Tales from the rabbit hole: Two years in VTuber Hell

What a disaster. The last two years locked down, what do I have to show for them? A lot of working, yeah. A lot of hours billed, hours of my life lost to some of the dullest legal work imaginable, work that only a select few are detached and disassociated enough to be able to put up with.

However, not all my hours have been spent pouring through documents. Some have been spent playing video games and watching anime. And yes, some have been spent actually outside recently, sometimes even touching grass as the kids say. But some have been spent in exactly the opposite way as going outside and being social: watching VTubers. Since I first wrote about the VTuber craze a year and a half ago, it’s become a little less of a “craze” and more of an established part of the landscape of entertainment in the West. Though certainly still a niche part — I’m not going to argue that VTubers have broken into general public consciousness into the same field as network TV or popular streaming series, and very likely they never will aside from that one second Gawr Gura got in the background of a Taco Bell ad last year.

Thankfully, we’re not concerned with the mainstream here on the site. So much the better that VTubing occupies a niche, even if it is a pretty damn large one now with the aforementioned Gura having nearly four million subscribers as of this writing. By contrast, there are videos on YouTube with over a billion views, and I’m willing to bet many more people know about The Big Bang Theory or some shitty laugh-tracked TV show like that than about Gura or any of the other most-watched livers out there. No, VTuber fandom goes far deeper and at times gets far darker than that. People call this hobby “the rabbit hole” for more than one reason, and again not just because of Usada Pekora’s insidious influence on our minds.

For a normal, well-adjusted person, it would be enough to just accept this as a part of their life and move on, or better still to quit and do something productive instead. But of course I’m anything but normal and well-adjusted. And so just as with my year in Azur Lane, I had to over-analyze and write a collegiate thesis on the time I’ve spent and in this case continue to spend in a hobby that would make most people look at me sideways. This time I’m asking myself a simple question, though one I’m not sure I can entirely answer:

Why do I watch VTubers (i.e. what do I get out of this time sink?)

To at least start answering this question, I’d like to take a look at three of my favorite VTubers — three who I’d always watch live, assuming I had the time (which I usually don’t. Again, winning the lottery would help out with my god damn hobbies.)

Usada Pekora

I wrote about her back in that first post in 2020, and I’ve stuck with Pekora since. Unlike the two talents following, she’s not known for her singing, and she doesn’t have any of the other “traditional idol” talents that I know of. Some might consider that a weakness — Hololive’s connection with the Japanese idol tradition is a bit of a joke, though not a total joke considering how traditionally talented some of their streamers are.

But VTubers don’t really need such talents as long as they’re entertaining, and Pekora is so entertaining to me that I can watch a full stream of hers easily even though she barely speaks English and I know about one-fifth of the Japanese language judging by how much I can understand. Full fluency isn’t necessary to pick up on context when you’re watching someone play Portal, anyway, especially when that someone has such excellent comedic timing. Sorry to call you a comedian, Pekora, but that’s what you are and you’re one of the best in my book. Right up there with George Carlin and Mitch Hedberg, sure. And Lewis Black, who I think she can match in sheer anger and salt when she feels like it (and headphones/sound warning on that last clip, related.)

Nekomata Okayu

As much as I love Pekora’s antics, sometimes cute rabbit girl freaking out isn’t quite the vibe I’m going for. For relaxation, I’ll go instead to another one of my favorites, Okayu. This catgirl is usually calm, laidback, and has a voice like silk. She puts out a lot of great cover songs like this take on Gehenna, a nice jazzy one that suits her voice and style (and speaking of, I’d love to hear her take on Shiina Ringo someday.) But she’s perhaps best known for her approach to ASMR, which I can understand: in fact hers is the only sort I’ve ever heard that works on me in the way I’ve heard real ASMR fans talk about.

However, Okayu’s also nice to watch playing a game — though she takes on action games, I’ve really liked her streams like the above, where she tries out Universe Sandbox and proceeds to destroy the Earth several times over (and there’s a clip with subs linked if that helps.) Like Pekora, Okayu doesn’t speak much English, but it hardly matters to me — I can understand enough now to get by on context well enough at least in a game playthrough, and I haven’t seen any other VTuber who can quite create the atmosphere she does.

