by Luv Mehta
Well, this isn't an article I thought I'd be writing this month.
There are a bunch of things I'll be talking about that the average reader probably won't know, so I'll have to go into detail and explain a bunch of trends and terms and how a bunch of global factors led to a strange paradigm shift in both a country's idol industry and the online video livestreaming culture. To keep it simple, I'll provide a short summary up top, and go into more detail later. So here goes.
V-Tubers (more commonly spelled VTubers but I'll spell it with a hyphen because I prefer that spelling), a category of online content creators using a virtual animated face in place of their own, have gained a massive amount of popularity in the year of 2020 because more people spend their time online than ever before. The concept rose to prominence in the Japanese idol industry with the rise of Kizuna Ai, and there are a bunch of Japanese virtual idol industries like Nijisanji and Hololive, with the latter being one of the most famous ones on a global scale. Hololive idols have each formed a cult of personality and gained a fandom rivalling some of the other most intense modern artists, like BTS, Ariana Grande, etc. Despite the ostensible title of "idols", most of these talents end up becoming popular because of their interactions with the fandom, much of which gets used for skits, memes and... other stuff.
And it's that other stuff I find the most interesting.
There are a lot of ways to start this article, and the best way would probably be to recount the history of V-Tubers as a concept, or Hololive as a company. So, of course, I'm not going to do either of those - I want to talk about how I found this abyss of content, and why it continues to fascinate me so much. Before that, though - this isn't meant to be an article that encourages you to get into V-Tubers, and if you do descend into the abyss, please don't blame me for it. I'm just talking about something I found interesting.
During the pandemic, I've been listening to a whole bunch of podcasts and discovering a bunch of YouTube channels. I haven't been able to get into any new TV show or movie, and after briefly flirting with the idea of getting back into anime, I decided to get back into Anime YouTube instead. After discovering a podcast named Trash Taste, a series headed by three charismatic people with mostly terrible takes, I binged on all their episodes, and eventually got to an episode featuring a V-Tuber, which was filmed with all three of the hosts sitting at the table with a simulated hologram of a V-Tuber named Calliope Mori.
It looked... weird.
The concept of the V-Tuber was also pretty strange - Calliope Mori claimed to be an apprentice of the Grim Reaper, and was apparently "taking a break" to become a V-tuber idol and make music. She also described herself as a "rapping reaper", which was kind of cringe-inducing at first. I did eventually get used to it as time went on - I'm familiar with the concept of "keyfabe", where wrestlers have an outlandish persona they maintain both in and out of the ring, and understanding that this was basically a live person using some phone cameras to project an anime girl persona and staying in character did help mitigate that cringeiness somewhat. Afterwards, I thought, why not check out the songs she's apparently making?
That was last month, and I put her EP at no. 2 in my December media recap article.
I checked out some of her other videos out, and what I found surprised me - a lot of what she made, apart from livestream chats with her audience, were basically just livestreaming games. For all the talk of being an English singer belonging to a Japanese idol agency, it was pretty weird that a whole bunch of what she did was playing games on stream - which is cool, mind you, and I'm happy whenever people are able to showcase and enjoy stuff online, but what is the point of having that otherworldly persona if all you're doing is livestreaming gameplay?
My question is flawed, though, and it's because of two reasons - firstly, livestreaming games is a massive online industry with lots of demand, and a lot of people tune in to watch online personalities play games and react to things in those games. Secondly, female game livestreamers like Neekolul and Pokimane often have to face a bunch of online misogyny, often being accused of manipulating their sexuality to get men to watch them, no matter what they wear or what they do. Having a virtual face you use instead of a real one helps maintain a layer of anonymity and a degree of comfort for many women (and some men - there are a fair amount of popular male V-Tubers, but I'll get into that later), and that can be a huge factor for people who want to avoid harassment while still making content.
I checked out her colleagues, and I found out that she was part of the first group of English livestreamers by Hololive as part of an experiment to appeal to a global audience, with similar attempts being made in the Indonesian and Chinese markets (the latter being doomed, unfortunately, but that's another article in itself). Her group, the first "generation" of Hololive English, included other people with different talents, with only another one of them being a singer who released an original song of her own, with the rest being an artist and two dedicated game livestreamers. And pretty much all of them had most of their content involving either livestream chats or game sessions.
