Recently, renowned sci-fi writer William Gibson of Neuromancer fame annoyed a bunch of Miku fanboys when he tweeted, “Hatsune Miku doesn’t really rock me. I want higher rez, less anime.” This was immediately parsed by some to mean that he hates all things anime and wishes horrible things to happen to otakukind and hilarity ensued.
Coincidentally, I have been spending some time thinking about the concept of virtual idols recently and just picked up a copy of Gibson’s Idoru novel that touches on this exact issue. Incidentally, it has a pseudo anime-style cover.
While Gibson’s delivery of his message was highly ambiguous (we can all thank the ubiquity of Twitter in contemporary discourse for that), I think what he actually meant by his statement is that he believes a true virtual idol should emulate reality to a higher level of accuracy. This of course includes higher resolution graphics and the display technology to match it. I think there is some merit to that argument that goes beyond a matter of personal preference.
Idols throughout history have always been artificial constructs to varying degrees, but today idol-making has become a precise science. Outfits like Johnny’s and AKB48 assemble each idol from a list of proven ingredients and find a suitable host body to bring theory to life. They are basically idol factories, managing hundreds of manufactured personas and with hundreds more on a conveyor belt ready to replace them. These idols are actors whose talents are not singing or dancing but to give the fans exactly what they want to see. Auto-Tune fills in the rest.
The real game we are playing is the illusion of intimacy. The best idols are not the prettiest or the best singers, they are the ones who can convince the most number of people that a special connection exists between them and their fans.
This argument may sound overly cynical, but it’s only slightly. I’m not saying that all idols are being intentionally deceitful in order to be popular (only most of them), and indeed many of them probably truly believe in what they do and say in front of their fans. Some of them may even feel the special connection. But that all just means that even idols themselves are human beings who are susceptible to the alluring mirage of false intimacy.
I suppose the more astute reader would now argue, “But DM, by that line of reasoning is there really such a thing as real intimacy?” Let’s not open that can of worm, but I’ll just quickly add that at the very least, I think that real intimacy cannot possibly arise from a relationship in which communication is mostly unidirectional and systematically managed.
Now the problem I have with the idea of Hatsune Miku as an “idol” is not the art style or her glass-shattering voice, but the difficulty of maintaining this illusion with what is essentially an open-source meme. Her screen-projected concerts are not so much endearing as amusing; It’s something fresh and flashy, but after the first time it offers no obvious value over watching this YouTube video twenty times. That’s because seeing Hatsune Miku as an idol requires a suspension of disbelief far greater in magnitude than that required for a typical mass-produced humanoid idol. This is why virtual idols (and I suppose this does include anime characters in general) will remain a tiny niche for as long as display and rendering technology fail to convincingly fool our brains into giving willing fans an easier time to live in our selfish fantasies.
Of course, my obsession with the idea of emotional intimacy as part of the definition of an idol is subjective and probably too stringent for some. However, I find the distinction significant because a line, hard to define as it may be, must exist somewhere between regular fame and idolatry, or the concept of idol ceases to have relevance.
In addition, the crowd-sourced nature of Hatsune Miku further complicates the situation. Everyone can participate in the creative process and all works produced can potentially be incorporated into the collective idea of what exactly constitutes Miku. The trademark leek she holds for example originated from a Bleach parody video. Given that idols, according to my cynical worldview, consciously calibrate their self image in a way that panders to fan expectations, letting fans have direct creative control over the entire process should arguably represent the ultimate form of idol creation, at least in theory.
I am undecided on this one, but I lean towards scepticism. If fans get exactly what we want because we helped to create it, doesn’t that just makes it more difficult for us to maintain the illusion that the virtual idol is an existence worthy of our worship? After all, how can the creator idolize his creation when he can see all through all the magic taking place behind the scene?
Personally, I see Hatsune Miku as a meme. The sense of joy we derive from watching her comes from shared experiences between fans more than it comes from her. It’s more like an open-source software community where everyone contributes something and we all feel happy with the result and less like Steve Jobs coming up with an awesome iThing and we all grovel at his feet. There are tons of shaky bits in that analogy, but I think it conveys my general feeling.
So all in all, I do not see Hatsune Miku as a virtual idol. She’s more like the Laughing Man except less anarchistic and more merchandising. But in all likelihood, the idea of idol itself may be the one that is changed in this great social experiment. We’ll see.
Actually, I wonder why no one has yet to make a serious attempt at manufacturing a classic virtual idol. We already have the technology to render photorealistic people (at least for the purpose of making music videos or advertisements). Throw in some anonymous voice samples with Auto-Tune and some masked body doubles for concerts (perhaps even special effects make-up or plastic surgery) and you have an everlasting star who will work for as long as you need and who will never betray your corporate interests… Hmmm.
As for William Gibson, he eventually tweeted a follow-up message and said, “Hatsune Miku is clearly a more complex phenomenon than I initially assumed. Requires further study.” I wonder if he truly believes that or if he’s just saying that to get the fanboys to get off his back.
P.S. It’s interesting to note that a lot of Miku fan art is basically recoloured/traced illustrations of other anime characters. Perhaps Miku is more like the Borg: she absorbs and assimilates all our individual fantasies…