Pomu Rainpuff

The VTuber landscape has changed a lot since 2020, in part because Hololive no longer has a corner on English-speaking VTubers. Rival agency Nijisanji has made a lot of progress in the overseas market since, especially with its introduction of male VTubers (who I admit I didn’t think there was much of a market for, until I was proven extremely wrong by the success of its fourth EN wave.)

Nijisanji is home to a lot of excellent talents, along with my now confirmed favorite Pomu — my oshi in the Japanese idol lingo that’s been picked up by VTuber watchers. Pomu passed me by for a few months when she started streaming last year, but eventually I noticed her and found she’s a fine singer with a love of Touhou and a lot of the similar weirdo niche anime/game-related stuff I also like (doubly related: hear her cover of Eiko Shimamiya’s cover/adaptation of ZUN’s original “Septette for the Dead Princess”, The Heat of My Fingertips, featured in Touhou Lost Word. Great stuff, and certainly a dream for any Touhou fan to achieve.)

None of that would matter if she weren’t entertaining to watch, but she’s got that down as well — Pomu is probably one of the only people on Earth I’d actually watch play Minecraft, which would normally bore me to tears. She also has a bit of a sharp edge that’s fun to see when it comes out. (And it also helps that I can understand 100% of what she says.)

In addition to the above VTubers, there are some I’m happy to drop in on if I have the time free, most of them also in Nijisanji EN (have I shilled enough for them now? This is practically an unpaid sponsorship at this point. But who else has given us anything close to Enna Alouette’s Higurashi concert?) But I think Pekora, Okayu, and Pomu collectively have pretty much all the qualities I find entertaining.

And regarding that entertainment value, that variety show comparison I made in my first post still holds true, now even more than it did when I first made it since the lineup of visible English-speaking VTubers has increased so much since. In addition to Hololive, VShojo, and Nijisanji, there are at least a dozen and probably more other agencies with far smaller subscriber and viewer bases but with no less talented and entertaining streamers. I’ve dropped in on some Prism Project streams, and the difference in feel because of this smaller fanbase is really interesting. Watching someone like Gura with tens of thousands of viewers feels like watching a show in a stadium, while watching a typical Nijisanji EN stream with several hundred to a few thousand might feel more like being in a large theater — if so, then being in a smaller agency stream is like being in a small underground club with dozens or maybe a hundred or two other spectators, with a much more intimate and personal feeling among fans and even between fans and the talent. Maybe too intimate in some cases.

The variety show/stage performance comparison doesn’t fit perfectly, though, because unlike such shows, these streams aren’t scripted. A streamer might generally know what she wants to talk about, but both the elements of chance occurrences especially during gameplay and interaction with chat members make streams far more dynamic and interesting than most skit-based productions. Combine this with the length of some of these streams at three, four, even five hours and longer — the fact that these virtual streamers can maintain energy and be entertaining for that long is extremely impressive.

You can say the same about plenty of normal streamers, but there’s another aspect of VTubing that might seem superficial at first but that I think is actually extremely important: the avatar. Aside from the obvious appeal of being able to watch and in some sense interact with a cute anime girl or guy, the VTuber rig adds that fantastic element, especially when the character on the other side of the screen is a rabbit or catgirl or fairy, or any number of other more otherworldly beings. I’ve already written about this element of VTubing a bit, along with the related question of where the VTuber’s “character” ends and where the actual performer behind the rig begins. But I think it’s become clear over the last few years that viewers really fall in love with these characters, and usually without regard for how said characters might relate to their performers.

Pekora’s original character sheet by designer Yuuki Hagure. Note her dual set of human and rabbit ears. Artists who design animal-eared girls seem to have given up on caring about this, which is honestly fine with me.