Hololive is a V-Tuber talent agency that was once described by its CEO as an idol agency similar to AKB48, a Japanese female idol group that has enjoyed massive success through hit albums and sold-out tours. Japanese idol agencies are also notoriously strict when it comes to the public personas of their idols, though - idols are meant to be shown as pure, they cannot have public-facing relationships (so that male fans can fantasize about having a chance with them), and any violations of these rules generally destroy a career and result in industry-wide shunning. This can be seen in an infamous event for AKB48, where a group member was demoted for having been caught spent the night with another man, which violated the terms of her contract (no romantic relationships of any kind), and had to post a YouTube video with a shaved head, crying for the forgiveness of her fans. This is generally only seen with women in those agencies, and other industries as well - in a classic 1988 case, a company was taken to court for discovering a case of adultery in their employees and choosing to only punish and fire the woman involved.
Of course, I don't mean to imply that Japanese talent companies are somehow unique in these types of intrusions on the private lives of their talent - former teenage Disney celebrities have openly talked about the pressures their parent company used to put on them and their public personas, and these stars (like Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Bella Thorne, etc.) have generally pivoted hard after breaking free of their contract, to avoid being associated with a persona they never wanted or had any input in.
With all that background, imagine my surprise when I checked out the rest of the Japanese V-Tubers from Hololive and found that most, if not all, were outright raunchy and openly rebellious against their company.
There's a popular word used in Japanese idol agencies, "Seiso", which usually refers to cleanliness or purity in various contexts, and idol companies generally use the word as an expectation for their talents' reputation. Most Hololive talents, on the other hand, keep violating this Seiso expectation and keep making the kind of content they want, all while constantly clashing with their company. A popular example of this is Kiryu Coco, an apparent Yakuza dragon idol, who doesn't really sing, being a self-professed bad singer. She's created an internet personality revolving around making dirty jokes, encouraging the creation of obscene internet memes, holding regular shows where she creates fictional drugs to sell to her audience, and keeps introducing her colleagues to English curse words. She's admitted that she's been in a lot of trouble because of this - YouTube kept demonetizing her channel and banning her videos in the beginning, and Hololive management kept disparaging her and trying to change her direction - but she stubbornly stuck to her guns, which paid off in a big way. Of all the YouTube livestreamers in the world that receive superchat messages (highlighted messages viewers pay for), Kiryu Coco became the highest earner in the world, only recently losing her position to another fellow Hololive colleague.
In fact, looking at a ranking of the most superchatted people in the world, 10 of the top 11 YouTuber channels are V-Tubers, with 9 of those 10 being Hololive idols.
These V-Tubers remind me of BTS in a way - I'm not a fan or a follower per se, but it's clear that even with similar pressures and enforced manufactured authenticity in the Korean idol industry, BTS has carved a niche by relentlessly pursuing their own interests and ideas, resulting in a degree of unprecedented global success. Except, of course, for the fact that Hololive is basically giving up on their identity as an idol agency and slowly rebranding as an entertainment company, and the "idols" are all internet livestreaming personalities, some of whom occasionally sing.
All that, though, brings me to the V-Tuber I find the most fascinating. And it's the one I put in the first picture of this article.
In 2018, as part of the first official generation of Hololive, Akai Haato debuted as a tsundere persona - a tsundere, for people who aren't aware of the word, is someone who hides a sweet personality by covering it up with a prickly exterior. Tsunderes are popular character tropes used both in and outside Japanese media, so it makes sense that an idol persona was constructed solely around the trope. She had the unique distinction of having a good amount of English proficiency, and was otherwise a nice, sweet idol that the company itself provided to future members as an ideal idol persona to be inspired by.
A brief digression - 2020, for obvious reasons, heralded a huge apocalyptic change in many, many industries, with some benefiting hugely from the pandemic and the way massive amounts of people were locked at home and needed something to pass their time. V-tubers caught the wind and flew extremely high - the virtual streamer industry has undergone a massive boom throughout the year, with subscriber counts tripling, even quadrupling as time went on.
And, according to Haato, when the lockdown started, she was stuck in Australia and unable to return home, and as time went on and there was no end in sight, the viewers saw her content... change.
