You likely not only heard of Hatsune Miku, but also heard herself, or at least you saw her signature light teal pigtails. She’s the most famous of her kind, the Vocaloids, a family of virtual singers created by a company in Hokkaido, Crypton Future Media. Their songs, dances, clothes, scenes, and any other aspects of their works are written, choreographed, tailored, and designed by many of their fans programming their material on computers.
It began with the original synthesising software by Yamaha in 2004, allowing its users to borrow the digital voices of Vocaloids as accompaniment to their songs. Then, it moved on to musical video games, the first of many other realms the Vocaloids have touched until today. Miku is the icon of that digital chorus, with a following worthy of a religion. Her Facebook page is on its way to attract a million fans while cosplay events have dozens of people dressed up in her various outfits. She even has her own social sharing site, Mikubook, where her admirers by the thousands post their fan art while listening to their favourite songs. In Japan, among aficionados of gaming and electronic music, she can be seen everywhere. She performed her most famous songs on stage in the form of a hologram in many places in the country, then went on a tour around the world. And she didn’t stop there…
Yesterday, I went to Miku’s first opera, The End, which premiered in December 2012. Part of this collaborative audiovisual presentation, the soundtrack was produced and directed by Japanese electronic musician, Keiichiro Shibuya. The music followed the computer imagery conceptualised by graphic artist YKBX, which had characteristics similar to the virtual scenery found in Rez. As for Miku’s wardrobe, the star took off her trademark silver and teal outfit to wear clothing designed by Marc Jacobs and his team at Louis Vuitton.
The opera begins with introductionary music composed of digital clicks and scratches, like listening to a bad modem connection, reminiscent to glitch tracks by Oval. Slowly, the curtains are pulled up to reveal the stage, on which are four semi-transparent surfaces set as walls of a large cube for projectors to shed light on. Another smaller fence in within, surrounding the director and his equipment. The setup looked like we were peering inside a holodeck.
The virtual scene fades in, and Miku wakes up to the voice of a furry bunny standing next to her. The synthesised narratives and their captions take us through the story between songs, with a deep human-like female voice in English, and a chirpy high-pitched robotic one translating in Japanese.
Going outside together to buy a drink at a nearby vending machine, Miku and the rabbit encounter a strange being heading towards them. The humanoid has a strange bait, and looks it is trying hard to match the look of Miku. The hair seems right, but everything else about the creature looks a little bit off.
We do not find out who or what that entity is. Instead, from that moment, the rabbit guides Miku on a journey about a subject she hasn’t thought before. An inevitable point in her life that she didn’t think she will have to deal with, because as she grew older over time, as her friend points out, she became less human.
That moment she has to face is death. She never thought she would die someday, thinking only others around her were meant to pass away.
The story onwards takes us on a flight in and out Miku, exploring questions anyone wonders, and that Miku now has to ask herself: “What is death?,” “What is a human?,” “What is the end?”
Watching the opera was nothing like I have seen from Miku or any other Vocaloid before. Rather than the rhythmic, pop-like, happy-go-lucky material I came to expect from those digital characters, The End felt a lot darker, departing from Miku’s usual display of simple cheerfulness. The visuals, the sounds, and the underlying topics made the half-an-hour performance look like a rare, if not the first, experimental work involving Miku I have ever seen. It was surprising, but it was nice to see the leader of the Vocaloids being capable of expanding her psyche.
If you heard Miku before, but don’t know much about her, or if you liked watching performances by pioneer of electronic arts like Yellow Magic Orchestra and Daft Punk, I definitely recommend spending a bit more to go see the opera. If you love Miku, I still recommend it, but don’t expect her usual light-hearted dances and joyful songs like those she performed during past appearances at Mikupa.
We are never told who was the strange beast we saw at the beginning. On my way out, a reporter of NHK stopped me for a short interview. She asked me who I thought it was, to which I have simply said, “Perhaps it is best we don’t know.”