In general, I’ve seen a lot of positivity and common sense, for lack of a better term, out of VTuber fan groups. But I don’t want to paint an entirely rosy picture for you, because that would be dishonest. Plenty of drama has been stirred up in these circles, some of it pretty harmless but some of which has resulted in serious consequences including harassment, doxxing, and even termination. For a famous example, see Mano Aloe, a demon girl Vtuber who ended up driven out of Hololive after barely a week on the job. Depending on the situation, tenure doesn’t matter, as in the case of Uruha Rushia, an extremely successful Hololive talent who ended up not just “graduated” (i.e. moving on to a different group or a different field of work, another borrowing from idol language) but outright terminated for an alleged contract violation following a complete mess of drama and agony around a potential relationship. Other streamers who have held onto their jobs still suffered through harassment, sometimes driven by weird infighting between factions, one of the most famous of these involving international politics and a supposed implicit recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty. If you’re new to this sphere you might think that’s just a joke, and I wish I were.

I’ve seen it argued over just how much the VTubing/idol connection influences some of this sort of drama-stirring, especially in cases of fanbase infighting and relationship drama. I don’t know anything about and honestly have no interest in idols, so I leave that debate to those are qualified to get into it. Some fans seem to have gotten a distaste for Hololive in general, which I can understand especially following the Rushia incident and its fallout — I don’t know about its main branch, but the EN branch of Nijisanji by contrast (and presumably the western agency VShojo, maybe even more so) seems more permissive with its talents, not even going for that sort of half-joking “we’re idols” theme you get with Hololive. But then Nijisanji’s not immune from this sort of drama either.

So you see, my reference to VTuber Hell wasn’t entirely meant to apply to my own experience as a fan. While some people envy these streamers, especially those who rake in a lot of love from fans and donation money, VTubing also seems like a potentially extremely stressful job to hold, especially if you’re part of a large agency. The pressure to perform and to constantly be “on” has to be massive. The parasocial relationships that sometimes form in these fanbases can also be dangerous, driving some of this sort of harassment from both primarily male and female fanbases in the cases of Rushia and Vox respectively.1 This hobby isn’t especially conducive to getting out of the house, even if some VTubers do encourage their fans to get out there and lead healthy and happy lives away from their computer screens.

Approaching this drama from the fan perspective (and maybe I should say “casual fan”, since I can’t be anything else) this sort of fervor can scare newcomers away and even potentially put off viewers who have been around for a while. I still believe at least 90 or 95% of fans are positive, supportive, and have healthy senses of perspective towards their hobby and their oshis and all that from reading comments and seeing chats, but we’ve seen over and over how an unreasonable and extremely vocal minority can spoil a good thing. It’s good that they seem to be in such a minority, anyway, since you can’t exactly “ignore the fanbase” in the same way you might with notoriously weird ones surrounding otherwise good games and franchises (say Undertale or Sonic the Hedgehog, and at this point I’d better throw Persona in there.) Fan interaction is part of what makes VTubing a unique form of entertainment, for better or worse — far more often I think for better, but not always, as we’ve seen.

I’m not going to pretend that I don’t understand the whole parasocial relationship thing, because I really do. In addition to the extra social isolation we’ve gone through over the last two years, some VTubers just seem to attract fans who aren’t the most social types anyway. Like me, I’ll admit. Well, it’s not exactly admitting it now if I’ve been saying it on this blog for almost nine years. Listening to certain streams I enjoy like Okayu’s ASMR work for example, where she’s right up in your ear — combine that with the video thumbnails she uses and the intended effect is pretty obvious, and even more so in the case of an almost explicitly spicy streamer like Yuzuki Choco. It feels to me like taking a soothing sort of drug: probably fine in a certain dose, but it’s entirely possible to take too much of it and end up dealing with some problems.2

The scenario in Needy Streamer Overload was purposely a little exaggerated, but not as much as you might think.

Despite these problems, I still think the massive VTuber wave we’ve seen over the last two years has been on balance a positive. I naturally can’t speak for other people’s experiences, but I’m sure it helped me out while I was in isolation in those early periods of COVID when I started binging on those translated clips of Korone and Miko, not realizing the rabbit hole I was being dragged into. It might have even had a greater impact on my health and lifestyle in general. I’ve been stressed over the last two years, but a lot of that stress has come from my attempts to improve my life despite my desire to just give up, dig an actual hole, and jump into it. This seems like an old cliché, and some people might even consider it embarrassing to admit, but fuck that: watching these girls do their absolute best might have motivated me to do my best in life as well. It’s impossible for me to say whether or how much of an effect it’s had on me, but the fact that I’ve been able to quit drinking for the last two and a half years now might be related, at least partly.

