Japan’s Virtual PopStar Hatsune Miku Rocks Los Angeles!

Mikunopolis 2011
Hatsune Miku rocked Los Angeles this weekend. It's just the beginning for the rising pop star.

July 2nd, 2011: the day a software program became an internationally touring pop sensation. Hatsune Miku gave a blowout concert at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles this weekend as part of Anime Expo 2011. The concert was only Miku’s third live performance, and the first given outside of Japan. Around 6000 fans were in attendance with many thousands more watching the show streaming via pay per view on Nico Nico Douga (Japan’s version of YouTube). Check out clips from the show in the videos below! Waving glow sticks and screaming along with the music, the LA fans, many still in costume from their time at the Anime Expo, blew me away. This was one of the most fun and entertaining concerts I’ve ever been to mainly thanks to the crowd’s infectious energy. The music was excellent, there were surprise guest stars, and a five minute chanting session from the house encouraged Miku to do an extensive encore. For fans of J-Pop the night was a dream come true. Why is a teen pop idol touring LA such big news? Well, despite her immense talent, her exhaustive song book, and her legions of fans, Hatsune Miku isn’t human. This anime singing princess is a virtual creation, a fictional character…and a very real pop star.

Hatsune Miku is a product of Crypton Future Media, a Japanese company that has licensed Yamaha’s amazing voice synthesizing software (Vocaloid), and created a small cadre of virtual singers. Miku is their finest creation, a 16 year old virtuosa that can sing anything you program for her. Users all over the globe buy her software, write her songs, and share them via popular music sites. She’s been partnered with Sega for video game releases. When appearing ‘live’ in concert, Hatsune Miku is projected on a transparent film, allowing the virtual singer to dance and strut on stage in front of her adoring fans. Check it out:

High quality videos of the Los Angeles concert have not been released yet, so here is a high definition video from Miku´s previous concert in Japan to give you a taste of what it´s like.  Later in this story you can see lower quality videos from the Los Angeles concert.  For a full set song list (with linked audio files to listen to the whole tracks), visit Mikubook.com.

I cannot express to you the power of Miku’s fan base. Her last concert attracted 160,000+ to watch via Nico Nico, and I won’t be surprised if we see similar numbers for Saturday’s performance. As you see in the video, fans brought or bought glowsticks to the concert and would not stop waving them around. Seriously, people were pumping their arms in the air for the entire 90 minute performance, often in orchestrated patterns that seem to be choreographed to each song. The crowd was filled with such hardcore fans. In fact, when I looked around from my seat, if someone wasn’t holding a glowstick, or at least pumping their hands in the air, they looked to be either press members or parents chaperoning their kids. If you were there for the music, you were excited. Dozens dressed up in Miku costumes, which is pretty normal for an Anime Expo crowd, but there were plenty of attendees who appeared not as Miku, but as the lesser known Crypton stars that made surprise appearances at the concert (those being Migurine Luka and Rin &Len). When Miku first left stage, fans chanted her name without stop until she came back on for an encore. This is the same treatment you’d see given to any other pop diva, only Miku’s not real.

Which is something that was both acknowledged and forgotten in the performance. Before the show, I overheard fans laughing about how they were hoping to get Miku’s autograph, but that they believed it to be very difficult (“Like one guy did it, but it involved that laser from Tron. Lol.”). Yet during the show, people wouldn’t stop screaming her name, even though they knew she couldn’t possibly hear them. They were watching a cartoon sing songs, but that didn’t spoil the reality of how exciting and fun the evening was. The pop star may have been fake, but the concert was anything but. It makes you wonder how much of our music industry will change as fans accept the power and fun that comes from cheering for a virtual star that they can have in their homes at any time, and that only sings the songs written by her fans.

That thought is where I’d like to leave you. I’ve written a bit more below about the projection technology used in the concert, and the future of Miku’s career as announced at Anime Expo 2011. If you’re ready to take another step on the journey to becoming a Miku mega-fan, please read on. Otherwise stay tuned for future posts where we’ll feature high definition videos of the concert as they are released.

And Now A Discussion on Ghosts

If you’ve heard about Miku before, and we’ve certainly discussed her as often as possible, you’ve probably seen how life-like her cartoon projection seems in the official DVD/Blu-Ray videos of these concerts. While not a real hologram, the presentation can be incredibly believable, with movements so smooth you’d swear she was right there on stage. Yet her virtual nature allows her to change clothes between every song (sometimes during songs), disappear in sparks, and sing lyrics too fast for even the most masterful of divas.

Attending the concert in person, I was amazed to see how flawed the projection system really is when you see it live. Here are two videos (one shot by me, one by another press member) that show the view from press sections towards the back of Nokia Theater. Feel free to skip around, but watch how ghostly Miku appears at times.

What struck me most about Miku’s projection is that it was very angle dependent. If she was on your side of the stage she was clear as day, but when she was far away you could see right through her. Such is the problem with rear projection on a transparent screen. Every concert, Miku’s team has experimented with a new variation of the display system, trying to find the best solution for showing her to the crowd. In the videos above, you’ll notice that large sections of the lower theater were left empty, that’s because the audience was channeled into the center line where Miku would tend to appear clearest. The press and industry members were sat towards the outside edges as well, so that the true fans would have the best views of Miku on stage. You’ll also notice the ample use of two huge screens to show Miku in the high quality image captured by the official camera crew (the concert will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray later this year). What this all adds up to is the sad truth that Hatsune Miku may be a professional pop star, but only an amateur looking ‘hologram’.

That truth doesn’t seem to be holding her back. At their keynote, Miku’s creator announced that Crypton was partnering with Sanrio to make a line of Hello Kitty brand memorabilia – a sure sign that an anime character or pop diva has made it in Japan and a likely source for millions of dollars in revenue. Toyota was officially sponsoring the event, with special cars painted with her visage. Mikubook.com, a new video and audio sharing website for Miku fans just opened, and Crypton has officially confirmed that they’ll be making an English-speaking Miku in the near future. While details were vague, Miku’s entourage told me that future ‘overseas’ concerts were planned, as were more video games, streamed events, and other Miku experiences. The subtitle to the July 2nd Mikunopolis concert was “Happy to meet you! I’m Hatsune Miku,” and the diva’s last words to her fans (spoken in English) were: “I’m looking forward to seeing you again.” Clearly the Crypton team plans on a bright future for their world class teen idol. I can’t wait to watch it unfold.

*Special thanks to Ellie Iwanaga and the entire Hatsune Miku team at Anime Expo 2011. It was a once in a lifetime experience. ありがとうございます。

[image credits: courtesy of Miku-Fes 2011]

[sources: Crypton Future Media]
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