Approaching The End: Face-To-Screen With The World’s First Humanless Opera

hatsune miku the end

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The crowd is getting impatient. An eclectic mass of humanity presses up against the Théatre du Châtelet’s glass-fronted façade like extras in a zombie film. Across the Seine lies the Isle de la Cité, the floodlit Gothic towers of Notre Dame clearly visible. I am the only one who looks in this direction. Contemplating the night before, my first few hours in Paris.

Hatsune Miku awaits her audience inside as the doors open. Bulky security staff search bags and guide the Miku-hungry horde into the Châtelet’s lobby. A programme seller advertises his fashionably-bound paper products next to a Miku mannequin decked in a custom-designed Louis Vuitton dress and her signature twin teal pigtails, sculpted here as if she were stood before a professional-grade fan on a magazine cover shoot. The programme seller is ignored as the Miku mannequin fills dozens of smartphone screens, each one frenetically blinking as its operator strives to capture the perfect memory.

I make my way to the merch stand, considering a twenty-euro CD and an eye-catching t-shirt and thinking about the level of diversity present here. I’m at a concert starring a Japanese pop star who technically doesn’t exist, and yet there are relatively few examples of the socially inept über-geeks one might expect from such a billing. A good number of the people around me are arty types, clad in designer clothing and affecting haughty airs; others fit the bill of alternative music fans, skinny jeans and trendy t-shirts, while another portion is made up of female pop fans, predominantly Japanese, excitedly squealing and taking selfies on the stairs. 

A mutually confusing encounter with a cloakroom assistant and an exchange of apologies later, I am ushered to my front-row-centre seat. I take in the wide semi-circles of the multi-tiered balconies and the imposing curtain, adorned with a disturbing expanse of faded imagery simultaneously suggesting contemporary surrealism and barbaric medieval torture scenes alike.

Behind this curtain, we are told, the performance is now ready to start. Voices in three languages ask us to take our seats. The demonic curtain finally rises, revealing a plain black expanse. The second curtain is lifted. This is the beginning of The End.

Hatsune Miku is not like other pop stars. Whereas Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Bieber had to be born, trained, discovered, and tweaked by image consultants, Hatsune Miku is coming the other way.

This is possible because she is not human. Hatsune Miku is both real and unreal. She exists as a concept, an idea. She exists in terms of digital information, the neural firings of those who discover and worship her, and in the beams of light projected onto screens during her live concerts. But this has not stopped her from attracting a legion of followers who treat her as if she were in fact made of flesh and blood, like you and me.

In short, Miku is a meme taken to a whole new level.

Hatsune Miku is the joint creation of the titanic Japanese technology corporation Yamaha, and the now-infamous Crypton Future Media. Back in 2004, Yamaha had begun commercially producing a new breed of speech synthesis software referred to as Vocaloid (a combination of the words vocal and android). Vocaloid software combines tiny vocal samples of spoken phonemes (the smallest phonetic unit in a language that is capable of conveying a distinction in meaning) with digital sound synthesis software to create vocal parts entirely within a computer, with no need for a human vocalist at all. Using a Vocaloid program, you simply type in lyrics and program a melody, and the Vocaloid software sings it back to you.

Vocaloid software was, naturally, a boon for many music producers, removing the stresses and strains frequently involved in finding a suitable vocalist for a particular track. When working with a Vocaloid one does not have to deal with auditions, temper tantrums, out-of-tune or out-of-time notes, fluffed lyrics, or session fees. All of these issues are replaced with the certainty of an accurate, unquestioning, instantaneous, and endlessly repeatable perfect performance.

Yamaha’s original Vocaloids (named Leon, Lola, and Miriam, and created by production software company Zero-G) were simply faceless voices in a box, and did not sell particularly well. They also sang exclusively in English, and with British accents – thereby alienating potential Japanese and American consumers alike. But 8 months later, Crypton Future Media (at the time a relatively unknown Japanese software development and distribution company) would release their first Vocaloid. Known as Meiko, she sang in Japanese – and far more crucially, she was not simply a disembodied voice. Each Meiko software box was also adorned with an illustration of a young girl holding a microphone. This was Meiko herself – a virtual entity that could now be conceptualised as having a physical existence, if only in the minds of her consumers.