Maybe it’s weird to say strangers on the internet, people who don’t even know who I am and who I also don’t know and never will know on a personal level, motivated me in that way. No doubt my own family and friends, and even fellow bloggers here on WordPress I talk with sometimes, have a more immediate impact on my life. But I can’t rule out the possibility that this hobby helped out with my efforts, even if that was never really the intention. Yeah, these agencies are formed to make money and sell products, but if that were all there was to the VTuber phenomenon, I believe it would have died off pretty quickly. There’s plenty of bullshit trash mass media out there, but without true passion and hard work, I don’t think you’ll find fanbases that drill down quite as deep as the VTuber ones do.

Again, for better or worse — it’s easy to get lost in this rabbit hole. But like I wrote back in 2020, there’s still plenty of room in here, and even more now than there used to be. At the very least, go check out Hyakumantenbara Salome and see why she’s so great. You won’t regret it. Probably.

 

1 I should probably say minorities in both cases, because once again the majority of fans always seems to be reasonable and supportive.

2 This is admittedly a complex issue, and one that I’m not qualified to talk about in too much depth because I’m not an expert in psychology or sociology. Then again, neither are a few of the prominent “influencers” who back in 2020 showed up to criticize VTubing on grounds that were shaky at best, and without any support other than “well, I think it’s weird and the fans are weird and I don’t like this”, with some truly piss-poor attempts to dress up these complaints in more legitimate clothing. These drama-stirring types moved on pretty quickly after getting their undeserved attention, however. Not a bad business model if you’re just going for clicks, I guess, without regard to impartiality or integrity or anything silly like that. I won’t link any of that trash, but it’s easy enough to find through a YouTube search if you’re really curious about it.

To be fair, however, there are also sensationalist “pro-VTuber” types on YouTube who feed off of usually bullshit nothing sorts of “drama” for clicks. You can sometimes tell these types by their thumbnails. One video maker who doesn’t fall into that pit is Depressed Nousagi: I linked a couple of his videos above because he’s an actually impartial guy who does research and puts together interesting and informative videos on VTuber history, as far back as that goes, anyway. And I have to support a fellow depressed nousagi, don’t I?

If you’re interested in VTubers, be sure to also follow The Unlit Cigarette here on WordPress. She has a fascinating and indepth ongoing series on VTubers with a special focus on Nijisanji EN, which I naturally appreciate. And she’s a fellow Pomu fan too. Please check her work out if that grabs your interest!

A review of A Place Further Than the Universe

Man, now this was a series that took a while to get through. Not because it’s long, however. Not because it’s bad, either — just the opposite, in fact, but this is another one of those “it’s complicated” situations.

A Place Further Than the Universe is a 13-episode original anime series that aired in 2018. It feels like it’s been around longer, however. I’ve heard it brought up so often in must-watch anime lists that it seems to have reached classic status more or less instantly. Part of its high profile might have to do with its makers: Madhouse is another excellent anime studio, responsible for some of my absolute favorites like Kaiji. Between being a Madhouse production and its general reputation as a great story, I had very high expectations going into A Place Further Than the Universe.

And while those expectations were absolutely met and even exceeded, again, this is a complicated series for me to sort out and write about. A lot of that probably has more to do with me and my own feelings about life than about the series itself, so warning: I might get a bit personal this time. But if you’ve read this site for a while, you know what to expect from me. And if you’re new — welcome, thanks for reading, and I hope you’re okay with some personal griping. It’s part of what I do.

Enough of that shit for now — on to the show itself. Serious massive ending spoilers warning this time; A Place Further Than the Universe isn’t the most plot-heavy show ever, but the plot it has is pretty damn heavy and it’s hard to say anything meaningful about the show without addressing that aspect of it. If you prefer to go in raw, go ahead and watch the show because I recommend it without qualification, but more on that below.

