Virtual YouTubers ended up being one of 2018’s biggest cultural surprises.

Dozens of animated characters attracted followings on the video-sharing site, led by popular creations such as Kizuna Ai and Kaguya Luna. Some repped for local governments, while others generated real-world controversies.

An interesting trend for sure, but internet waves rarely stick around all that long. However, 2019 has seen virtual YouTubers in Japan make further inroads into pop culture, even if these developments aren’t a brave new frontier for entertainment as much as a return to the norm.

Just look at Ai’s year so far. The world’s most famous virtual YouTuber had already landed TV shows and music collaborations, but in 2019 she has gone even further. She appeared in an ad for cheese snacks and then later promoted Cup Noodle. Ai also embarked on a pop music career starting from late 2018, ratcheting up this past spring with a single featuring production from J-pop staple Yasutaka Nakata.

Elsewhere, Luna starred in a bonkers commercial for soba. An anime from earlier this year features a cast of virtual YouTubers. This month, TV Tokyo debuted a “virtual YouTuber drama” starring three of the avatars living in a house. J-pop idols have ditched music to become virtual YouTubers. Hello Kitty and video game developer Yoko Taro have digitized themselves, even if the latter only lasted for one episode. This should be the type of stuff that gets futurists drooling.

In reality though, this is all too familiar. Virtual YouTubers have just become tarento (talent), the term for a jack-of-all-trades entertainer in Japan. It was written into them from the beginning, seeing as they function as the social-media-age equivalent of a tarento. Despite the digital razzle dazzle, virtual YouTubers took part in the same memes, played video games and sucked up to human YouTube stars.

Now virtual YouTubers are teaming up with brands and producers in much the same way their flesh-and-blood counterparts do. They are even taking part in media goofballery like real J-pop stars. BuzzFeed Japan interviewed Kizuna Ai recently, with the writer getting so involved and going along with the idea they are some sentient being rather than a carefully constructed character.

Maybe other recent events have just made me yearn for a once-bright future that virtual YouTubers have replaced. Last Monday, musician Wowaka died from heart failure at age 31. Among other accomplishments, he was a foundational artist in the Vocaloid community, using singing-synthesizer software represented by Hatsune Miku to create thrilling and intricate pop. He helped craft a place offering an alternative from traditional outlets. He embodied this world well — sure, the “digital pop star” got most of the attention, but she allowed a lot of independent artists to find their voices and create work that reshaped J-pop.

Virtual YouTubers have their charms but also just feel like a more novel take on the talent trying to work with the most famous names and be backed by the biggest brands. Kizuna Ai’s resume looks great, but feels less like an exciting new future and more like the old school.

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