Move over, Logan Paul, because a new sensation has spread across Japanese YouTube!
Fading are the days of real live people interacting with audiences on the popular streaming site. The new trend revolves around people creating virtual anime avatars using motion capture technology. The reasons as to why fans are flocking to these avatars are quite varied. Some people enjoy watching virtual presenters when they are playing games; some people feel that they are getting a raw and real version of Japanese culture that they can’t get from a live person; and some folks just find the freedom of the virtual world to be a perfect catalyst for a few funny or crazy adventures that they can share with the host. No matter what their reasons are, though, they and others like them are tuning into these virtual hosts in droves.
The Virtual YouTuber trend was pioneered by Kizuna Ai (a name that uses the kanji for “Bonded Love”), who is easily the most famous of all virtual YouTubers. Debuting in the tail end of November 2016, Kizuna Ai has become a superstar in the field. In her introduction video, she states that her goal is to one day appear in a commercial. And while, to my knowledge, she hasn’t gotten her own TV spot, she has appeared in multiple video games and anime titles, and she’s become the first virtual YouTuber to get a verified Twitter account. On top of that, in 2018, she was named as the official tourism ambassador of Japan.
Ai’s not the only one, though. To date, there are literally thousands of these characters on Japanese YouTube (an exact number is impossible to guesstimate, as new virtual YouTubers are now appearing and disappearing almost daily). With so many new presenters making their debuts over the past couple of years, it can be hard to know where your attention should go, exactly. That said, most of the more popular avatars have some kind of defining characteristic that makes them stand out from the pack.
A simple search on Google will pull up many different options to pick from, including a Japanese idol who speaks perfect English, a catgirl who loves FPS games, a tsundere student council president, and many, many others.
It’s not always easy to break into this industry, though. Becoming a virtual YouTuber can take a lot of hard work and patience. Also, it can’t be understated that sometimes, a little luck will go a long way towards success, as was the case for the woman behind the virtual avatar named Rhythm Otonashi. Chosen via raffle to appear at Kizuna Ai’s first live event in March 2018, she traveled all the way from Germany and soon caught the performing bug, herself. Catching the audience’s eye right away, it was only a month later that Otonashi was invited to join the same talent agency as Kizuna Ai, Project upd8. It’s one thing to start performing on YouTube, though. It’s another thing entirely to keep it up for a sustained amount of time and gain a legitimate following.
“I try to upload 1-4 videos a month and on my current schedule, I stream 4+ times a week. Personally, I’m sort of a niche producer and don’t feel pressured to create videos on things that are currently trending, so it’s more of a matter of finding the time to record, edit and sometimes figure out how to pull something off from a technical point of view,” Otonashi told me via an interview. When asked about the varying demands of the audience and if it’s difficult to please such a wide range of people, Otonashi spoke of the difficulties she’s had up to this point. “It is definitely difficult, yeah. Many Virtual YouTubers make a large variety of content instead of focusing on one specific niche, which is why I think establishing a personality that people enjoy is really important.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint a single reason why this trend has exploded in popularity but one popular theory is that being presented by a virtual avatar allows people to be more free and expressive with their emotions and interests. Otonashi, for example, stated strongly that her virtual persona is a big part of who she really is though she also admitted to having a bit of stage fright when she first started.
Regardless of the why’s, the popularity of these virtual presenters is still climbing and while some fans believe that the trend is either currently at its peak or is close to it, others don’t feel that way at all. Rather they’re of the opinion that this is only the beginning as the technology is still becoming more widely available to people outside of Japan.
“I absolutely believe in the phenomenon surviving and evolving in the future though. Virtual YouTubers are about far more than just making YouTube videos by now and we’ve seen them appear in events, concerts, games and show off their skills as creators beyond just talking in videos,” Otonashi said after careful deliberation. “I don’t think Virtual YouTubers will grow to the point where they *replace* other types of entertainers but there are still many, many possibilities for them.”
With the trend still rising in popularity and scope, it’s impossible to predict where this trend will go in the future. Will we see more virtual YouTubers appearing to the point that a real person appearing on the site is a novelty? Doubtful but it appears that those with a terrible case of the shys have a new avenue when it comes to self-expression.