All About Miku

For a while now, I’ve been trying to understand what bothers me so much about Hatsune Miku. She’s a virtual idol not unlike Rei Toei in Idoru, who I have no trouble with. She’s a program developed by Crypton Future Media with a Yamaha Vocaloid 2 sound rendering engine. She’s a fictional persona with millions of fans. Her projected performances regularly sell out stadiums across Asia. Everyone loves her. Everyone but me.

Part of my dislike might be hipster-eque exhaustion. Miku-chan is everywhere. In 2009, CLAMP (the manga supergroup behind Chobits and xxxHolic, among others) illustrated a music video set to one of her songs. Recently, she appeared in an American ad campaign for the Toyota Corolla. She was on the cover of Clash magazine. Then, pro makeup artist and Lancôme video representative Michelle Phan produced a cosplay tutorial for her. Now she has her own freeware animation program, that allows the user to produce music videos and short films featuring her image complete with 3D rendering, motion capture (via the Kinect), and the ability to design new models and share them with fellow fans.

None of these things are bad. In fact, I get really excited when I contemplate the possibilities of the technologies that bring Miku-chan to life: Vocaloid mixing, projection, motion capture, communal creation in real time… five years ago when Crypton was just releasing Miku to market, these things were science fiction. Now they’re real… and they’re a bit boring. The most innovative use of Miku’s image comes not from any of the companies that own her license or developed her technologies, but from the fans who love her best. She belongs to them, now, and that’s the way it should be. But it’s also the reason I find her so tiresome. Miku is to Vocaloid otaku what statues of the Buddha are to yoga yuppies: so predictably ubiquitous that their image is rendered meaningless. Now that she belongs to everyone, Miku has no identity of her own. This happens to all celebrities, but Miku never had an identity to start with.

The most popular characters of any meta-text have some sort of backstory. It might be confused or retconned, but it can usually be explained in about two sentences in a way that sheds light on the character’s core personality. Batman. James Bond. The Doctor. Sailor Moon. Buffy Summers. You can encounter these characters in a variety of different media and still understand who they are on a basic level, because their backstories make narrative and emotional sense. In fact, their baggage is part of what makes them fun, as James Paul Gee notes about being a good Snake.

Miku has no such backstory. She is whatever the user makes her out to be. In a way, she’s another example of Stephenie Meyers’ logic regarding Twilight protagonist Bella Swan: a character whose identifying details were left strategically blank “so that the reader could more easily step into her shoes.” But Meyer was discussing physical appearance, and in Miku’s case it’s the persona that remains blank. As of 2010, the user can assign her one of six voices ranging from childish to mature, but aside from those voices and her look, there’s not much else to make Miku distinctively Miku. Her very emptiness is the draw.

That emptiness is part of a long cultural tradition. As Christopher Bolton notes in his essay “From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls: Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theater,” (Positions, Winter 2002) robotic or cyberized anime and video game characters are the latest expression of Japan’s fascination with puppetry. Some of Japan’s greatest stories started out as puppet epics, and the puppeteer’s skill was measured in his ability to enshrine humanity in an artificial body. This animation-by-inhabitation of the puppet was (and remains) aesthetically challenging and beautiful. The echo of this tradition lives on in programs like MikuMikuDance, in which the user’s body becomes the puppeteer.

Anime, manga, and video games are full of stories about this very phenomenon. It’s the principle behind piloting a giant robot like a Gundam or Evangelion. But the closest comparison is the relationship between failed singer Myung Fang Lone and virtual idol Sharon Apple, in Macross Plus. The story is one of the few anime to explore puppeteering and piloting at the same time. In it, two pilots compete for Myung’s heart while testing a new interface for a fighter jet that is controlled directly by brain waves. Meanwhile, Myung is slowly losing control of Sharon. Myung’s brain waves control Sharon’s performances, with her emotions providing the secret ingredient that transforms Sharon from Uncanny Valley resident to beloved celebrity. But because Myung has spent the past ten years suppressing her emotions, Sharon’s performances are growing increasingly unpredictable and the idol appears to be acquiring sentience and agency. Myung won’t acknowledge her true desires, so Sharon acts on them.

I’m not the first to make the comparison between Sharon and Miku. But what strikes me about these two idols is that Sharon has a story, whereas Miku does not. Miku is a franchise, while Sharon is a character. Moreover, Sharon’s story is about developing subjectivity, and becoming a powerful agent in one’s own life. Just as Sharon becomes more “real,” so does Myung. Sharon’s rebellion is the catalyst that forces Myung to accept herself as a woman complete with a dark side, because Sharon has taken Myung’s desires and run with them. By contrast, Miku reflects desire but never acts on it. She has no built-in response system. She can’t even do a basic affinity-based suggestion compiled from your clickthrough data, like Google or Amazon or Netfix. All Miku can do is perform.

So, what’s my problem with Miku? Well, Asuka Langley Soryu explains it best:

She’s an unthinking emotionless puppet. And until she has her Ayanami moment — until she proves to us that she’s more than just a doll — she won’t have my fandom.

Madeline Ashby just completed her second Master’s. Her first was on anime, cyborg theory, and fan culture. Her debut novel, vN, will be available next summer from Angry Robot books.


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