Anyone hanging around the AniSphere recently has probably noticed an uptick in discussions about Virtual YouTubers, AKA v-tubers, and their unavoidable presence on social media platforms. While v-tubers initially became popular in recent years due to the introduction and popularity of the Kizuna A.I. Channel, the COVID-19 pandemic has vastly increased their presence as a topic of discussion, as well as a form of entertainment. Widely known groups such as Hololive and Nijisanji have continued popularizing the idea in Japan and overseas more and more every day, which has resulted in a cultural explosion across many regions of the world.
The idea of v-tubers has mostly been popularized by Hololive’s EN branch but has been popular since the introduction of v-tubers familiar with the English language. Because of these v-tuber talents primarily living in Japan and being backed by Japanese-based agencies, there have been various ways that the companies have decided to market them to different demographics across the globe. Each agency also handles its talents and branches differently by giving their management and talents varying levels of control, but also by having them under policies and conditions, as most businesses do. Of course, there also are a fair share of independent v-tubers that have borrowed ideas from these agencies and use them to create their own platforms, as well. There’s a whole spectrum of things to consider when it comes to being a virtual YouTuber talent in 2021.
There’s a lot to be said about these different methods that the talents use, too. As with most new trends, the communities and ideas surrounding those trends are constantly trying to find a happy medium, something which is comfortable for both the talents themselves and their audience. This is how the successful ones become even more successful. Much of this comes from what activities these talents have decided to, or have agreed to, partake in depending on their own corporate contract. Sometimes this can involve a variety of activities including art, games, music, chatting, etc.
This amount of variety has been pretty universal among almost all v-tubers, whether signed with a company or not. The v-tuber streaming model is not much different from standard live streamers or entertainers such as idols, but it does come with a new list of pros and cons due to the type of entertainment medium that it is. One thing that hasn’t changed though, despite the difference in the mediums, is the idea of how the community views these entertainers. Yes, I’m referring to the concept of idol fans and idol culture.
To understand how v-tubers play into those ideas of idols and idol culture, it’s perhaps clearer to see how all of this plays into the larger picture at hand by delving deeper into what made up those parts of the culture before. By doing so, it’s easier to see exactly how v-tubers can be a part of idol subculture, but how they can also alter some of the modern conventions that define that subculture as well.
If any of that seems unclear or if you’re still puzzled about what v-tubers are or how they’re a popular trend nowadays, I recommend giving Mythos’ article about v-tuber harassment a read, as it’s a much more beginner-friendly approach to v-tubers than this article will be. It makes plenty of good points about the medium’s evolution, and also feeds into some of the finer topics of this one, such as the ins-and-outs of Hololive.
Speaking of Hololive, there’s plenty of unique qualities to discuss in relation to them being an idol subculture. However, there are many nuances to their group that aren’t necessarily easy to understand, especially for newcomers. Most people use the term Hololive to describe the female talent branch, although there are other parts that may be considered “Hololive” to the fanbase as well, such as Holostars (the male talents) and INNK Music (the music label branch). These are all considered under the company name Hololive Production and are a subset of their parent company Cover Corporation. Yeah, it’s confusing.
It’s important to establish all of this though, simply because of how nuanced this discussion can be. While I’ll mostly be talking about the female talent branch, there are plenty of ideas that could be applied to any of the branches within Hololive Production in regards to idol subcultures.
You may be wondering why I’m associating Hololive Production with the concept of idols at all. With Hololive Production being referred to consistently as an “entertainment company” and the parent company mostly being a technology development one, how do these play into the role of idol subcultures at all?
While there are plenty of details about the talents that we don’t know regarding their contracts and many irregularities with Hololive Production policies in general, we do know that there are likely some rules in place to give them the same type of aura as idols, even though they technically are only labeled as entertainers on the surface. Not to mention Hololive Production itself puts a lot of focus on the music-based side of things, mostly song permissions for the talents themselves along with concerts resembling ones that non-virtual idols have as well. They’re basically idols in every way except in name, which — if that’s what they were going for — is honestly a pretty good idea considering some of the negative stigmas that the word “idol” tends to draw.
However, this is a small problem with this method of doing so, mostly because of the community surrounding Hololive Production as a whole. Since they’re practically idols at this point as well as entertainers, and idols in Japan generally also do activities that would be listed as entertainment, it’s easier to just refer to the talents on the whole as “idols” as well. This, unfortunately, basically negates the above effect and, while likely boosting the popularity of the name “Hololive”, it also has the potential for negative results, the same as any other idol agency would have.
