VTubers. These 2D streamers have been all over the place the last few months. If you don’t know what any of this is about that you’ve been seeing on Twitter and in your recommended YouTube videos, you were exactly where I was in the middle of this year. Back then, I wondered a bit about the whole VTuber thing — I was familiar with the original self-proclaimed “virtual YouTuber” Kizuna Ai, a peppy sort of virtual idol who started making short scripted comedy videos a few years back using what looked like a MikuMikuDance model. But 2017 may as well be ancient history as far as the internet is concerned, and I didn’t know a thing about this new VTuber movement that seemed to have exploded from 2019 on.
And look at me now: still falling down that infamous rabbit hole. People joke about it, but it’s a real thing: I peered into this hole out of curiosity back around July, thinking I’d just make a study of it. And it fucking pulled me in.
But what is the appeal of VTubers, exactly? I get why someone wouldn’t understand it. When popular Japanese VTuber agency Hololive’s English-language branch debuted on YouTube back in September, I saw some very confused people on Twitter asking why these streams and video clips featuring anime girl puppets were suddenly being recommended to them, and wondering who this shark girl was people wouldn’t shut up about.
Firstly, what is a VTuber? To put it very briefly, it’s a person controlling and speaking through an animated model. These models take all sorts of forms — they’re usually cute anime girls of some variety, though there are male VTubers out there as well. It’s apparently not really that difficult to become a VTuber yourself; just rig up a model however that works (I admit I have no idea about the technical side of this, except that Live2D seems to be a popular program to use) and stream with it, and hot damn now you’re a VTuber, congratulations.
However, there does seem to be more to it than that. I was never very big on following streamers myself aside from a few people I know personally, but VTubers seem to have a particular appeal. But what could that appeal be? Instead of trying to describe it first in a general sense, I want to take a look at a few of my favorite VTubers and see what sets them apart. Starting with the primary culprit:
Pekora goes first because she was the one who got me into this whole mess. A 111 year-old rabbit from a country called Pekoland, Pekora decided to emigrate to Japan to become a streamer. At first, she presented the figure of a cute, demure girl, but that soon gave way to the Pekora people know today:
Pekora says she’s an idol, but most of her fans insist she’s a “comedian” to her great distress. It’s not hard to see why they think of her that way, though. Pekora is fast-talking and very smug but a bit of a buffoon; she’ll often be bragging about how great she is just before getting killed in a game or defeated by one of her VTuber friends. This leads to a weird sort of streamer-chat relationship in which chat members laugh at her many misfortunes. This clip from one of Pekora’s talk streams shows some of that relationship, in which Pekora tries to act like a proper cutesy idol much to the dismay of her fans.
But it’s all in good fun, and Pekora is a highly entertaining streamer. Even though I can’t understand most of what she says since it’s almost all in Japanese. Bless those clippers and translators. (I do love when she speaks English, though.)
If any VTuber was responsible for getting a ton of English-speaking viewers into the whole VTuber thing before Hololive EN came about, it was Kiryu Coco. This Yakuza-loving dragon girl (apparently she took part of her name from Kiryu Kazuma) is fluent in both Japanese and English and for a long time acted as a sort of bridge between Japanese and overseas fans because of it. She also has an understanding of American culture in particular that a lot of her colleagues don’t, making for some interesting videos like her “Reddit meme reviews” where she reviews overseas fans’ many shitposts with her friends.
Coco, more than most of her Hololive colleagues, just doesn’t seem to give a damn and will push the boundaries sometimes, which in itself has become a bit of a joke. But that’s part of why fans love her as well. I suspect that’s also part of her appeal to western fans, since many of us don’t get a lot of idol culture standards that somewhat restrict what idols (and even these streamers) can talk about. Here, for example, is Coco delivering some wisdom to a fan who wrote in. Or maybe this is Coco corrupting the youth. Maybe it’s both?
I find Coco’s approach refreshing and a lot of fun to watch. And she speaks English sometimes in her streams as well, so if you don’t know any Japanese you might still be able to follow occasionally.
Hololive contains many of the best-known and most popular VTubers, but they’re not the only game in town. There are other agencies like Nijisanji and the newly created US-based VShojo. There are also plenty of independent VTubers out there doing their thing, and Pikamee is one of them. A VTuber connected to the independent project VOMS, Pikamee describes herself as a five trillion and one year-old electric-type monster. This might make her sound like a terrifying entity, but she’s really just a nice girl who likes playing games on stream and talking to fans. Her streams are also supposedly “family-friendly”, though that standard doesn’t always get maintained:
Like Coco, Pikamee is fluent in both Japanese and English, but she uses both languages almost equally in her streams, switching between them fluidly and basically translating herself for her audience most of the time. This also makes for some interesting situations with her colleagues Hikasa and Monoe, who aren’t quite as fluent in English:
Pikamee is pretty much a ray of sunshine, that’s all. And her tea kettle laugh is infectious.
