People swarmed around the star of The End—an opera “free of any human appearances”—ten minutes before she was to appear on stage in the second of three shows in the production’s Tokyo run, a much-hyped set of performances following a string of sold-out dates held on the other side of the country last year. Nobody was in a rush to get to their seats. At least not until they snapped enough photos of the Louis Vuitton-clad figure in the posh theater lobby—a statue of Hatsune Miku, Japan’s most popular virtual entertainer.
For her Tokyo opera debut, Miku performed at Bunkamura Orchard Hall, nestled in a high-end shopping mall in Shibuya. Most of the hall’s productions boast large casts and elaborate sets; for The End, though, the stage contained only three opaque screens and what appeared to be a cube behind them. When the lights dimmed, synthesized strings swelled and, moments later, the sparse setup burst with color. Miku stood in the middle of it all.
Miku began life as a glorified advertising campaign for a singing-synthesizer software called Vocaloid; she rose to prominence online thanks to her adaptability and accessibility. Crypton Future Media, the company that created Miku in 2007, placed her image under Creative Commons’ “Attribution Non-Commercial” license, which allows fans to alter her image and create songs, movies, comic books, and art with it. (The resulting images can’t be used for the artists’ commercial gain.) She’s been portrayed as a cutesy child, a scantly clad adult, a ripped bodybuilder and a goth among hundreds more.
The End, though, is the latest attempt by the people behind Miku to rebrand her as high culture. It’s billed as an opera, its intricate songs—composed by musician Keiichiro Shibuya—standing in stark contrast to the pop, dance, and metal tracks made and uploaded to free video-sharing sites by Miku-loving amateurs. Most tellingly, Louis Vuitton’s artistic director Marc Jacobs designed Miku’s wardrobe; all the dresses are in checkerboard patterns of black and white, green and white, and so on. Crypton wants to reach a new, lucrative audience by turning its digital star into a luxury item and piece of “authentic” art—even at the cost of what made Vocaloid so interesting in the first place.
The Vocaloid technology existed for several years before Miku’s birth, but Crypton only had trouble keeping up with the demand for its “vocals plus android” software after her introduction. [...]