We Attended the Hatsune Miku Expo to Find Out if a Hologram Pop Star Could Be Human

She was created by a Japanese software company, but there's nothing imaginary about her millions of fans worldwide.

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May 27 2016, 4:45pm

Crypton Future Media

This article was originally published on THUMP Canada.

If an ordinary show's affinity is to theater, Hatsune Miku's is to film: both are coldly automatic, non-spontaneous, even projected, with bleeding-edge invention, onto a vast and gleaming silver screen. One sees Hatsune Miku perform live in much the same way one sees Iron Man fight Captain America in a Marvel movie. The Miku Expo isn't a concert—it's a robo-show, a concert simulacrum. Two thousand fans hop and scream as before them light and sound take on the shape of real experience. "Most of these people have never been to a concert before," said Kanae Muraki, global marketing director of Crypton Future Media, the company behind Hatsune Miku. By the end of the evening that would still, in a sense, be true.

Hatsune Miku is a pop star, a matinee idol, a sex symbol, a role model, a tech marvel, and a global phenomenon who sells out stadiums worldwide. She also doesn't exist. Miku is software—a computer program, like GarageBand or Ableton Live, through which musicians can fabricate the squawky, affectless singing voice of a teenage girl. Crypton, a technology company based in Sapporo, Japan, developed the voice nearly a decade ago; the girl herself was conceived simply to decorate the packaging.

She wears a Japanese schoolgirl's uniform, black knee-high socks, and a windsor-knotted tie, and has great rafts of luminous turquoise hair. Like all female anime characters, she seems to insist upon a wholesomeness that every curve and angle suggestively rejects. People were quickly enamored. Songs created with the Crypton software ascended to the stratosphere of internet renown. Dolls and t-shirts yielded fortunes. Hatsune Miku was soon glorified with religious fervor—and naturally her disciples needed a church.

All photos courtesy of Crypton Future Media

Toronto's Sony Centre for the Performing Arts on a Friday night in May had the frenzied quality one expects of a house of worship, the anteroom and lobby before the show fizzing with the thrill of the true believers. The first thing one notices are the cataracts of azure and ultramarine: every head, it seems, is crowned with a jagged shock of wig, the audience a garish costumed morass. The only people not bearing a picture of Hatsune Miku on their chests were those dressed as Hatsune Miku.

Nor would anyone leave without having considerably augmented their wardrobe. Outside the venue, a line for Miku merch sprawled a hundred long. Inside—home of more exclusive fashions—the merch line spanned thousands. "The VIP ticket holders are admitted to the venue early so they can be the first in line for merchandise," a Crypton employee told me as I stood in awe of the endless queuing. "They've spent more money on their ticket just so they can spend more money."

"I've been waiting for this show for eight years," said Jeselle, a 22-year-old Miku devotee beaming in full cosplay regalia. With encyclopedic rigor—and commendable patience—she attempted to introduce me to the discipline: its converging histories and sub-fandoms, its vicissitudes and interior controversies. It was no use, despite her best efforts. Explaining Hatsune Miku to the unfamiliar is like trying to describe Game of Thrones to someone who's never heard of swords or dragons. More lucid was Jeselle's account of her own Hatsune history. "I was 14 when I got into it," she said. "At the time I was at a low point in my life. I'd just moved to a new area. I didn't really have anything. Then I got into this and—and things opened up."

As we continued to navigate the merch-eager throng, we emerged at last at what appeared to be the lobby's only clearing: the bar. The Hatsune Miku Expo is not a dry event and the audience, though not without its adolescent contingent, included many hundreds in their 20s and 30s. Still, my friend and I seemed to be the only people drinking. "Nobody buys beer at our events," Kanae admitted to me. "Venues don't like that, but they get a cut of our merchandise sales. We sell more merch than anybody so in the end they're happy."

