Vivien Chan is a design historian, educator, writer, and imagemaker based in the UK.

Hatsune Miku

Still Be Here

originally published on Unmaking Things April 2017

What is the boundary between the human and non-human? The first thing that springs to mind is the human body - the way we move, communicate, and go about our daily lives, but also in the ways we do things, make, create, pro-create, think and perform. A dominant effort in technological advancement has been to mimic, and enhance the human body. The Robots exhibition, currently at the Science Museum in London, explore the ways we have tried, in a plethora of ways, to ‘duplicate’ ourselves with humanoid robotics. In animated film, for some time, the believability of animated humans was the ultimate goal - however, the renderings of people in The Polar Express reminded the industry how discomforting the pursuit of ‘realness’ can become. In both cases, human hands have created these illustrations of man, in both the two-dimensional and three-dimensional world. Where then, does the human, and non-human begin and end?

One question of this is the Japanese phenomenon, Hatsune Miku, a humanoid persona voiced by a singing synthesizer application. Released in 2007, Hatsune Miku has grown to become an international superstar, performing sold-out concerts as a 3D hologram for a huge fanbase all over the world, and supporting Lady Gaga on her ArtRave tour in 2014. She has her own video game, and stars in thousands of songs and music videos online. She sponsors car and motorcycle racing, and has her figure carved in ice and is the face of Japanese festivals. She even has her own make-up tutorial for cosplaying her, by Youtube beauty guru Michelle Phan, physically bringing her to life through her fandom.

Hatsune Miku is made of several components: a vocaloid synthesizer based on the voice of actress Saki Fujita by Crypton Future Media, a Japanese company that specialises in sound generators, samples and sound effects for music, and an illustration of a 16-year old girl with turquoise bunches by the manga illustrator, Kei Garo. However, most importantly is that her character is made for and by her users - the software with her voice, Vocaloid2 Hatsune Miku, while designed for professionals, can be purchased by anyone, and as of 2012, Crypton changed their Creative Commons licence to include her original illustration, allowing the ability to choreograph her image to the music. The company claims that Hatsune Miku has released over 100,000 songs, 170,000 YouTube videos, and a million artworks in her image.

I came across Hatsune Miku first through her debut hologram performance in London in February at the Barbican, Still Be Here, by Mari Matsutoya, Laurel Halo, Darren Johnston, LaTurbo Avedon & Martin Sulzer. The performance was a collaborative project between sound artists, musicians, choreographers and visual artists, an experimental documentary film installation about Miku and the phenomenon surrounding her. Rather than a straight documentary, the performance was a mixture of music video, interviews with creators and fans, and critical moving-image, reflecting the ways she is used, treasured and presented. Interacting with herself, like a mirror, her holographic form danced and walked on stage, watching herself as we took in the multiple images of her before us. It was unafraid to keep the performance open-ended, questions arising about Miku’s identity, agency and characteristics, preferring to allude to her malleable identity created by her fans than trying to define her with their own.

However, what was missing was an analysis of their manipulation of this character. Arguably, human depictions never have any agency of their own, including the celebrities in real life, many of whom have little to no say in their own portrayal. As Matsutoya puts it, she has seen many variations of Miku treated as a material, a medium rather than a character. In the case of Still Be Here, the artists moved in and out of treating Hatsune Miku as a tool and a collaborator. In Yuji Sone’s book, Japanese Robot Culture: Performance, Imagination and Modernity (2017), she quotes Akinori Kubo on Hatsune Miku’s cyborg form, she functions as ‘an empty vessel, inviting and linking countless users: Hatsune Miku is a composite of the hollowness of the sign, the instrumentality of technology, and the innocent girl image, which together invite male fans to fill her with meaning (2015, 110).’ It is particularly problematic in this context, because ultimately it cannot be forgotten that Hatsune Miku is characterised as a pubescent, teenage girl, with the stretched and sexualised body that is such a prominent rhetoric in Japanese anime culture. Her original illustration, created by an adult man, is scantily clad, but rather more discomforting is the ability to clothe her, and move her, however you like - the Creative Commons licence applies to her body, including her face, height (158cm) and weight (42kg), but not her clothing. Further, anyone can make her say whatever they want her to say. Thus, what many of these online videos involve is a digital abuse of this highly feminised character, at the mercy of her thousands of fans and creators all over the world.

On the other hand, this perception alone would cut short a discussion of her importance to fans, and the prominence they have in her making. Fandom is a cultural phenomenon that should not be ignored - it inspires people, drives ideas, brings communities together, and gives people agency to create music and visual art for a global audience. She cannot solely be defined as a sex object, even though she was created to be one. Because she is characterised and determined by her fans, much more than the body she has be given by Crypton, her materiality is much more than her image. While she is often sexualised, not all of her fans see her this way, using her as an essential component for a plethora of creative outlets, most importantly, her voice. This is particularly so for Miku’s female fans, as shown by Still Be Here where the group of artists involved were of different genders (LaTurbo Avedon, the artist’s pseudonym, only ever appeared at the performance as a series of Skype messages), and the performance was not explicitly about her sexualisation, rather using her image, movement, voice and the wider content around her to inspire new art and discussion. In short, while she is intangible, held in the imaginary and the digital, she is simultaneously very real, merging into everyday life through expressions such as cosplay, concerts and music. In a sense, Hatsune Miku is hyper-real, crossing the boundaries between real and non-real, human and non-human, physical and digital, through her fandom.

The boundary between the human and non-human has constantly been tested through history, especially with the accessibility of technology. Duplicating and manipulating the body into robots, images, holograms, and avatars can very easily be portrayed a site for perversion, particularly when they are seen to be female bodies. Without undermining these very real issues, my tentative feeling is that there is much more to these duplicated bodies, many already fulfilling their potential as ‘empty vessels’ by giving people agency to make things. Hatsune Miku connects thousands of fans together into a digital culture that continues to cross the boundaries between fantasy and reality.