I’m going to be completely honest here. The past couple months have been even weirder than I could have ever imagined. And a large part of that weirdness is in the midst of a NEVERENDING PROCESSION of unprecedented historic events, I can’t seem to stop watching hololive content. I’ve been more or less exclusively indoors for an inordinately long amount of time, and to fill that time, among other things, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos. And of those videos, a frankly embarrassing proportion of them are Virtual Youtubers, generally referred to as “Virtual Livers” in Japanese.
To be honest, I wanted my first patreon-funded essay to be about Tanking in Video Games, but I literally could not get past this Live2D shaped object in my brain. Worse, every time I tried to wrap up this essay, my brain added more and more until it twisted into the horrifying form you see laid out before you. Eventually I just had to give up and put it up as is lest it mutate even more.
Hey, does anyone else remember when Kizuna Ai was the biggest thing on the internet? Something about her becoming the future of streaming entertainment, etc. It felt like only yesterday that a quirky Japanese channel featuring a cute 3D anime character took the internet by storm. But that was in 2016 and most of us have sort of forgotten that that ever happened, which is unsurprising considering everything from 2015 onward has felt like a neverending streaming of nightmarishly absurd reality.
In my humble opinion, the things that really captured people about Kizuna Ai after the initial interest factor of a virtual youtuber were the often hilarious gap between her appearance and her demeanor, the accessibility of a platform like YouTube for a Japanese and Global audience, and just plain good character design and marketing. Kizuna Ai’s videos were edited and her persona may have been animated by a small team, it’s unclear due to the secretive nature of AI Channel’s production, but largely speaking they had an oddly grassroots appeal to them. The same kind of appeal that drives people to watch streamers and Let’s Players over more traditional forms of entertainment. Kizuna AI became explosively popular across the internet, but especially the western part of the internet when translated clips went viral. Geoff “Mother’s Basement” Thew even went as far as to say AI Channel was the most influential anime of 2018. He was right, of course.
The thing about Kizuna Ai is that 4 years down the line, a concept that garnered over 4 million subscribers across three channels and grown large enough to host live events is averaging about ~30K views per video nowadays. These aren’t bad numbers by any means, but the frank reality is that this is the opposite of how you want your retention rate to look like. So what exactly happened?
Well, a couple things. For one, there was a drama surrounding the voice actress of Kizuna Ai potentially being changed. And for a character whose voice actress was never even officially confirmed, this was met with shocking resistance. We now know that the voice actress was Nozomi Kasuga, and that she’s a part of the consulting board for AI Channel, but the damage had already been done. Another incident was the shocking revelation of hostile working conditions for Game Club Project, another popular vtubing channel, that caused all of the original voice actors for the project to quit and be recast, though this has more to do with vtubing in general than AI in particular.
None of this really explains such a drastic dip in retained viewership, at least not directly. There was something about the transition of Kizuna Ai from quirky youtube channel to megapopular idol entity that really put the final nail in the coffin. This isn’t to say that Ai’s idol activities aren’t popular, to this day they remain the highest viewed videos on the channel, but that something Ai’s content fundamentally changed enough that people were at least disinterested in watching more.
As a small aside, let’s talk about Japanese idol culture. Japanese idol culture is equal parts fascinating and toxic. On one hand you have the sheer amount of drive and creativity and talent that goes into participating in fandom, and on the other hand you have a culture of cultivated parasocialism that can really bring out the worst in people. Idols are expected to be more than human, perfect in every way down to never participating in romantic relationships lest their endless legions of adoring fans stalk and harass everyone involved. There’s a Japanese ideal known as “seiso” which tends to, in idol culture, refer to a general purity of mannerism to which idols are expected to adhere to.
As with most things, idol culture is always a little exaggerated. There really is very little difference between an idol fan, often referred to as a gachikoi and what the kids nowadays might call a simp. This goes doubly so when you consider female streamers in western spaces get bombarded with more harassment and threats than your average idol will likely ever have to personally interact with.
Parasocial relationships are scary. People who cultivate parasocial relationships are breeding trouble. Like with idols, most people can tell the difference between a real social relationship and a parasocial one, but the ones who can’t very much have the potential to do some real harm. We live in the age of people showing up to Twitch Streamer/Youtubers’ houses unannounced to force an interaction. In fact, there might be some merit to the idea of an idol’s constructed persona being a wall that separates the fan from the performer, that there might be some real, fathomable distance, socially. At the very least, idols have the resources of a company that wants to protect their talent, usually.
