Virtual idols blur line between real and imaginary

TOKYO —

Meet Yuki Terai. This model, “tarento” and singer just turned 19, but rattles off her measurements with a practiced ease: 166 cm tall, 86 cm bust, 59 cm waist, 85 cm hips. She was born in Chiba. Oh, and she’s also a time traveler from the year 2017.

Terai is a virtual idol, a media personality who isn’t a person at all. As in William Gibson’s sci-fi description of “idoru,” these stars are quite literally produced. Terai was designed by Kenichi Kutsugi for his manga “Libido” in 1997, and became a huge success after appearing on his website in three-dimensional, computer-generated form. By 2000, she had released a CD with Avex and starred in a TV commercial with actor Yoshihiko Hakamada. She appeared in four DVDs between 2000 and 2001.

Terai wasn’t the first of her kind; that honor goes to Hori Pro’s Kyoko Date back in 1996. Codenamed “DK-96,” or Digital Kid 1996, Date was brought to life by Visual Science Laboratory, which made use of “full motion capture,” now widely employed in video game and film production, to give her realistic movements. Date’s first CD single was “Love Communication,” with a music video that showed her walking the streets of Tokyo and New York. This paved the way for a virtual idol boom in the 2000s, with Fuji TV’s involvement in the Virtual Idol Project, CG unit Super Honey Bee and, of course, Terai.

By now, these figures are deeply embedded in the fabric of otaku media. Take, for example, The Idolm@ster, an arcade and console rhythm game released by Namco in 2005. The player takes the role of Producer, choosing one to three idols and trying to win fans by teaching them song and dance routines. The combination of realistic movements and a wide cast of cute characters to control made this a mega hit franchise that continues to this day.

The newest examples of virtual idols are Vocaloids, a term used to describe a synthesizer program developed by Yamaha in 2003, and the characters developed by third parties to run on the program. The user inputs lyrics and pitches, and the program synthesizes them into something like singing. The “voice” differs depending on which character is warbling the pitches.

The most popular Vocaloid is Crypton Future Media’s Miku Hatsune, who sports green pigtails and wields a leek baton. Hatsune debuted in summer 2007, and technologically savvy otaku quickly fell in love with her imperfect tone, which is said to resemble the “non-ability” that contributes to idols’ popularity. Everyone else fell for the character’s design. Fans started making music videos of Hatsune and posting them on Nico Nico Douga, including such innovations as her singing Finnish polka. She began to appear in fan-produced CDs, manga, cosplay outfits and, finally, licensed character merchandise. Such is Hatsune’s popularity that she was a headliner at the anime industry’s Animelo Summer Live concert this year. Her image onscreen and recorded voice constitutes a “live” performance worth an 8,500 yen ticket.

Sure enough, mainstream bands are beginning to learn from the success of their virtual counterparts. The most famous to date is Perfume, a three-girl “techno” unit. The group formed in Hiroshima in 2001, when the members were aged 11-12, and moved to Tokyo a couple of years later. They found some success on the live-house circuit thanks to their unbridled energy, and after uploading their songs onto Nico Nico Douga, the trio gained renown in the virtual world. With their layered and synthesized voices, synchronized movements, and 8-bit accompaniments, Perfume fits right in with robotic and doll-like virtual idols.

The group’s music videos were seen alongside videos of The Idolm@aster girls and Miku, both of which often covered Perfume songs. Even as the band found commercial success with the national recycling campaign anthem, “Polyrhythm” (2007), and shattered records with a No. 1 single on the Oricon charts in July 2008, otaku continued to see them as virtual idols. At the Otaku Awards 2008, Perfume was voted one of the most important phenomena of the year. It seems like these and other “near-future idol” bands are virtually guaranteed to succeed.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

  • 0

    InTheKnow

    One word: 'creepy'. Impressive bust behind that tight sweater, though.