Our story opens with Mari Tamaki a.k.a. Kimari, a high school student who’s desperate to do something interesting with her life before she graduates and enters the dreaded real world. The trouble is Kimari doesn’t have any particular interests and seems too timid to take any kind of risk. She can’t even bring herself to cut class to take the train to Tokyo one day, simply taking the train going in the opposite direction right back to school, where she meets her classmate and childhood friend Megu with a defeated feeling.

That changes when Kimari has a chance encounter with Shirase Kobuchizawa, another one of her classmates. Despite them being in the same grade at the same school, Kimari doesn’t know Shirase very well. Nobody does, in fact, because Shirase is shrouded in mystery. After she accidentally drops an envelope full of money on the train platform (a million yen, less than it might sound to some — about $9,000 as of this writing, but still a massive amount for a high schooler to be carrying around) Kimari recovers it and returns it to Shirase.

Get used to more emotional outbursts as the series continues

Partly out of gratitude and partly because Kimari is now privy to her situation anyway, Shirase tells her that she’s saving money to go to Antarctica to find her mother Takako, a researcher who was lost there a few years before and hasn’t been heard from since. And to Shirase’s surprise, Kimari asks if she can go along — this is just the adventure she was looking for. A little more of a commitment than taking the train from Gunma to Tokyo, as Shirase warns her, but Kimari is determined, and the pair start working on their plans. Along the way, Kimari and Shirase find still another girl to join them, more or less by chance. Hinata, Kimari’s co-worker at a convenience store, overhears her conversations with Shirase about their plans and expresses interest in going as well, saying she doesn’t have much else to do anyway.

The final addition to their team is the least likely, but also the most helpful in some sense. After being refused a spot on the next civilian expedition to Antarctica staffed by Shirase’s mother’s researcher colleagues, the now-trio of girls stumbles upon Yuzuki, another high school student who also works as a pop idol. Yuzuki actually has a spot on the same expedition that Shirase and friends were trying to land, part of a marketing scheme arranged by her agency, but she doesn’t want to go. After becoming fast friends with the group, however, she’s moved to tears by their kindness and decides to go — but only on the condition that Shirase, Kimari, and Hinata can join her. Following some arm-twisting she gets her way, and the four friends are now on the long and hard path to Antarctica.

Yuzuki and Hinata. I skipped over a lot of details, but it’s pretty much the power of friendship again. But not quite as usual.

A Place Further Than the Universe feels like a prime candidate for one of those “what I watched/what I expected/what I got” templates. What I expected was a cute, nice slice-of-life kind of series about four girls going to Antarctica. Normally I don’t go in for slice-of-life by itself, but this series is highly regarded enough that I wanted to give it a shot. Aside from that, I also have an interest in Antarctica, though I’ll probably never get to go myself. There’s something about how isolated and far from civilization it is that appeals to me, though it’s apparently not exactly “unspoiled” the way it’s sometimes talked about (see Werner Herzog’s excellent documentary Encounters at the End of the World for more on that — it makes a nice companion piece to this show.)

I did get all that from watching this, but while the show is about four girls going to Antarctica on the surface, that’s not quite what it’s about at its core. I didn’t pick the above screenshot randomly: Universe really is about friendship. And of course, that might elicit some groans — another anime that talks about the power of friendship, how original.

Sightseeing in Singapore on the way down, but it’s not all good times

To its credit though, Universe gets a bit deeper into the subject than you might expect, exploring not just the nature of solid friendships but also that of fragile ones. Just before Kimari leaves for Antarctica, her friend Megu confesses that she’s been spreading ugly rumors about her and Shirase, about how they were able to get the resources and money to go on their trip. But it’s not quite out of jealousy that she can’t do the same — Megu is really upset because she now feels useless to Kimari, who used to rely on her heavily but is now standing on her own. After confessing to her vile acts, Megu declares that they can’t be friends anymore and turns away from Kimari.

And then the show subverted my expectations, but in a good way. Instead of returning Megu’s bitter feelings and letting her walk away, Kimari hugs her from behind, rejects her “break-up”, and runs off, with the implication that they might be able to rebuild what they had after she returns. Megu is left in tears, obviously feeling like a massive piece of shit, likely all the more so because instead of the mutual rejection she was probably expecting she was shown love instead.

