by the effects of the climate crisis, war, famine and disease, many fans find this kind of vocal company compelling.
“VTubers may have flourished all over the world and use different languages and styles of livestreaming depending on the countries they come from,” he said. “But they are the heirs of these Japanese cultural characteristics.”
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.