It's those damn VTubers! They're so hot right now! Breaking out of simply streaming video games or engaging in silly skits under cartoon avatars, the entertainment demands of these new generation content creators extend to singing karaoke on their channels and, at the ever-expanding behest of their producers, whole concerts now, apparently. Look, in terms of virtual idol performances, I trust these characters overlaid on actual humans a ton more than those accursed Vocaloids, who I'm sure are only a singularity away from going all Skynet on the rest of us. VR concert platform VARK kicked off their second season of ‘Cinderella Switch’ shows with members of the Hololive crew on March 27th, and in conjunction with that, sent us over video recordings of the previous shows to review.
It says a lot about the status of Hololive's stable of current anime-culture juggernauts that, neophyte as I am in the scene, I was still familiar enough to know what I was getting into here. Just from scrolling through my Twitter feed for too many hours a day, even I know who the likes of Marine and Natsuiro Matsuri are! Not all of them, of course, which led to a fair amount of wiki cross-referencing as I watched through an entire first season of a concert series. Now you might expect there would be some adverse effects from shotgunning eight-and-a-half hours of motion-captured anime girls into my eyeballs, but I would counter that it can't be any more strenuous than the state real-world concert speakers leave your ears in. Plus hey, I got to sit down through the entirety of this experience! Hololive: 1, Real Life: 0! The source and target audience also mean a musical selection that is more likely to run the gamut of your nerdy, nerdy interests. I wasn't able to recognize all the various Vocaloid covers and anime openings the girls ran through here, but that just made my ears prick up all the more when one I did know came on. Watame deployed DoReMiFa Rondo, which I knew from BanG Dream!, the singing Live2D anime-girl franchise I DO care about!
But really, what new things did I learn from this cavalcade of VTuber stars delivered through the finest VR simulacrum a ticket for a phone app can buy? Well for one, this isn't a glossy, choreographed, 3D-projected Miku Hatsune show, these are VTubers! Even with a rendered, virtual-reality environment, they're here to communicate the experience of watching them stream, from the comfort of their own space, the way they want to. In practice, this is less like a proper ‘concert’ and more like the world's most elaborate karaoke session. The presentation completely leans into the inherent impressive irony of VTubers: That despite being digitized cartoon characters, their bent allots them actions that ‘humanize’ them more. Kanata falls over at one point, Marine and Flare sip from invisible water bottles between songs, and there are lots of clearly-present heavy breathing and exasperated performance recoveries as these girls power from one song in their set to the next.
But what would clearly-human performers be without human interaction? That's where the ‘Switch’ gimmick in Cinderella Switch comes into play. You're not just watching a virtual concert of your favorite horny pirate; instead, the VTuber the performer has been partnered with is placed next to you in this navigable music matrix. Actual crowd sounds are limited to inputs for generic cheers and calls, so the onus is on this guest-star audience member to provide real response action and additional chatter fodder during MC sections. Sometimes you get instances like Towa seemingly disassociating from Roboco's performance of ‘Stay Alive’ and staring at you for a little while instead. Other times the live-streamed nature of this future-imperfect medium demands support from that solitary cheering section, like when Flare's stream went dark for a solid eight minutes and had to be filled only with Watame's amusing chatter. If I was running late for a meeting with an important client, I know who I'd want to cover for me: Beep beep, gimme that sheep!
As I said though, these are the kinds of technical hiccups and endearing imperfections you sign up for with the likes of Hololive, right? Flare's stalled stream recovered to a shower of virtual flowers and party balls from her devoted fans. VARK knows the value of audience interaction, so while this isn't the kind of concert where they'll sell you a ten-dollar beer, they will allow you to pay an extra 99 Yen to chuck an exploding star at your favorite anime girl's face. In a pre-recorded context, all I can do is be amused by the way the chatlogs and notifications for these actions go ballistic at certain moments, and I gotta respect the hustle of those like Watame, who plays along in a way to goad the audience into absolutely showering her with stars. Do these girls see a cut of that monetization? I hope they do. They may curate an image of more amateur authenticity, but make no mistake: These streamers in cyber-mascot-suits work the crowd with the tenured skillsets of professional wrestlers, only instead of handing out high-fives and t-shirts, they're heading into the crowd to give you virtual hugs and head-pats.
That point of communication brings up another obvious caveat. Being live shows by Japanese creators, these performances, including all the MCing chatter between songs and post-show discussions, are in Japanese without subtitles. Granted, this is another thing you're probably familiar with and down for if you're already so deep in VTuber hell that you'd buy tickets to a VR concert to watch on Japan Time. Maybe later on the Hololive EN girls will get in on the action; I know a ton of people would turn out to see Gura do her City Pop Shark schtick in virtual reality. Like the less elaborate pleasures of their simple solo streams, the personalities and appeals of the performers come through despite that established language barrier. Heck, it made me a fan of one I wasn't familiar with before: Tokoyami Towa, who's got an intense vocal range, a cool style, and a pretty fun gimmick (she's a devil here to learn more about humans, but she's so nice everyone thinks she's an angel instead). In general, the interactions between these girls allowed me to pretty quickly pick them out from all that aforementioned Twitter fanart that previously gelled together into a giant anime-girl chimera in my brain. It's impossible not to pick up on the differences in vocal ranges, MCing styles, or whose CGI model comes equipped with jiggle physics. Shout-out to Roboco, just bouncing around down there in the bottom left.
And maybe it's that need for some kind of connection; To have an outlet, however simulated, as some kind of excursion as we move from all the restrictions of Hell Year 2020 into the same limitations of Hell Year 2021. I still can't go to an anime convention yet, but at least with Hololive and Cinderella Switch, there's a way for me to live the experience of seeing someone in an anime girl costume belt out the s-CRY-ed theme song at 1 am. If this 8.5-hour cyber-music marathon taught me anything, it was the appeal of VTubers as humans; even through all their messing about with 3D models, they really have no pretense about the fact that they're just people messing about with 3D models. I guess I was expecting to come off a bit more cynical from the presentation, but all the assigned duos of performers come off with their own solid rapport that draws you into the somewhat interactive nature of the show. And if I can be charmed by watching Watame try to teach her little side-step dance move to a struggling Flare, I can get why all those subscribers are on-board for the other things these pioneers of popularity throw out there. I may not have learned a whole new language from immersing myself in this virtual world for all that time, but I at least came out the other side, I think, genuinely understanding the appeal of VTubers and their fans now.