The choice of a young female singer was a quintessentially Japanese marketing ploy that would, ultimately, mark the start of the Vocaloid movement as it exists today. Following her release, Meiko sold 3,000 units within a year – a stellar figure in a market where sales of 1,000 units over the same time period would have been considered a big hit.

Although Meiko’s immediate successor (a Crypton-produced male Vocaloid called Kaito) flopped on release despite also being provided with his own illustrated persona, Yamaha and Crypton would go on to further expand the Vocaloid range in 2007, introducing the Character Vocal Series – a group of slickly illustrated, cutesy anime characters. They were named Hatsune Miku, Megurine Luka (both girls), Kagamine Rin, and Kagamine Len (the latter being a girl/boy duo). But although each of these characters would all be commercially successful in their own rights, Hatsune Miku would ultimately be chosen as the figurehead of the Vocaloid movement.

The End’s opening movement is filled with anxiety. Computer-generated strings race over melodic contours behind broken-modem glitches. When Miku finally appears, her face fills the transparent screen stretched across the front of the stage. She is bending toward her audience, as if peering into a television set. Are we watching her, or is she watching us? 

Three additional screens – stage left, right, and rear, forming an enclosed and digitally saturated performance space – create a fascinatingly mutated sense of perspective. The first recitative (entitled ‘Miku and Animal’) is almost overwhelming in its intensity: spoken dialogue emerges in English and Japanese with onscreen subtitles and further translations offered in French by small stageside screens; Keiichiro Shibuya’s turbulent music sends the listener off-balance as it consistently evades any sense of conventional structure; computer-generated pixel flurries add to the chaos. 

Beneath relentless waves of sensory overload, the resultant cognitive dissonance feels quite appropriate given the work’s central themes: death, uncertainty, and fear. The plot itself is almost entirely abstract. There is a tenuous narrative thread present, constantly threatening to unravel as new characters (a morose rabbit and a hideously disfigured Miku clone) emerge and Miku herself struggles to comprehend the sudden realisation that she, an entirely digital entity, will die, just as humans do. As I acclimatise myself to this markedly disorientating experience, the music washes over me. At times it feels warm and inviting; at others, it feels like being bathed in acid.

Throughout The End, Hatsune Miku’s near-limitless vocal potential is used to virtuosic effect. Despite the near-constant threat of perceptual overwhelm, the amount of sheer artistic creativity that has gone into this show is mind-boggling. Miku harmonises with herself, singing dense chords that even Lalah Hathaway could only dream of, every line and lyric delivered with immaculate timing, high-speed melodic streams and extended vocal runs executed without the need for a single in-breath. The visuals are richly detailed and luxuriously vibrant, with sounds precisely designed to match.

While one part of my conscious mind remains confused by the dense blend of sound, imagery, and philosophical musings, another part is filled with appreciation for the sheer passion and dedication required to pull such a spectacular event off with flawless results. Each of The End’s creators have made the most of a leading lady who is, essentially, a blank canvas.

Although she has been around for over six years, very little is actually known about Hatsune Miku, with the exception of her hair colour (blue/green), her unchanging age (16), and her weight (42kg). If Miku were any other fictional entity, such an extreme lack of personal information would most likely lead to her audience being unable to connect with her as a character. After all, in most TV shows, films, and other entertainment media it is simply taken for granted that we will be given sufficient information about each character’s individual personality traits to allow us to form an emotional connection with them. It is that sense of personal connection and identification that keeps us engaged with their fictional lives, and obsessively glued to our screens. Without it we can quickly lose interest, become bored and apathetic regardless of how dramatic the onscreen action might be, and turn our attention to another of the infinite distractions our modern media-driven lives afford us.

But in Miku’s case, this lack of concrete personal data has been one of the keys to her success.

