TOKYO: Mayu Iizuka ditches her soft-spoken persona and begins cackling, screaming and flailing wildly in a makeshift studio in Tokyo as her avatar appears on a livestream in front of hundreds of fans.
Virtual YouTubers like Iizuka, who voices and hosts a character called Yume Kotobuki, have turned a niche Japanese subculture into a thriving industry where top accounts can rake in over $1 million a year.
The videos are designed to make fans feel like they’re interacting directly with their favorite anime idols – with viewers sometimes paying hundreds of dollars for a single comment to be highlighted on a live stream.
“When I play video games on my channel and achieve something, my fans give me praise and tips “to show their support and appreciation,” Iizuka told AFP.
The 26-year-old uses a laptop, webcam and motion sensor worn around her neck to appear onscreen as Yume, whose facial expressions are monitored by a producer.
With her squeaky voice, short skirt, and big purple eyes, Iizuka’s avatar follows a popular model for “VTuber” characters, who often resemble the hyper-feminine heroines of Japanese anime.
Since its emergence around five years ago, the world of VTuber has grown rapidly, with around 16,000 active streamers worldwide, according to data firm User Local, and growing fanbases on other platforms like TikTok and the gaming site Twitch.
Regional governments in Japan have used them for promotion, and The Batman stars Robert Pattinson and Zoe Kravitz even gave a recent interview to a prominent Japanese VTuber.
VTubers generate money similarly to traditional live streamers, including through YouTube’s “Super Chat” system, where the more a fan pays out, the more attention their comments get.
In fact, the nine highest-earning YouTube accounts in the world for Super Chat last year were all VTubers.
All nine are affiliated with a Tokyo-based talent agency and each earned between $700,000 and $1.7 million from cash giveaways, according to data analytics site Playboard.
Most fans only spend a few hundred yen (US$1) per comment, but the most dedicated ones sometimes spend 50,000 yen (US$400) to post impassioned missives to their virtual idols.
Kazuma Murakami, a 30-year-old auto parts inspector, is known for spending 10,000 yen to have his comments highlighted in red and seen by his favorite VTuber.
“I really want her to notice that I’m here again, visiting her channel,” Murakami told AFP.
Another VTuber fan, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Kazumi, adorned his small one-room apartment near Tokyo with posters, framed photos and keychains featuring his favorite character, Mio Ookami. .
The 30-year-old computer engineer spends time after work and on weekends delving into Mio’s videos and creating digital illustrations of the dark-haired “wolf girl.”
“I spend five, or maybe 10 hours just thinking about her,” he said.
“She’s like family to me.”
This devotion and fans’ willingness to pay big bucks is tied to how other fan subcultures operate in Japan, said Noriyuki Nagamatsu, digital business specialist at advertising firm DA Consortium.
“Super Chat is basically an extension of a long-standing culture where idol and anime fans try to support their ‘oshi’, or favorite, by splurging on their merchandise,” he said. at AFP.
“It’s also a way to get their beloved’s attention and feel superior to other fans.”
THE HUMAN SOUL”
VTubers generally keep the person behind the character – often referred to as their “soul” – irrelevant, and like many fans, Kazumi says her love is directed towards Mio the avatar, not whoever plays her.
But the line between virtual and real can become blurred.
A Japanese court recently ruled in favor of a VTuber actor who argued that online slander against her character amounted to an attack on her.
Virtual YouTubers can “transcend gender, age, or physique…but what’s important is that there’s a real person talking and reading the comments in real life,” Kazuhito said. Ozawa, plaintiff’s attorney.
For Iizuka, a professional voice actress, making the rare decision to reveal her identity after four years of making videos as Yume was nerve-wracking.
“Part of me was worried that fans of Yume, who has those big, shiny eyes and a perfect belly, would be disappointed to find out what the ‘real’ person is like inside,” she said.
But “so far the fan response has been very kind.”
And the more outspoken and lively personality of Yume’s virtual self is even gradually rubbing off on Iizuka, she said.
“I used to shy away from speaking in public, but Yume is such an experienced live streamer that my identity as her has helped me speak with more confidence.”