Pardon my round-eyed white idiot weeaboo indulgence, but your Present Author has been sent on a mission by the Editors That Be to explore vTubers(Virtual YouTubers, Japanese: Vユーチューバー, バーチャルユーチューバー). This is 21st century living at its most stereotyped: whole subcultures emerge and gain millions of followers within a couple of years, without most of the world quite knowing they exist.
But I'm a techie and media geek first, so even I can appreciate that there's something happening here. We all expected that better AI and CGI technology would give us virtual celebrities sooner or later. That's all a vTuber is: a Virtual Youtuber, a real-life celebrity who never shows their face (almost), instead of having their movements motion-captured and animated through a virtual character, for whom they also provide the voice.
Westerners may smirk and say "Hey, that's Max Headroom." Well, no, not quite. It's actually more like Black Mirror. Namely, The Waldo Moment way back in season two:
Scary, isn't it? Happily, vTubers are not derived from obnoxious cartoon dogs that prophesied US presidential personalities. There's actually some nicer cultural roots:
This is where you take any non-personified entity and assign it a kawaii mascot of sorts. The biggest realization of these was the OS-tans, which floated across the early Internet. These were kawaii mascots of operating systems, originally Windows versions, but soon spread to all variety of software and even Linux distros:
There's a fascinating taxonomy there, but we don't have time to dive into it now. Moe anthropomorphism eventually spread to having anime girl mascots for websites, phones, companies, what have you. This sounds exotic and weird to Westerners until you point out to them that they've been staring at a kawaii mascot for fifty years and never noticed…
The other big vTuber cultural influence is the music idol phenomenon. In Japan, this has a specific set of cultural standards so it stands out, but everywhere else in the world pretty much has young musicians packaged and marketed for a target audience too. The mid-century United States had the girl group during the doo-wop era, for instance.
And finally, vTubers owe a technology debt to Vocaloid, the singing-voice synthesizer project which needed to come up with animated motion-captured characters to match its virtual voice artists. Even though the performers behind vTubers are clearly human, the suggestion is there that in just a few more years we could get synthetic characters with synthetic voices and actual deep-learning A.I. behind them, and then that's the lead-up to Skynet.
Meet Some vTubers:
These have arisen as the top of the crop, or as close to it as you could definitively declare for a culture that's had a whole three years to grow.
2.6 million subscribers (07/2019)
The great grand matriarch of vTubers, Kizuna first appeared in November of 2016. She claims to be an independent Artificial Intelligence. We hate to spoil the fun, but that's a dubious claim. The actress / voice artist behind her has never been identified, although various stand-ins have voiced her at cons. Her gaming videos have their own separate channel, with another 1.4 million subscribers over there. This makes her both the first and second most-subscribed vTuber by far.
Since she's such hot stuff, she gets a bonus video. This time playing Resident Evil. She's also the official ambassador of the Japan National Tourism Organization.
41K subscribers (07/2019)
She's a member of the idol group 22/7, which get a 22/7 Wiki, hooray! The eight-girl gang has its own anime series and had their own variety show on Tokyo MX. How adorable is this? They get a bonus video because they're a whole group:
While not the most popular by a long shot, possibly because of its slickly packaged marketing, it's certainly a contender for the series most likely to break out into the rest of the world, just because of its slickly packaged marketing. Who knows, maybe it turns out 22/7 is to vTuber idol groups what Nickelback is to grunge music.
989K subscribers (07/2019)
Kaguya is more comedy than anything else. She reportedly strikes many viewers as being a little low-brow at first, but she grows on you. She wears cat ears (is nekomimi what you want, otakus?) and has a stand-out cleavage window which has garnered her the nickname "chestbutt." Go ahead now, and try to live a normal rest of your life while knowing that's out there.
656K subscribers (07/2019)
Siro is a great example of a sincere, solid vTuber. One name, two syllables, no gimmicks, just a sweet, calm girl who likes to show gaming videos. Until she has to start gibbing zombies in Doom and then she screams like somebody letting all the helium out of a balloon.
750K subscribers (07/2019)
Oh, wait, these characters can be fully animated? Yes, we have a more realistic capture here. The animator behind Mirai Akari is "Mr. Kei" who also designed the virtual idol Hatsune Miku, from the aforementioned Vocaloid moes. Akari is cheery and hyper like all vTubers, but manages to be less annoying about it. Here, she takes a turn at the ancient Internet meme app Akinator.
522K subscribers (07/2019)
For those of you who like otaku on your taco and be done with it, neko-loli Nekomiya makes no pretenses to high art. She's got the cat-ears, the skimpy woman-child outfits and Sailor Moon halfway-sex appeal that makes you wonder "should I be watching this? Does this make me a creep?", and she's so good at first-person shooters that even her own fans nickname her "cheater cat."
368K subscribers (07/2019)
Finally, a vTuber who isn't a screaming Genki girl riot! Tsukino Mito is well-spoken, composed, and doesn't cram cleavage in your face. She's portrayed as the "class president" in her school. Maybe not the most animated character out there, but she's a welcome respite from the hyper screaming "Ayaaaaaa!" from the gaming vTubers.
Want To Play Along?
Hey, you can get in on the ground floor with this vTuber thing. The software to know is MikuMikuDance, a freeware animation program. You take a 3D rendered and rigged character already sculpted in something like Blender, import it into this program, and you're set to animate it! Of course, the motion-capture hardware and software is still way out of reach for the average home user, but if you got this far, you're still able to make some simple face animations and shoot from the shoulder up.
Or you could go on making Minecraft machinima, nobody's going to stop you…
But if you really want to step up your game, you can get HimeHina quality…
And yes, that's J-Pop R&B fusion. Which is a genre you know about now?