Kizuna Ai stands as the flagbearer for virtual youtubing, and in fact all “current generation” virtual youtubers recognize this, to the point where many refer to her as Boss (Oyabun). A ton of channels have popped up, independent or backed by companies, but none have had more collective success and growth in 2020 that Cover Corp’s Hololive Production.
Enter Motoaki “YAGOO” Tanigo. A man with a dream. A man who once said the now-infamous memeable words: “an idol group like AKB48.”
Utilizing, interestingly enough, the face capture technology of the iPhone X, and a colorful cast of streamers, Hololive has had explosive growth over the last two years, becoming one of the fastest growing forms of streaming entertainment out right now. Hololive alone produces 11 of the top 20 talents in the entire “vtuber” industry, with Shirakami Fubuki holding the #4 spot overall with 888,000 subscribers (#3 if you consider that the top two are both Kizuna Ai channels). Incidentally, since tracking of SuperChats (YT Streaming’s donation method) started in January of this year (2020), Hololive streamers occupy 5 of the top 10 earners overall, with Kiryu Coco having accrued over 800,000 USD as of August (it’s certainly higher by now).
Now, realistically speaking, an idol group is simultaneously the most accurate way of describing Hololive and the furthest away from how to describe Hololive. Compared to the landscape of live2d streaming that existed before, Hololive represents a new generation that much more closely resembles what streaming looks like nowadays: personality-driven, live performance. In a sense, it’s actually exactly what an idol traditionally does, just at a desk instead of on a stage. They release produced songs, covers, put on live performances, etc.
The thing that often relegates Hololive streamers to not-so-seiso status is the fact that, well, they don’t really stick to that seiso ideal at all. There are an innumerable number of clips of less-than-seiso moments. It happens, obviously, because there are real people behind these avatars and when they have fun things get a little away from them. Or sometimes they play up those aspects because it’s funny or entertaining. Whatever the case is, this is about the farthest from the ideals of idols you’ll find in any group of supposed idols (RIP YAGOO). The hilarious antics of highly individualistic streamers is a recipe for success in personality-driven mediums like livestreaming, so it’s no wonder that the idiosyncrasies of these, frankly, weird-ass people caught on.
Cover Corp is actually really smart in that they aimed to recruit talent from a pool of people who already had experience streaming, being idols, or both. This lowers the amount of resources you need to train someone to do something they’re not used to. They’re pulling largely from nico nico douga (Japan’s YT equivalent) streamers, the kind of people who already sit inside and play video games all day. Of course they’re bound to have plenty of weird quirks, interesting quirks about them.
But really the most incredible thing is when the idol thing actually works. Obviously, the comical disconnect between people meant to present a particularly unapproachable image and the reality of being often times downright crude is charming in its own right. After all, the term gap moe exists for a reason. But what’s interesting is when it goes in the other direction. I don’t know if I’m just a particular sucker for the trope when a ragtag band of dubiously qualified hooligans actually succeeds at the thing they set out to, or what, but when a 3d performance happens, a song drops, or one of the more rambunctious members just takes a moment to calm down and speak on the level, I feel a swelling in my heart.
Following a traditionally understood story/character arc, it has a lot to do with delivering on buildup. Every moment spent goofing off makes the moment when the idol reveal drops hit you more than it would have otherwise, because you spent time developing an emotional investment in their success. It’s the reason this scene from Season 2 of Konosuba remains one of my favorite scenes in any anime ever. It just hits different.
I may have spent a decent couple paragraphs explaining the toxic side of idol culture, it’s cult of purity and parasocial basis, but I couldn’t then not talk about the positives. Plain and simple, there’s a simple joy to being a fan of someone or something, to cheer for their success, and to see it happen. And when you hear some of the conditions the idols come from, you can’t help but want to root for them.
For all those who don’t have anywhere else to turn, to those who have trouble due to being a foreigner in Japan, or a Japanese person abroad, for those who cannot become a traditionally understood idol but dream of it, HoloLive, and virtual youtubing, is a sort of godsend. And it makes you feel like something is going to be okay, at least for a little bit. That there’s some good left in the world. If the ugly truth of idols is the parasocial relationship built between the performer and their audience, then the flip side is the larger than life symbol one looks up to to find hope. It might be weird, but when you’re stuck inside as a mismanaged plague slaps your country as a political death cult sends us into a spiral of authoritarianism with a healthy dose of climate crisis, sometimes YOU JUST REALLY NEED TO NOT THINK ABOUT THAT FOR A SECOND. I REALLY NEED TO NOT THINK ABOUT IT FOR A SECOND. Sometimes I really just need to watch the dog go brr. Sometimes you just need some people acting like cute anime girls to get you through the week, okay?