This kind of thing is typical of the peculiar Miku economy. Crypton Future Media doesn't produce or publish its own music. And while hundreds of thousands of songs have been recorded using their software—and the Hatsune Miku image, free to use and modify as musicians see fit—Crypton doesn't own any of them, or indeed have any right to their reproduction or performance live. Miku is merely an instrument. The company has about as much claim to her songs as the Roland Corporation has to "Sexual Healing" or "Love Lockdown". The company furnishes the Miku Expo setlist with popular songs composed by and licensed from other artists, under the aegis of their own.

"Hatsune Miku is installed on hundreds of thousands of computers all over the world," says Hiroyuki Itoh, CEO of Crypton, in the theater's bustling green room. "Every day you have new songs uploaded to the internet. And after a while the more popular ones and the less popular ones get naturally separated. For these concerts we like to choose the songs that already have the support of users. We give the fans what they want."

It's somewhat unusual, one might think, for the head of a major international software company to tag along on a North American tour. But then little about Crypton's business is usual. "I don't actually have a specific role in the tour," he said, when I wonder what he's doing here. "It's just that coming here to feel the mood of the city and meeting the fans... that's something I'm very much interested in." And later I would indeed see Itoh-san wandering among the masses, a vaguely parental look about him.

Back in the lobby, the double doors have opened, and the crowd has begun its fervid auditorium-bound surge. On our way to our seats we're handed a complimentary green glow stick, completing the impression of totalizing uncool. Little did we know how essential to the Miku Expo experience they'd prove. Much about a Hatsune Miku performance resembles a concert like any other: one endures the same breastplate-punch of blockbuster bass, suffers the same knee-gelatinizing endurance test of all-night standing, enacts the same ritual of lip-reading and head-nodding to feebly communicate a passing witticism.

But the glow sticks are unique. "The glow sticks have a language," my friend observed about 20 minutes into the supporting act, and he was right—a language it seemed everyone in the room knew but us. The sticks were thrust, shaken, swirled and bobbed, in patterns of such dazzling complexity that they seemed to be delivering messages to low-flying aircraft. This was Hatsune Miku's first-ever concert in Canada. How did these Miku zealots know what to do?

Each stop on the Miku Expo tour, I gathered, is the brow-dampening effort of 20 union-bypassing Japanese workmen and a pair of ambiguously ethical 13-hour marathon workdays. Certainly the labour is evident: Twin LED candy canes and a battery of phosphorescent gumdrops flank the cable-strewn stage, as above looms what is quite unmistakably a tumescent light-up phallus, glittering with sublimated delight. And in the center of it all is the milky plastic panel upon which Miku will be projected—a sort of oversize flat-screen television which, by way of some proprietary gimmick, makes everyone's favorite animated pop star stand out in 3D. "It's actually not that complicated," Kanae explained earlier. "But the fans are part of the production—it looks believable because they want to believe."

A reasonable explanation, I thought at the time. But in fact when Miku took the stage, so to speak, materializing in a spasm of brilliant pixels, the effect was genuinely astonishing. Hatsune Miku does look rather like a real person—or in any event a tangible and corporeal one. Lithely juddering through a compendium of her best-known J-pop numbers, including the quasi-breakthrough "World is Mine" and dozens of what to me were virtually identical songs, Miku seemed endowed with more or less the same qualities enjoyed by flesh-and-blood performers. From the distance of twenty or thirty rows, and amid the pleasant muddle of collective enthusiasm, one singing and dancing likeness seemed as good as any other.

Of course nobody present honestly believed they were seeing a real person. But then does anybody honestly believe that, say, Taylor Swift is a real person either? One can hardly get philosophical about the Miku Expo without sounding like an armchair Don DeLillo. Celebrity is itself a kind of non-reality, at concerts we're invariably in the presence of fame alone rather than another human, we prefer artifice to the truth on stage, etc. Best not to pursue the "does any pop star truly exist to us as anything more than virtual?" line too far.

As we exited the theatre early, scarcely an hour into a two-hour epic, I was relieved to find my mind fixated less on techno-spiritual anxieties or thoughts of the uncanny than on the exuberance and earnestness of the room we were leaving. People love Hatsune Miku. Their affection exists even if the pop star doesn't.

Calum Marsh is on Twitter.