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Monday, October 6, 2014

I think I've developed an addiction to Hatsune Miku

Article by Matt S.

Every time that I take a trip to Japan, my purchases end up following a theme, based on whatever I'm most interested in (as souveneirs) at the time. The first time I visited it was video games and I ended bringing back a pile of Nintendo DS games. Last time it was music score books for my favourite games, becuase I like to play piano and those make for awesome collectibles.

This time around it seemed to be all about Hatsune Miku. I came quite late to the world of Miku; my first experience was Project Diva f on the PlayStation Vita, a game which I loved of course, but I didn't quite realise how fascinating I find the whole Miku culture until I got off the train at Akihabara and started shopping. In a place where Miku rivals AKB48 for raw space on shop shelves I discovered that this virtual girl with green hair is actually a bigger deal than almost anyone gives her credit for. Miku is quite possibly the first bit of software that more closely resembles a human than lines of code, and her personality is entirely community-driven. If Karl Marx was writing about music rather than economics, this is what he would have envisioned.

I find the Miku sub-culture almost as interesting as Miku herself. It's a sub culture that has built up in Japan (and these days, around the world) about a illusionary superstar that people can neither meet, nor actually interact with. And yet she's also much more than another popular anime girl from another popular anime. Miku, in fact, has the same carefully-constructed personality and media presence as any other music star. She's appeared in promotional campaigns for various products. She's opened concerts for stars as significant as Lady Gaga and appeared in MTV Shows. When popular Japanese band Bump of Chicken performed on stage with Miku they referred to it as a collaboration with her. Not with the guy that set up her screens or wrote her animations. Not with the software programmers. No, everyone involved was treating it as a performance with Miku.

My Miku loot. Music CDs, gasha prizes, collectible tins and file.
Oh, and I bought a bunch of Mikus too. 

There's even entire conferences focused entirely on Miku and her vocaloid buddies. And, of course, Miku releases CDs. Lots of CDs, in fact. She's one of the most prolific music artists working today, with something like 100,000 songs starring Miku available somewhere (YouTube is a good place to start). The people that arrange her performances enjoy plenty of popularity within the Miku sub culture, of course, but Miku's the one on the CD cover, and the one most people are tapping into the search bars.

This is all very fascinating from a cultural studies point of view. Indeed, while I've been here there was an entire episode of a very academic-style show looking at the popularity of Miku and discussing where it comes from, and I wish my Japanese was sharp enough to make sense of it all that was said in that show, because the bits I did catch got me thinking deeply. And Miku's popularity is only growing as she performs more and more concerts and an English version of her software was released just a few years ago to allow even more people to create music using her.

Promotional drink bottles. Miku's doing a promotion with Family Mart convenience stores in Japan right now

I touched on this in my review of Project Diva f, but what makes Miku so special is that she is communalising and democratising music. For the investment of $150 or thereabouts, an aspiring musician gains unlimited access to an incredibly popular superstar. Just imagine trying to gain Lady Gaga's time for a recording session for $150. Sure Miku doesn't sound entirely human (though that is changing rapidly with each new release of her software), but creative people are creating amazing music using her.

Consider one of the CD's I bought while here, Evils Kingdom. This CD is nothing less than a work of genius, as it uses the complete range of Crypton voice performers to tell a faceted story over nine or so tracks ("chapters"). Other artists have had Miku perform ballads, love songs, punk, rock, and even a touch of industrial. Miku's owner, Crypton, has a clever licensing system that allows creators to play with Miku and learn how to make her tick, while getting feedback via YouTube without fees (or at least they don't go issuing take down notices), but commercial CDs seem to have a degree of quality control via whatever commercial arrangements Crypton mandates.

Crypton in general is manging this IP well. It's stepping into game development itself with a couple of iOS titles that are, oddly enough, not rhythm games. There's a neat light RPG, and another puzzle game that requires players match-4 in time with the music for top scores. I got to play both of these at Tokyo Game Show, and while neither of them will be remembered as classic games, They can only further broaden the popularity of the character, because they are well made and suit the spirit of the character.

I guess the next step for me will be to buy the software itself and start creating music. I've been telling myself that I would for the past year or so since playing Hatsune Miku Project Diva f, but now that I've had greater exposure to her culture, I'm even more determined to dip my own toes into the water. Doing a little bit more research into the community also reveals what seems to be a generally friendly, helpful one. It's small, but vocaloid fans are the ones that have largely defined Hatsune Miku's personality, and so it is only logical than fans of the character will also find the community welcoming.

Not Miku, but I couldn't resist showing off my new Rise miniature too. And hey, Miku + Rise in a rhythm game would be the coolest thing ever. Make it happen, SEGA.

... I'm going to get an intervention now, aren't I?

- Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
I think I've developed an addiction to Hatsune Miku
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