Kimari really doesn’t let much get to her.

That kind of subversion might not always work, but it worked for me because it’s consistent with Kimari’s character. Throughout the series, the bonds between the four main girls are also tested in various ways, and while there are a few arguments and plenty of tears (a whole lot of tears, in fact) they come through it all the stronger and more closely bound.

These emotional moments aren’t the cheap eye-rolling kind, precisely for the reason that they’re pretty well earned. Universe does a great job at building well-developed characters quickly — a must considering how much it tries to do in its short 13-episode run — and as a result, all the ups and downs they go through are backed up by the proper context. I never once wondered while watching this series why the hell Kimari, Shirase, Hinata, or Yuzuki were doing, saying, or thinking something, or at least not once their reasons were revealed. I read a review shortly after finishing the show that accused it of cheap emotional pandering, but this is my response — everything that happens in Universe has the necessary context, and I didn’t even find the many crying/outburst scenes all that excessive.

There really are a lot of them, I can keep posting these screenshots all day

It’s also important to note where Universe didn’t subvert my expectations, but again to good effect. From almost the beginning of the series, Shirase expresses her desire to go to Antarctica to find her mother, carrying the book she wrote about her travels with her (titled A Place Further Than the Universe, a nice title drop there.) For a while, nobody brings up Takako’s almost certain fate — not even her friends and colleagues in charge of the expedition who end up supervising and mentoring the girls — but eventually reality has to be faced.

This is where Universe really proved its worth to me. When I saw the title to the second-to-last episode — the same title as Takako’s book and the series itself — I knew what I was in for, but the way the show executed the revelation of her fate and Shirase’s response to it was just about perfect. I don’t even want to spoil it here, even though I gave that urgent spoiler warning above. All I’ll give you here is an admission that it moved me to tears.

That’s not a light statement coming from me — I’m normally like one of those Easter Island stone faces; I hardly ever cry at anything. I don’t say that to imply that I’m a real tough guy, but rather that I’m kind of unromantic and emotionally cold or at least extremely guarded. Yet this show managed to break through that armor and get to me.

So unless my bullshit and sappy nonsense detection meter is completely out of wack now, I don’t think there’s anything cheap about Universe or the feelings its characters express and share. It’s a well-done coming-of-age story about four girls finding themselves and learning what it means to truly be friends and to cope with loss.

Again, that really is the core of the series. Most of it doesn’t even take place in Antarctica — it takes our protagonists about a third of the show to even leave Japan and another third to actually make it down to the continent, and there are plenty of slice-of-life-style bits throughout, all the way up to the last episode when the girls return home.

Shirase even takes some time during a party with her adult colleagues to beat their asses at mahjong. This looks just like a still from Akagi, in fact — maybe because Madhouse also produced that show! Is this a subtle reference?

The only issue I think some viewers might take with Universe is just how quickly it can turn from cute girls doing cute things slice of life messing around to intense drama and emotion and back again. Several of its episodes have this kind of roller coaster quality to them, with some serious lows and highs. A couple of those “high” scenes early on got to me in a bad way, as full as they were of youthful optimism for the future — exactly the kind I’ve more or less lost as a bitter, depressive adult (coming off of my stint as a bitter, depressive teenager, but at least I did have more wonder about the world then than I do now, or more than zero anyway.) But I won’t hold that against the series; it’s entirely on me.

And I can really relate to Hinata’s feelings here.

I’ve seen people suggest Universe as a good “relaxation” sort of series, but while it is beautiful-looking and has some light elements to its story, I don’t know if I’d recommend it as a light watch myself for the above reasons. Most of these episodes had a lot to take emotionally speaking, which is part of why it took me a while to get through the whole thing despite only being one cour long.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. I highly recommend A Place Further Than the Universe to just about anyone. It’s well-written, has compelling characters going on an intense and difficult journey, both physically and emotionally, and it looks amazing on top of all that with just the kind of quality work you’d expect from Madhouse. Do yourself a favor and watch it.

It also has penguins, because what kind of series about Antarctica would miss out on penguins? Apparently they stink, though.