With a final song and dance performed on a virtual stage, complete with the hashtag #GoodbyeCoco, a 3,501-year-old dragon child best known for her crude jokes and meme reviews “graduated” from Hololive.

Twenty years ago, I could have never imagined I’d be writing that paragraph as the opener to a story.

Kiryu Coco is a virtual YouTuber, otherwise known as a VTuber, who is acted by a real person and presented as an animated avatar. She was represented by Hololive, a VTuber talent agency run by Cover Corp., which counts more than 50 other such VTubers in its stable.

Kiryu Coco | PR TIMES
Kiryu Coco | PR TIMES

Plenty of VTubers have graduated, meaning they’re done with this phase in their life but might pop up somewhere else (the term lacks the finality of “retiring” in this context). However, Coco’s departure inspired a much larger emotional response than usual from the internet, and for good reason: Few online personalities — digital, or flesh and blood — have made as much of an impression on viewers as the irreverent Coco, whose success signaled the true potential of the VTuber as both lucrative and culturally influential.

When Coco debuted on Dec. 29, 2019, VTubers were already on the ascent. Digital avatars such as Hatsune Miku and the animated idol groups found in series like “Love Live!” were popular in more traditional media, while vloggers such as Ami Yamato were already experimenting with cartoon avatars reporting from real-world locations (Ami even had a run-in with action star Tom Cruise).

Coco and the VTubers of today, however, present themselves in a more anime style as they dabble in music, gaming and other “influencer activities,” mostly thanks to a template established by Kizuna AI in 2016. Hololive began introducing its roster of VTubers from 2017.

Most of these pioneering VTubers — alongside AI, there was Kaguya Luna and Mirai Akari among others — acted more like traditional J-pop talent, whose goal was to cross over to the Japanese mainstream. Coco helped usher in a shift by putting an emphasis on livestreaming and building her YouTube following. The person behind the character (whose identity remains officially unknown, though there has been plenty of speculation) engaged in activities like commenting on video game playthroughs and creating her own morning show, “Asa Coco” (“Morning Coco”), that came across as a blend of anime, morning drive-time radio and the “Today” show.

Much like a human influencer, Coco’s main draw was personality — a rarity in the Japanese VTuber space. She was irreverent, starting her streams with a hearty, “Good morning, motherf—–s!” and created the popular series “Reddit S—post Reviews,” in which she and guests would offer judgement on memes about Hololive. It helped make her the top Super Chat earner in the world, a title that was won thanks to the numerous comments left in her livestream chat thread that had monetary donations attached to them. According to Playboard, she rounded out her two years of streaming with more than ¥50 million to show for it in June.

The person behind Coco is fluent in English and Japanese, making the VTuber a legitimate source of cultural exchange, too. As Hololive began to reveal global aspirations — it debuted its first set of Chinese and Indonesian VTubers shortly after Coco’s debut, along with more English-speaking ones a few months after that — Coco demonstrated just how far Japanese soft power could go in acting as a bridge to other countries.

“There really should be more recognition for the good work VTubers have done to deepen cultural ties between the United States and Japan in my view,” says American John Baumlin, a 2020 Convention Delegate for Bernie Sanders and VTuber enthusiast. “It’s amazing what the talent behind channels like Kiryu Coco are doing. The Reddit meme review series really shows us what multilingual entertainment can be — both educational and truly emblematic of modern culture.”

Out of all the trends that she encapsulated, however, Coco’s main feat was building a fan base of netizens who genuinely loved her. Look at the shocked reactions on Reddit and YouTube when she suddenly announced her graduation, to get a taste of how deep that connection was. As her graduation crept closer, those supporters shared a sea of tribute videos, fan art and even physical ads in Hong Kong.

Coco’s legacy was on full display during her graduation stream, however. She hung out with over a dozen other VTubers, including many who debuted after her and said they owed their careers to her. This parade of cartoon creators demonstrated just how far this corner of online entertainment has come — a reported 490,000 people tuned in. Thanks to her efforts and the impact she’s had on other creators, who knows what article openers will be written 20 years from now.

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