Because so little is known about Miku, she is, quite simply, whatever her fans want her to be. She is fully customisable to each and every fan’s specifications – that is, she can look however you like, do whatever you like, and sing anything you program her to. And thousands upon thousands of Miku fans have taken full advantage of this. Initially converging on YouTube and Nico Nico Douga (the Japanese equivalent of YouTube, its name literally translating as ‘Smile Smile Videos’), groups of Miku devotees collaborated on new songs and their accompanying illustrations, cover art, and music videos, creating a vast online database of fan-generated content featuring countless re-imaginations of the Miku character. One of the most popular videos featured a crude animated drawing of Miku singing the Finnish song Ievan Polkka while swinging a leek and occasionally dribbling. Although other Miku videos would feature highly detailed 3D animation and serious plotlines, the plucky Vocaloid has been irreversibly associated with leeks ever since.

Some collaborative groups even achieved mainstream pop chart success, such as Supercell, who landed a record deal with Sony and racked up 100,000 sales of their debut album within the first year of its release. Supercell is made up of one songwriter and producer named Ryo, and a team of illustrators and animators who jointly produce promotional artwork and videos for his creations. Supercell’s portfolio includes some of Miku’s most popular hits, such as World Is Mine, Melt, and Black Rock Shooter. Although Supercell would go on to work with human vocalists for their second album, their creative impact on the Vocaloid world is still felt today, and has inspired legions of songwriters, producers, and visual artists to follow in their digital footsteps, with varying levels of success.

Vocaloid-related creatives range from bedroom-bound amateurs to established professional artists. The team behind The End sit very firmly in the latter camp. Composer Keiichiro Shibuya (located for the duration of The End in a small producer’s booth in the rear-right corner of the stage and mostly obscured from sight by his own pair of semi-transparent screens), director and scriptwriter Tokishi Okada, visual artists YKBX and Masakazu Ito, sound designer Evala, scenographer Shohei Shigematsu, Vocaloid programmer PinocchioP, and Louis Vuitton artistic director Marc Jacobs collectively form one of the most prestigious and talented collaborative groups to have worked with Hatsune Miku so far.

But despite the presence of such highly respected names behind The End’s flawless presentation, no individual Vocaloid contributor has come close to matching Miku herself in terms of international fame and recognition. Regardless of whose songs she sings, Miku remains the star of the show.

By mid-2009, Hatsune Miku had become a bona fide online superstar – the subject of countless videos, illustrations, and fan-created songs breathlessly and constantly consumed by a burgeoning sea of worshippers. Offline, she appeared on a vast array of merchandise – figurines, pillowcases, teacups, illustration books, bumper stickers, T-shirts, keychains, buttons, bags, posters, even her own series of manga comics – and was the star of SEGA’s ‘Hatsune Miku Project DIVA’ PSP rhythm game, in which players press buttons in time with Vocaloid music in order to control a dancing Miku avatar. However, far more importantly, she was also about to become an iconic figure in the story of a far more game-changing concept – the movement of virtual entities into our physical reality.

On August 22nd at the Saitama Super Arena, Miku performed her first live show to 25,000 rabid fans as part of the annual Animelo Summer Live concert – a show dedicated entirely to songs associated with Japanese animation. Appearing on a video screen that dominated an entire wall of the arena, and towering several stories tall over an assembled band of session musicians, Miku performed two songs (Miku Miku ni Shite Ageru and the Supercell-penned hit Black Rock Shooter) to a rapturous reception. Before long a video of Miku’s set was broadcast online, inspiring the imaginations of Miku fans worldwide.

To those fans, Miku was no longer restricted to the digital realm. Now, she was performing live. She was becoming real.

By this point, a few questions have probably come to mind. Why do so many people care so deeply about someone (or, more accurately, something; Miku is, ultimately, an idea and a piece of software) who isn’t real? Isn’t this just another peculiar thing that could only be popular in Japan? Surely this would never work over here, in the Western world?

The answer to the first question lies, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this article. But in order to address the second two, we will fast-forward a couple of years.

