“People of My Generation Don't Like Humans”: Virtual Bloggers Conquer Japan

Digital avatars are popular with subscribers and make millions

Kizuna AI.
a.i.channel_official via Instagram

Kizuna AI is a fully animated character created in 2016 that became the first virtual youtuber who is not an avatar of a real person. AI participates in TV shows and, unlike hosts who get older, has no problem with changes in appearance. She represents the archetype of a character from manga: long hair, a short skirt, a school bow, and a pink bunny headband. Her gestures, facial expressions, and energy are extraterrestrial, but she talks and jokes with the hosts of the morning shows in such a way that she gives the impression of the most charismatic character on the screen.

She was made to be this way. Her full name consists of the Japanese word for "love" combined with the abbreviation "artificial intelligence," which translates to "bonds of love." The character is voiced by an actor, but the movements and reactions are generated by the computer, and the comments are written in real time. She has performed two live shows on YouTube, TikTok, China's Bilibili, and the VR platform Oculus Venues. In celebration of her birthday, Kizuna AI performed for the first time at Zepp Haneda Music Hall in Tokyo. Front row tickets costed $150 each.

The pandemic has impacted the entertainment industry and increased the appeal of digital characters. A spokeswoman for an anime company based in Tokyo, a subsidiary of the Japanese publication Kadokawa Corporation, commented on the popularity of virtual YouTubers: “People of my generation don’t like humans so much nowadays." Most of the characters correspond to the Japanese “idol” culture, in which girls are encouraged to meet the given ideal of “purity,” with positive character traits and respect for elders. For agencies, such animated characters solve the problems of mortality and corporate control: avatars are always young and cute.

Kiryu Coco.
Virtual YouTuber Fandom

Anime and manga have generated record profits over the past year and a half. The emergence of a new kind of YouTuber sparked a growing wave of interest in Japanese anime, which was already hugely popular both domestically and internationally. The globalization of virtual characters is on the beaten path: Japan excels in making accessible and interactive cultural products whose massive appeal first spreads among fans and then far beyond fandoms. Famous Japanese characters with simple 2D designs (such as Hello Kitty and Pikachu) have no race, gender, or nationality, making them even more valuable in the fragmented and controversial online world.

Some characters face political challenges. At the end of 2020, the release of two avatars, Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato, was suspended after one of them featured  the Taiwan flag, prompting protests from Chinese nationalists. The scandal forced Chinese gaming companies, the main source of advertising revenue for Japanese agencies, to cut funding.

The potential for additional income, transmedia transformations, and especially merchandising in this segment is huge. With advances in 2D and 3D animation technology, live action settings and CGIs, popular virtual YouTubers can appear almost anywhere—in video games, movies, comics, and more. Anime characters from popular movies or TV series can host their own channels and talk about their worlds. Avatars can be altered and redrawn according to the circumstances, crossing the boundaries of time and space without the cost of travel and grooming.