The singer— a 16-year-old Virgo, measuring 5 foot 2 inches and weighing a paltry 93 pounds — looks as though she came straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. And yet she never fails to elude the paparazzi. There’s a good reason for that. She’s not human.
Rather, “she” consists of a digitally synthesized voice connected to a hologram, an ever-evolving, crowd-sourced humanoid that performs all over Japan and, more recently, at sold-out concerts around the world.
Created in 2007 as the marketing mascot for a musical software company, Miku quickly leapt to fame as one of Japan’s most popular idols. Backing her up is a band of human musicians — real, sweaty, flesh-and-blood men playing guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. Although as with any diva worth her salt, the boys remain at least 20 feet from stardom, fading into the darkness as Miku steals the show. She is, of course, what the fans come to see.
All this raises the question, why worship a she-bot? Of course, there’s more than a little that’s fake about pretty much any pop star. But is this the Next Big Thing, throngs obsessing over a hologram? Why are kids these days focusing their passion on an inanimate illusion? What does she do for them that a real person can’t?
GlobalPost investigated. Or we tried, at least. In fact, our usual pool of trusty experts weren’t all that enthusiastic about using Miku as a lens on the Japanese Zeitgeist. But we did find some interesting stuff. Oddly enough, the rise of Miku could be the extension of a long-standing thing in Japan: an affinity for humanizing objects and technologies as if they were partners in life. That, according to Morinosuke Kawaguchi, a leading futurist and designer.
After all, Japan is a place where cartoon books — aka "manga" — are widely read by students, salarymen and grandmas on the metro. Then there’s "hentai" — a word that in the Western definition refers to porn preformed by animated characters, but in Japan refers to perverted and sexually demented desires in general, rather than a single genre.
“The Japanese have always believed in animism and Shintoism,” he said, referring to the island nation’s indigenous religion. “They see a spirit in objects like wood and stone.” Automated wooden puppets called Karakuri Ningyo, built more than 400 years ago, mesmerized the nation with their life-like movements, he said.
The figurines were inspired by mechanical clockwork technology from Europe. Still a nostalgia gadget today, they emit subtle emotions and can even write a handful of Chinese characters. Not everyone agrees, however, that the affection for non-humans reveals something about Japanese culture on the whole. “Is there something going on in American culture because they made the Terminator films? Or I, Robot?
What about C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars? Data in Star Trek?” asked Griseldis Kirsch, a Japanese pop culture specialist at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. There is “a seemingly impenetrable language, our knowledge about Japanese robotics, a vibrant popular culture, a lot of stereotypes on Japanese 'uniqueness,’” she said, “and out comes a mix in which we tend to think that there must be 'something' when all there is that someone had a good idea and turned it into money.” And, of course, Miku’s handlers can probably sleep well at night without worrying that she’ll go on a vandalism rampage or drive after smoking pot, with an expired license.
(Geoffrey Cain for GlobalPost)