In March of 2020, during a stream, Haato started talking about how her sister affectionately called her Haachama, a cute contraction of the term Haato-sama. She revealed towards the end that she was lying, but she'd really like it if people called her Haachama from now on.
A while earlier, during a stream of Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, Haato started going on a strange tangent about how she liked smelling her own feet. The viewers were initially extremely baffled, and this bafflement never really went away - and as Haato started calling herself Haachama and requested feet videos from her viewers to review on stream, her colleagues explicitly mentioned their own bafflement as well.
Haato, now basically exclusively calling herself Haachama, started uploading cooking streams. Viewers watched, first with interest, then with horror - Haachama couldn't cook, had a tendency to either overcook or undercook her ingredients, and mixed them in bizarre combinations. She also occasionally invited her fellow V-Tubers, with the guests quickly breaking character and either shouting at Haachama or expressing fear at the fact that she always ate the food she cooked. Her cooking streams reached their apex in late-December, where she prepared a meal with a pre-cooked tarantula and ate it on stream.
With the 2020 influx of subscribers, Haachama started gaining popularity for having lost it, and multiple fans made creepy animations of her in response, which she in turn took, edited and voiced, and started releasing on her own channel, which baffled both existing and new subscribers. People theorized that Haachama was a persona that had taken over Akai Haato, and her streams fed the theories even more, with her alternately claiming that Haato was sleeping, and that she had been killed by Haachama herself. This was also fuelled further when she changed her channel's name from Akai Haato to Haachama - her previous persona was well and truly behind her.
This all culminated in a truly fascinating hour-long livestream on the 21st of January, 2021. Initially claiming to have scheduled a blindfolded stream for a video game (Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, the same game she had streaming when she had made those infamous feet-sniffing comments early last year), Haachama instead made a livestream that could only be described as performance art. Titled "Empty Heart" in Japanese, the stream opened with a caricature of Haachama drawn onscreen, with the title written above. As the viewers kept writing in the live chat and wondering what was happening, another crudely drawn caricature started to be drawn in the corner. The text also kept changing, with the gist being that Haachama's sister told her not to do the blindfold game stream because it'd be boring, so she decided to do something else (the same sister who, as she self-admittedly lied about, made the name Haachama).
And as the stream went on, she kept launching into karaoke, putting in sounds of alarms and muting herself while singing, and constantly interrupted herself by putting the same caricature back onscreen. All of this culminated in a shocked Haachama's face as the caricature was pulled over her, covering her head. Haato seemingly gone, Haachama herself triumphant.
What fascinates me so much about this whole thing is that her whole current persona is such an expertly balanced act, with so many dichotomies she has to balance on. She has to be believable while still clearly putting on a persona, she has to be consistent as well as unpredictable, she has to make the audience miss her old self as much as they remain fascinated with her new persona. Go too far in either way and you might end up with an off-putting personality that feels like it's trying too hard, but Haachama keeps walking that fine line and makes it look easy.
And this is why I keep being fascinated by her, and by the rest of the talent. Each of them is pulling various acts, cultivating massively different personas, carving out niches for themselves, and a lot of them fly straight in the face of what is considered traditional Japanese idol behaviour. I haven't even gone into the precisely manufactured memetic antics of Gawr Gura, for example, the English Hololive V-tuber who has captured the interest of the internet to such an extent that she now holds the fastest and most subscribed-to Hololive channel by a wide margin.
I'm not sure how long this trend will last, if V-tubers will become the mainstream, or if they'll quickly lose the interest of the internet. What is clear, though, is that they have a whole range of tools others don't, and they're using it in a way no one else has before. There are a whole bunch of unexplored opportunities too - male V-tubers, for example, still haven't reached the same heights of popularity, but the most superchatted member of Nijisanji is a guy who's their sole representative in the top 10, so there's clearly a demand that remains to be fulfilled. And while there's some truth to the statement that the overwhelming popularity of female V-tubers is partly due to a lot of men promoting the idols they're attracted to, the endless popularity of male bands with a majority of women shows that this can go both ways very easily.
And there are Indian V-tubers as well! Nijisanji has a whole bunch of V-tubers representing them, and Noor, Aadya and Vihaan form their Indian branch. It'll be interesting to see if we'll see any further talents coming out from India.
Either way, it'll be interesting to see what's next.