You might have noticed a lot of the links in this essay are primarily linking to translation channels; channels set up specifically to take clips from streams and translate and typeset them into english, or other languages, so people who don’t know Japanese can enjoy them. If you, like me, watched a lot of anime or read a lot of manga on the internet growing up, this kind of thing isn’t new to you, but the politics of translation isn’t something that people who aren’t in the space, or even some who are, think about.
It’s important to talk about this because, outside of the newly launched HololiveEN, there isn’t really a way to understand the streams outside of just straight up learning Japanese without them. Many of these channels do it purely for the hobby/practice, for the dedication to a certain streamer’s content, etc. But almost universally, you might notice it’s not paid work. Some channels certainly ask for donations, but if money is going anywhere, it’s probably going to a vtuber’s stream in the form of a superchat. In an age where companies like Crunchyroll aren’t giving translators their due, it’s important to recognize how vital and tenuous the work of translation really is. I have a lot of feelings about translation that will probably be best saved for another piece, but I thought it would be best to carve out a little place to thank the hard work of translators everywhere.
That being said, it’s also important to recognize that without any kind of quality control, it’s nearly impossible to actually know if what you’re getting is at all accurate. Translations tend to be a little patchwork, a little crowdsourced, bits and bobs from various sources. Normally, this isn’t a huge problem, the only time it really has caused trouble is when “casual” translators attempt to translate something serious like an apology video or the like. In cases like that, it’s very important that what is being conveyed is both true to the intent of the message, the language used, and checked to make sure it matches those two factors in the translated-to language.
Let’s talk about authenticity. A lot of people cite the “authenticity” of HoloLive streamers or other vtubers as a way to explain why they feel so drawn to watching their content. Personally speaking, I hate the idea of authenticity and am not exactly an advocate for it as a way of determining the merit of something. To be perfectly honest, it’s something I hate in nearly every setting I encounter it in. I hate the idea of authenticity in food and the idea that food might in some way be invalidated by its supposed inauthenticity. I generally propose traditional as a way of describing if a dish is reflective of the place where people have historically eaten it, but even this comes with a couple big caveats. American Chinese food is not “inauthentic Chinese food,” it’s just a type of food with its own specific history, for instance. Authenticity is nearly always used as a way to measure and gatekeep, especially when you consider who gets to consider what as “authentic” in the first place.
In a similar way, describing people as authentic or not always feels a little gross to me. It’s simply too easy to turn around and wield authenticity as a bludgeon to stifle the voices of people you don’t agree with. There’s also an overcorrectional tendency in certain online spaces to take “authenticity” or lived experience as universal truth or synecdoche of entire swathes of incredibly diverse people. There are people who play up certain aspects of their personality or hide certain aspects of their personality, but all personality is performative anyway so it becomes a weird way of measuring someone’s worth. Vtubers, especially HoloLive streamers, are people who play characters, even if at the end of the day they’re just more exaggerated versions of the people they present as in physical spaces. There is importance in recognizing the barrier between knowing things about a person and knowing a person; even if you happen to know a lot about someone factually, nothing about that should suggest you know them as a person. And, funnily enough, this actually ties in to the next thing I wanted to talk about.
Not a day on the internet goes by without boys being boys. And oh my god. They sure are. By far one of the worst aspects of watching a lot of vtuber content is being made violently aware of the absolutely terrible ways people engage with and think about vtubers. There is a lot to touch on in terms of streaming and gender dynamics, but the first and foremost is that if you pay any attention whatsoever to the streaming landscape, you see how absolutely stacked the deck is against women.
People mistakenly claim that streaming must be so easy for women and that all you have to do is turn on your camera and people will just gift you free views, subs, etc. It’s all part of one big series of delusions that people (men) tell themselves to feel as if they’re victims of a system of persecution (they are but not in the way they think). But realistically speaking, streaming is a boy’s club and has been for a very, very long time. It’s a hostile environment at the very best of times.
Hololive streamers pull big numbers. BIG NUMBERS. Hololive’s 5th generation streamer Shishiro Botan’s YouTube channel amassed over 100K subscribers before even a single stream had started, and 1st generation Shirakami Fubuki is well on course to hit 1 million before the year is over. While it’s hard to gather metric data about live viewership numbers, a quick glance will see 20-40K live viewers on popular Hololive streamers with numbers over double that not being uncommon for debut streams.
