04.18.12

Hatsune Miku, Japan’s Hologram Pop Idol

The surprise revival of Tupac Shakur in hologram form at Coachella this weekend stunned audiences—but Japan’s been onto the hologram game for years. Meet Hatsune Miku, Japan’s biggest (fictional) pop star.

Twenty-five thousand screaming fans fill a darkened stadium, forming a sea of bodies and frantically waving glow sticks. Lights and fog dramatically set the stage. Cymbals clash; then suddenly, she rises up: the girl they’ve all been waiting for, belting out one of her chart-topping Japanese dance hits. Her name is Hatsune Miku.

And she’s a hologram.

Unlike the hologram that brought rapper Tupac Shakur back from the grave for a sensational Coachella performance on Sunday, however, Miku isn’t based on a real person. She’s entirely fictitious, an avatar created by the Japanese technology firm Crypton Future Media, using Yamaha Corporation’s Vocaloid 2—the so-called singer-in-a-box program that allows users to input lyrics and melodies, control elements like vibrato, and instantly pop out flawless vocals. Since she originated in 2007, Miku’s performed live for paying audiences of up to 25,000 people and was the face of Google Chrome’s promotion blitz in Japan (a post occupied in the U.S. by her popularity equivalents, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga). She has her own video-game series and boasts a fan base so formidable that they threatened a Clash magazine writer’s life after he dared to use the word “slutty” when describing her somewhat risqué attire. Miku is, by all accounts, a teen pop idol.

Video screenshot

It’s not hard to see why she’s so beloved. Though her voice is sampled from Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita, Miku is literally the collective product of her legions of fans. As shown in the Google Chrome ad Miku stars in, it’s the fans who create her songs and videos via collaborative websites like Nico Nico Douga (“Smile Smile Video,” Japan’s YouTube equivalent). One Miku enthusiast might compose an original song for her using Vocaloid, for example, and then upload it for others to hear. That song might then inspire illustrations, videos, or remixes from other fans, and songs that go viral might then get picked up by Crypton, refined, and rereleased. It’s the perfect formula: Miku gives fans exactly the music they want without the scandals and dramatics of real-life pop stars and all their real-life flaws. “I like her a lot more than the other musicians nowadays, because she’s not a part of the latest gossip or addicted to drugs or having her 54th baby,” one American fan named Ritsu Namine told Clash last March. “But I’m sure that if she was a real person, she would. So I guess I like her more just because she’s not real.”

Crypton has only encouraged the digital looking-glass effect brought on the Miku fiction. The firm has confirmed no details about Miku’s “personality” (and she certainly doesn’t give any interviews) so devotees are allowed to see in her whatever qualities they like. All that is known about the aqua-haired, anime-inspired singer can be summed up in a bare-bones statistics list: she is 16 years old, 158 centimeters tall, weighs 42 kilograms and, when making music for her, it’s suggested that fans stick to a 70-150 beats per minute tempo and keep her voice within an A3-E5 range. The rest—her image, her persona, her back story—is up to fans’ imaginations.

“I like her a lot more than the other musicians nowadays, because she’s not a part of the latest gossip or addicted to drugs or having her 54th baby.”

Not everyone loves the fact that a fictional, virtual artist can outdo so many living, breathing ones, however. In February, after an unofficial poll ranked Hatsune Miku the most requested headlining act for the London Olympics, Miku and Vocaloid videos began mysteriously being pulled from YouTube, allegedly due to false copyright claims. Miku’s up-in-arms fans launched a “Save Miku” campaign almost immediately, and conspiracy theories abounded, with people pointing fingers at everyone from the fans of outranked Korean pop groups to Google to Vocaloid itself. But according to Mikufan.com, Google and Crypton eventually resolved the matter and confirmed that K-pop fans “had nothing to do with it.”

Even so, it may be a while before Miku fans can again watch her hologram perform on stage. Last month the digital star played four shows in Tokyo (selling out 10,000 tickets at $76 a pop) for concerts that were billed as possibly her last, according to Reuters. But with Tupac’s surprise revival in the Coachella Valley this weekend, the interest in hologram performances has reached a fever pitch—and it seems fans might get used to it. As one British Miku fan, named Kathryn Trujillo, told Clash, “Quite honestly, considering how much singers rely on technology these days, [Miku] doesn’t sound all that different from real artists, except that she sings in Japanese.”