Hatsune Miku made her live debut in the US on July 2, 2011, at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles. The show was titled Mikunopolis, with over 5,000 self-proclaimed ‘superfans’ in attendance. By this time Miku had graduated from a mere animation on a video screen to a state-of-the-art 3D projection, creating the illusion of a three-dimensional Miku avatar coming closer than ever to an existence in the physical world. Miku’s fellow Vocaloids Kagamine Rin and Len and Megurine Luka also performed to a near-hysterical crowd, while outside the venue American Vocaloid fans professed their love and admiration for Miku to the assembled news media. Many had gone so far as to dress up as their favourite virtual idol – a trend known as cosplay (another portmanteau combining the words costume and roleplay) – and posed for photographs as real-life representations of Hatsune Miku.

Since this landmark event, Miku’s brand has continued to thrive, garnering awe and attention from a consistently increasing crowd of admirers from around the globe. At the time of writing she has fascinated over 1.7 million Facebook fans, as well as the users of her own dedicated social networking site (Mikubook.com), where Vocaloid fans from across the world congregate to discuss their obsession. Miku-related YouTube videos routinely attract millions of views, while fan-driven projects such as San Francisco’s Vocalekt Visions and Britain’s own Miku-UK Project encourage global engagement with the world’s most recognisable virtual pop star.

Back in Japan, Crypton Future Media have set up not only a Vocaloid-focussed record label (KarenT), but also an innovative content-generating online ecosystem that effectively feeds KarenT with new product. Using PiaPro (short for ‘Peer Production’), Vocaloid fans are able to collaborate in a specially designed online environment, submitting hundreds of thousands of music clips, lyrics, illustrations and 3D character models in the hope that they will achieve sufficient popularity to become integral parts of the Vocaloid world. Miku herself has also evolved over the years, performing a symphony composed by legendary electronic musician Isao Tomita, continuing to perform lengthy concerts without short-circuiting, and even beginning to sing in English thanks to a software update released in late 2013.

Little by little, Hatsune Miku’s grip on the global music industry’s imagination continues to tighten. In typically Japanese style, Crypton Future Media’s patient long-term build is beginning to pay off. The next few years are sure to bring Miku fans many more reasons to celebrate.

The End is certainly a sight to behold, but it is quite obviously not a commercial proposition. It requires patience, deep concentration, and the acceptance of a work that does not provide clear answers to the questions it raises. Those more accustomed to mindless blockbuster movies and bubbly upbeat pop songs probably walked out within the first ten minutes. This is not a work suitable for classification as mere ‘content’, to be slotted in alongside said movies and songs. Rather, it is far more appropriate to consider The End alongside the groundbreaking works that led to Miku’s existence in the first place.

As innovative and interesting as Vocaloids are, they take up only the most recent chapter of a story that stretches back entire millennia. For example, the desire to turn thought into reality expressed so passionately by Miku’s fanbase can be found in Greek myths such as that of Pygmalion, the romance-starved sculptor, and Galatea – the statue of a woman carved by Pygmalion and given life by the goddess Venus.

Over the past century alone, humanity has dreamt up (and made real) a slew of new ways to bring fiction closer to fact. Walt Disney hit the big time with Steamboat Willie, a musical cartoon featuring the immortal Mickey Mouse, before dropping Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke into a cartoon wonderland for Mary Poppins and experimenting with early animatronics. Music publishing mogul Don Kirshner rose from the career-decimating collapse of his arrangement with The Monkees to push cartoon band The Archies into the stratosphere, birthing one of the Sixties’ sweetest pop songs, Sugar Sugar. And Robert Moog’s invention of commercially viable sound synthesisers was initially met with derision before prog bands, fusion musicians, Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk, David Bowie, and the legions of synth-poppers who followed in their wake turned a whole generation on to the infinite creative capacities of machine music.

Since the Eighties, machine music has become so ubiquitous that very few people see it in the same menacing light thrown upon it by pop-culture commentators of decades past. The Nineties saw the rise of computer animation that is now as commonplace in the movie world as the synthesiser is in soundtrack work, along with the global anime explosion that brought Japanese entertainment franchises such as Pokémon to Western doorsteps – and the 2000s have already given us Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, as well as holographic performances by dirty electro queen Luciana Caporaso and, of course, deceased rap legend Tupac Shakur.