Well shit, yeah of course Gura. This shark girl is currently the most subscribed among the VTubers, at least as far as I understand. But that’s not why I’m talking about her — it’s because her streams are pretty damn entertaining.
Even before her debut back in September as part of the Hololive EN English-language crew, Gura was attracting attention. During her first livestream (which yes I was watching, I was there live I admit) viewers were piling in, and when she announced that she was going to close out with a song, a lot of people were expecting her to sing that irritating “Baby Shark” meme song, Gura herself being a small shark and all. But instead she busted out with this Tatsuro Yamashita surprising everyone with both that pick and with her voice. I’ll also submit her jazz lounge take on Renai Circulation, along with this performance of “Plastic Love”:
Good stuff. Gura is also just pretty fun in general; she has an easygoing and comfortable style in her streams that I like. She seems to have a special understanding of internet culture as well. I don’t know if Gura’s first tweet, simply the letter “a”, was an accident or intentional, but she instantly turned it into one of her signatures. I don’t know how the hell something like that catches on, but it worked for her.
I could go on talking about the tomboy duck Subaru, best dog Korone, rapping grim reaper and fellow Persona fan Calliope, dirty-minded pirate captain and fellow Touhou fan Marine, or the complete mystery that is Haachama. But I think I might be able to make a case based on what we have here, at least from an American perspective. More than anything, I think this VTuber movement resembles a massive, constantly ongoing variety show. These used to be very popular in the US, with series like The Carol Burnett Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and The Muppet Show running comedy skits and musical acts. Today, the only TV shows I know of here that do anything like that are Saturday Night Live and the various late night shows, which don’t hold much appeal for younger audiences (or they downright suck for the most part, as with SNL from what I’ve seen of it the last several years.)
I think Hololive and other networks, along with independent VTubers, offer something like that, only far fresher than today’s stale TV fare. One reason for this might be the sheer variety of streams on offer: there are the expected game streams, but also art streams, singing and music streams, talk streams, ASMR streams (which I still don’t really get, but a lot of people seem to like them) and even a morning show (Coco’s “Asacoco”, which includes comedy skits and parody advertisements.) The variety of character types available is also an important aspect; there are all kinds of VTubers out there to suit just about anyone’s tastes.
However, I think the biggest draw to the whole VTuber phenomenon, what really sets it apart, is the interaction with the audience. Chat moves at light speed in the more popular streams, but even there a weird sort of culture seems to develop in each VTuber channel, and there’s quite a lot of streamer-chat interaction that sometimes makes for comedy in itself. And maybe even for more than that. It’s understood that most VTubers play a character. We obviously know Gura isn’t really an ancient shark girl from Atlantis, and we never actually see the real-life three-dimensional streamer behind that character, but that’s all an accepted part of the act. Even so, sometimes the VTuber breaks character and talks pretty openly about themselves. Some VTubers even start out with a character that seems to slowly turn into something more natural, probably much more closely resembling their real selves, leading to some interesting and surprisingly intimate moments.
After all that, though, maybe you still don’t see the appeal of VTubers. Or maybe you have a more cynical take on the whole setup than I do: that these are just some cute anime girl models with cute personalities and voices designed to eat up superchat money, and that I’ve become a brainwashed shill. I understand why someone would feel that way. I also acknowledge that this business isn’t all fun and games — the agency-based VTubers’ connection with idol culture in Japan seems to have brought along some of the strange hang-ups some idol fans carry around with them (though again, I can’t talk too much about the idol thing. I haven’t even played an Idolmaster game so what do I know.)
But I still see much more of a positive than a negative effect here. It goes without saying that this year has been rough for just about everyone on Earth and that a distraction was sorely needed, and it’s possible that the rise in VTuber popularity this year had something to do with that (and also the whole being stuck at home thing.) But after seeing both the size and sheer dedication of these fanbases and the actual quality of the talents and their programs, I don’t believe this is just a passing fad. I would put money on it: the craze will probably die down a bit, especially after life gets back to something like normal, but VTubers are here to stay. And there’s always room in the rabbit hole for one more. 𒀭