Japanese VTuber, a virtual anime pop idol and show host , sets Taiwan alight — Radio Free Asia

In May 2022, a Japanese-style anime girl began appearing in advertisements shown on Taiwan’s MRT subway network.

Green-eyed, pink-haired with bangs and bangs, Momosuze Nene sprints away from the viewer’s gaze, heading for “millions of subscribers” on her YouTube channel.

Fans of Nene can log on to a special website to learn 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 as her native Japan.

And there’s one thing that’s helping this dirndl-miniskirted YouTuber stand out from her crowd of competitors these days: she’s not real.

Part of a growing phenomenon of virtual YouTubers (VTubers), Nene is “a girl from another world” who nonetheless 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 per second in the chat window.

She also sings and dances, chats with viewers and reads out their messages. While her shows are in Japanese, her anime persona and upbeat attitude have made her a hit far outside of Japan.

And her 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.”

An advertisement for the Taoling Yinyin Million Support Project was drawn by a number of fans.  On the day of the fan meeting on May 23, artist Sipu (Internet nickname) took a picture with the character he drew.  Credit: Yang Zilei
An advertisement for the Taoling Yinyin Million Support Project was drawn by a number of fans. On the day of the fan meeting on May 23, artist Sipu (Internet nickname) took a picture with the character he drew. Credit: Yang Zilei

Pop idol approach

When he went to the bank to deposit his donation in person, the teller said it was a first to take money on behalf of a virtual character.

“In my 25 years as a teller, I have never heard of such a request,” Chiu quoted her as saying.

Many VTubers are the creation of two Japanese companies – Hololive and Rainbow Club – and tend towards a pop idol approach, although virtual hosts also exist in other genres of video, including technology videos.

With an energy similar to that of an actor playing a cartoon character in 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 actually played by human actors behind the scenes.

Many VTubers draw heavily from anime and come in all shapes and sizes, from vampire nurses to mafia bosses to demons and pirate captains, as well as the ubiquitous sexy anime girl.

They can do pretty much anything a real, live YouTuber can, including singing, playing games, creating art, and chatting with their audience in real time. Others talk about their favorite cartoons or act on variety shows or go to uninhabited islands as a survival stunt.

The idea of ​​a virtual pop idol is not new in 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 has opened for Lady Gaga and performed at Coachella, and will soon get its own animated series.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has accelerated the development of the industry in Japan, and it has quickly caught on in neighboring Taiwan.

Chiu Wei-chun is one of the main planners of the fanboard.  He saw the influx of fan sponsorships from abroad, and members from Malaysia, Hong Kong, the United States, Taiwan and other places responded to the project, and he felt the huge influence that VTuber brought even more.  Credit: Yang Zilei
Chiu Wei-chun is one of the main planners of the fanboard. He saw the influx of fan sponsorships from abroad, and members from Malaysia, Hong Kong, the United States, Taiwan and other places responded to the project, and he felt the huge influence that VTuber brought even more. Credit: Yang Zilei

From white collar dads to high school students

It’s the potential for personal interaction with VTubers that makes them so popular, and they make liberal use of fan sponsorship to take their programming to the next level via the graduated, color-coded SuperChat donation feature on YouTube.

The highest donations buy fans stickier messages, increasing the likelihood that the host will see the message and interact with the viewer in some way.

The fan base includes white-collar fathers of high school students, with some people willing to shell out 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 dedicated fan.

The biotech production line manager estimates that he spends a good portion of his monthly disposable income sponsoring Nene, and wonders aloud if he should rein it in a bit.

“I’m getting married to my girlfriend next year, so I need to save a little more,” he says. “But of course I still have to invest some money in Nene.”

He said he is drawn to the character for her childlike innocence and laid-back attitude.

“Kind of like a daughter; maybe I’m practicing pampering my own daughter,” Chiu said.

According to YouTube’s Super Chat Sponsor Rankings for all of 2021, only one of the top 10 is a real person.

VTubers are mostly female and mostly broadcast in Japanese, English, Chinese, Indian languages ​​or Korean from a variety of countries.

In April, the singer bought a themed light box for Vox's birthday at Taipei MRT Zhongshan Station, and she showed us the light box photo.  In addition to expressing their feelings in the appeal for the live broadcast, Vox also used this image as a live broadcast plan.  It is a common way of interaction for VTuber to refer to the secondary creation of fans.  Credit: Yang Zilei
In April, the singer bought a themed light box for Vox’s birthday at Taipei MRT Zhongshan Station, and she showed us the light box photo. In addition to expressing their feelings in the appeal for the live broadcast, Vox also used this image as a live broadcast plan. It is a common way of interaction for VTuber to refer to the secondary creation of fans. Credit: Yang Zilei

‘Different voices, different sexes’

The most popular VTuber in the world today is the English-language VTuber Gawr Gura of Hololive, with more than four million subscribers.

Otaku culture expert Liang Shih-you says VTubers are popular because they’re so funny.

“VTubers let you play a completely different self from the start, different voices, different genders, whatever, so it creates a ton of possibilities,” Liang said, citing the example of VTuber Uncle Fox, who looks like a girl with fox ears but has an uncle’s voice.

Taiwan has its own new VTubers, including Loco Lost, who debuted in June 2021 and called herself a “17-year-old alchemist”, but later mistyped it as 217 years old, earning her the nickname “Grandma”.

She said in an interview with The Reporter and RFA’s Mandarin Service that fans often tell her “I’m working while watching Grandma’s show,” or “I’m playing games and watching Grandma.”

In a riff on the ambiguity surrounding her age, she later changed her avatar to a little girl, using a child’s voice for an entire live stream.

Meanwhile, Taiwan VTuber Vox builds the soothing sounds of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) videos into cooking shows that invite fans to suggest food to make.

For Liang, the VTuber phenomenon is all about the soundscapes, the details of a person’s tone of voice or form of expression, which has its roots in the Japanese “sound culture” that was evident from the early days of virtual characters.

In a world fraught with the effects of climate crisis, war, famine and disease, many fans find this kind of vocalized camaraderie compelling.

“VTubers may have flourished all over the world and use different languages ​​and live broadcasting styles according to the countries they come from,” he said. “But they are the inheritors of the Japanese cultural characteristics.”

Screenshot from the Momosuzu Nene YouTube page.
Screenshot from the Momosuzu Nene YouTube page.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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