As strange and different as Hatsune Miku may seem, she is in fact rooted in a rich and vibrant history filled with colourful characters and paradigm-shifting achievements.

After an hour and a half of mind-warping computer-powered surrealism two words appear, in elegant italics, in the foremost screen’s lower right corner. The End. 

The house lights go up, Keiichiro Shibuya walks back onstage to bow deeply alongside Miku. Applause. This final theatrical flourish complete, the chatter begins. Most of the voices around me sound confused. I am, too; although I enjoyed the spectacle, I sense a gap. Something missing. I catch a few exchanges in English, people wondering exactly what just happened. Whether The End should really have been billed as an opera. Whether or not the show we just witnessed can be taken seriously. Whether cartoons can be appreciated as artworks. What the rest of the world might think if they were to see all this.

Mickey Mouse. The Archies. Mary Poppins’ backing band. With such an admittedly dubious heritage, it is not hard to see why so many people have trouble taking the idea of virtual pop stars such as Hatsune Miku seriously. But it is worth considering a couple of points. Firstly, on-going advances in robotics are already being used to provide non-human performers with their own physical presences. Japanese research group AIST’s HRP-4C robot can be found on YouTube cosplaying as Hatsune Miku, and 2013 saw the emergence of robot bands like Germany’s Compressorhead and Tokyo’s own Z-Machines. Meanwhile, the boundaries between physical and digital environments are becoming increasingly blurred, porous even.

The screen is no longer the dividing line between ‘reality’ and ‘unreality’ that it once was. Think 3DTV, hands-free gaming interfaces, that Facebook message from a friend that hurt your feelings, the sense of nakedness and vulnerability you felt the last time you left your phone at home. Further innovations such as augmented reality, wearable and networked tech like Google Glass, deeply immersive virtual environments made possible by devices like the Oculus Rift and Virtuix’s omni-directional treadmill, and the inevitable introduction of machines that will build on the progress made by all of the above, are yielding a world where humanity’s dominance over the field of entertainment (amongst other areas) is being brought into question. Today this question is, quite rightly, being taken more seriously than ever before. It’s not the Sixties anymore – tomorrow’s version of The Archies might well end up being a future generation’s Rolling Stones.

Whether you find that notion exciting or distasteful, of course, is another matter.

As for me…

My bag safely retrieved following another halting exchange with the cloakroom attendant, I watch buses, taxis, and scooters run red lights on the wrong side of the road and feel like a certain frog in an old arcade game as I make my way across teeming junctions to the Isle de la Cité and Notre Dame. The venue where, twenty-four hours previously, I sat surrounded by stunning artworks and architecture to bear witness to a small group of virtuoso musicians alternating between ancient chorales and improvised organ pieces. 

Notre Dame was bitterly cold compared to the warm confines of the Châtelet, and most of the audience kept their winterwear on for the duration – but the music was more than enough to warm the heart. And as I stand in light rain staring up at an ancient landmark along with so many others, even this late at night, I realise what The End was missing. That warmth. Humanity. The knowledge that back inside Notre Dame, those musicians’ breathtaking skills had had to be earned over years, decades, lives – and that that level of excellence could never have been achieved without an undying love for what they do. 

For all her advantages, Hatsune Miku doesn’t love what she does. She can’t. The people who write music for her certainly can – but where are they when she performs their work? Backstage? Watching from a private box? Maybe (as in Keiichiro Shibuya’s case) sharing the stage with her but obscured behind still more screens? For all the Vocaloid world’s reliance upon human creative contribution, one has to wonder precisely how many Miku fans deeply appreciate each Vocaloid creator’s individual contribution to their cause. Were the people at the Châtelet there for Keiichiro Shibuya, or just Miku? Both? Neither? What is the focus here – the people who make their art, or the machines that perform it? As the rain gradually eases off, I head back to my hotel and ponder the possibility that I will never really know.

However you might feel about Hatsune Miku or the thought of virtual pop stars running rampant through the future of the music business, one thing is for sure: Miku’s latest boundary-pushing project is certainly not the end of this story.

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Posted on 09 January 2014

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