What do these two paragraphs have to do with each other? Well, it’s not hard to guess that a large number of people who are otherwise hostile to female streamers (especially those who don’t fit the mold of your perfect online pixie dream e-girl) finding enjoyment in a space where the idea of women is vaguely present, I don’t think, is a coincidence. A lot of these people don’t even speak Japanese, so the idea of them watching live streams where they watch an anime girl exist while not having to understand her is… entirely unsurprising. That’s just getting the experience of female streamers while having the comfortable distance to pretend there aren’t real people behind the screen. Really, it’s like an incel dream come true.
And if this sounds far-fetched, just look around vtubing communities to see just how many people are willing to pit vtubers against facecam streamers despite there being literally no reason for them to have issues with each other.
I’m going to link to some here, but be warned they really suck and aren’t funny. The third one in particular uses autism as a derogatory term, but is distressingly prevalent as a view.
The merits of vtubing are obviously in that you can do some work in hiding your identity, you can control how you present yourself, and you can entirely evade comments about your appearance. Some streamers would prefer an avatar over using a camera that shows their face. At the end of the day, that should just be the end of it. But it’s not.
I have always been critical of the anime community when it leans towards the fascist tendencies of a bunch of nerds drawn to a culture that uncritically replicates nationalist, colonialist rhetoric. And really vtubers are just another vector by which that happens.
If you want the truth, men are terrified that women might hold any social power over them. They’re terrified of acknowledging a system whereby one might at any moment be forced to “show weakness” by asking for assistance. They’re terrified of real women, and so they hide behind the facade, a vague idea of women, and they always have. They indulge in fantasies of submissive women who function more as property than as people, and the idea they might be anything more is terrifying.
OKAY SO LIKE THERE IS ONE MORE THING WE HAVE TO TOUCH ON AND I HATE WE HAVE TO TOUCH ON IT. I WAS SO CLOSE TO GETTING THIS DONE AND THEN COVER CORP SUSPENDED TWO MEMBERS DUE TO AN INCIDENT IN WHICH THEY REVEALED STREAM DATA THAT MADE THE EVIDENTLY CARDINAL SIN OF ACKNOWLEDGING TAIWAN AS A COUNTRY. In response, a big translation channel privated all of their videos in a show of support for the CCP which is…. big oof.
Personally speaking, I get Cover Corp coming out and doing something because nationalists are terrifying and Hololive does have Chinese talent that could actually find themselves in legitimate danger of being doxed or worse. And on the other hand, it’s absolutely maddeningly terrifying that that’s a real threat they have to contend with. I mean really the sort of upsetting dynamic of a Japanese company complying with the demands of a foreign authority in its attempt to wrestle as much autonomy from places it considers part of its territory as possible is not lost on me. It’s not lost on me even a little. Unsurprising, if a bit disappointing, overall.
I spent a lot of time talking about Hololive, but vtubing is actually a really vibrant, growing category of streamers where people who either weren’t comfortable with a facecam or find comfort in the persona might find success. I like to watch VOMS Project’s Amano Pikamee (who you might know from this clip), ViViD’s Shirayuri Lily, and Nijisanji’s Gundou Mirei. But there are underground vtubers, virtual gorillas, and even english vtubers (beyond HololiveEN of course). Many of the Indonesian livers also stream largely in english.
I love the idea and the potential of vtubers. For people who want to explore different ways to express their personality, to present something without revealing their identity, or even just to pretend to be a catgirl on the internet. Honestly, it’s weirdly reminiscent of a quieter, smaller internet that took place largely on forums and messageboards where identifying information was taboo. There’s a real radical potential in the internet to safely explore identity in ways that might be too dangerous for someone in real life. A virtual avatar is just one way to do that (and let’s be honest furries beat us to this a long, long time ago).
There were a lot of things I didn’t touch on like the taboo of talking about “previous incarnations,” the weird subplot where a growing Japanese audience of 8BitDrummer (referred to affectionately in JPN translation circles as “Drummer Bro”) come from his covering of Hololive songs, the company backing of vtubers giving an instant boost to popularity, monetization, and quite frankly whatever the fuck Amelia Watson’s debut stream was. But maybe if there’s too much left unsaid I’ll come back and write a part 2.
For the moment, that’s it. This isn’t a comprehensive history of hololive or vtubing nor is it intended to be. This is a record of the last 5 months of my life shut inside my own home. If you’ll excuse me, I have a video backlog to get through.
Big thanks to those who support me on Patreon, allowing this monstrosity to be created. Their names are listed below:
Mikey Z, David K, Crobisaur, Morgan, Sean D, Claire W, SecretlyPaul, Gwen S, Izendale