  • 0

    kokorocloud

    I actually really like Vocaloids. I like how there are so many of them, and people have made some really impressive songs/remixes with them. ...everything else though is pretty creepy though.

  • 0

    TokyoJake

    There's nothing creepy about this.

  • 0

    Gaijinocchio

    Her image onscreen and recorded voice constitutes a “live” performance worth an 8,500 yen ticket.

    Nothing virtual could ever compare to a true "live" performance, especially at that price!

  • 0

    bamboohat

    just turned 19,

    and she’s also a time traveler from the year 2017.

    Which means in 2009 she is 11. Old enough for plenty of the perves here.

  • 0

    Investigator

    Which means in 2009 she is 11. Old enough for plenty of the perves here.

    How unfair of this website to make you have to bend over backwards while doing a half twist and a split in order to bash Japan in this way.

    This new little fantasy foray is no more odd than going to watch a movie, or going to the colloseum to watch gladiators fight. You buy a ticket, you sit, you watch, you do nothing but imagine you are involved. It hardly matters if the actors are real or not. Its all the same.

  • 0

    tokyochris

    Which means in 2009 she is 11. Old enough for plenty of the perves here

    Haven't you seen 'Back To The Future'? People don't age when travelling forwards/backwards in a time machine ;-)

  • 0

    smithinjapan

    I'm sorry, but this kind of 'talento' doesn't blur the line between reality and fantasy one iota unless you:

    a) have zero 'talent' as it is and so there's no difference between you (celeb) and a virtual reality video.

    b) you're living at your parents house at 35, never leave your room except to pick up more manga porn, and spend your day looking at said manga or internet animated porn.

    Sad world

  • 0

    meloveulongtime

    nice rack Yuki...you free tonight?

  • 0

    womanforwomen

    Come on, start looking at the positive side of these things. I am releived that the real life 'idols' will be free now and they will continue to live like normal people. Would these virtual idols also be buying LV purses? And then sell those LVs at Second hand shops?

  • 0

    timeon

    wasn't Gorillaz based on a similar concept? virtual band, actual members kept secret. and they had some really good songs

  • 0

    herzenstube

    Nothing virtual could ever compare to a true "live" performance, especially at that price!

    I agree with you on that, but the pseudo holographic Miku at Miku FES 2009 might just fit your definition of "live."

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3bgj9ULXhQ

    Also, the tickets were only 3939 yen (including a bottle of mineral water) ; )

  • 0

    stirfry

    Virtual idols blur line between real and imaginary

    well only if you're a complete imbecile...the rest of us can easily differentiate

  • 0

    stirfry

    oh, uh....excellent rack though

  • 0

    KaptainKichigai

    Holy dorkdom batman- i got through 2 thirds of this "article" and wanted to "Yuki Terai" this whole place a new a*@#ole! I just do not not not understand the direction this and many other "cultures" are heading.

  • 0

    BurakuminDes

    She is the dream girlfriend of every Gaijin male Otaku!

  • 0

    Nessie

    Hello Kitty, meet Hello Titty.

  • 0

    HonestDictator

    Blurring lines nuthin. Virtual fantasy yes, but no way near real. Only way to truely blur this is an android or bio mehcanical clone (Then we'll start having to worry about sentient rights for artifically intelligent beings heh).

    As I always say though, "She's got some purty nice curvy polygons" chuckle But can she really sing well knowing the current crew of J-singers? Muhahaha!

  • 0

    bamboohat

    You guys realize you are lusting after some other GUY'S imaginary creation, right?

  • 0

    shayouzoku

    Would it be any different if a girl created it? I think it would be male in that case.

  • 0

    cow76

    Hopefully all the 'talents' on Japanese TV will be made redundant by animations. I could live more happily knowing people like Becky aren't really real.

  • 0

    nandakandamanda

    Hmmm... cartoon characters, robots, virtual idols impinging on reality? Roll on Blade Runner!

    But seriously, who ever said that size matters?

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