That’s not to say this is the only factor though, as marketing your “not-idol” entertainment group as such has to be consistent across the board, which is hard to do when you publicly compare your talents to an idol group in the first place. Yes, I am referring to the all-famous quote by Motoaki “Yagoo” Tanigo, Hololive Production’s CEO.
There’s plenty of interesting things to gauge from this clip of an interview, but the most notable is the comparison of Hololive’s female talent branch to a group such as AKB48, an idol group that was popularized almost solely because of the idol-like nature of its talents. Sure, there are plenty of similarities between the two groups, especially when comparing the logistics of both. Both are part of the entertainment industry, both are an idea by an individual from the ground-up, and both have a recruiting process for upcoming talents trying to break into the entertainment industry. However, the problem wasn’t the comparison itself being inaccurate; the community’s interpretation of the analogy was.
While I’m not an expert in translating any kind of text from Japanese to English, I find it kind of odd that all sources and interviews I’ve read point to Hololive Production being an “entertainment group” and not an “idol group”, unlike what was translated into that clip. That clip, of course, was a fan translation and not one by a paid translator, unlike the other sources I’ve seen. Even some comments on the /r/Hololive subreddit have pointed out these same inconsistencies, with similar comments as mine. It might seem like a nitpick, but the pieces begin to fit if you think about this fan-translated “inconsistency” and the almost spot-on AKB48 “comparison” together.
In case it wasn’t clear already by the emphasis on this singular line in an interview, many Hololive Production fans have taken this clip into consideration as one of the staples of lore that have built the fanbase of this v-tuber agency from the ground up. It’s become something of memetic proportions, where any time you mention “Yagoo” or any lack of “idol-like” behavior by the talents, this singular line instance becomes further and further internalized into the fanbase by stating how far the talents have strayed from their initial intention. With the rapid rate of growth among v-tuber fanbases as well, it’s no surprise that this simple phrase hasn’t become phased out entirely due to sheer overuse either.
However, this one line, despite having most of what was said regarding AKB48 is rooted in fact, and with Hololive Production having qualities that would be similar to an idol group, has a lot of misconceptions in it. Not because of the contents of the statement itself, but the implications of this statement that the community has taken from it; something that may be familiar to those who have regularly engaged with idol subculture communities.
This is where the problems begin regarding how people view Hololive as a part of an idol subculture. It’s one thing for Hololive Production to portray their talents in that light if that’s their intent, but it’s another completely different one when the community begins to place their own expectations of that on the talents themselves. Considering the fact that idol subculture fanbases can have some of the most unreasonable expectations for the talents they praise, it’s no question that problems wouldn’t arise in some way from the community viewing Hololive Production and adjacent v-tuber communities as well.
For those that may be unfamiliar with what these community problems may be with labeling a medium as an idol subculture, it boils down to how those communities tend to be obsessive and highly attached to that subculture. While this can be both negative and positive, the negatives tend to be more publicized and remembered by outside communities, as they usually result in extreme actions on the fans’ parts, and typically the results are usually not pretty, whether its about v-tubers or real-life idol entertainers.
Whether Hololive Production intends for its talents to be a part of this idol subculture or not, the community should not be trying to place those sorts of ideals onto the talents of this group, considering we don’t know the full circumstances of the talents nor the company’s end goals, which the talents themselves likely have a better idea of than us.
To add to this, there are plenty of other communities of v-tuber fans that have tended to get the wrong idea about Hololive Production, solely because of the way the community has been built around these talents and have closely associated with the negatives of idol subcultures before them. This has created a type of ripple effect where new people could not want to participate in the fan communities or engage in the talents’ media themselves, solely because of this built-up perception from the community. Remember, Hololive Production is an entertainment company that exhibits some idol subculture properties and doesn’t actively promote its name as an idol group in any way.
That’s not to say that just having some of the properties of an idol subculture exempts them from any burden or blame surrounding the way Hololive Production tends to portray their talents. There have been plenty of incidents that Mythos talks about in his article, for instance, that have also fed into this idea that Hololive Production is not much different than idol groups in terms of its level of competency as a company. However, just because Hololive Production has some qualities of an idol agency, it doesn’t make it one in full.
If you’ve ever seen some of the Hololive Production talents’ content or clips of them on YouTube, you likely already know exactly what I’m talking about.
Personally, I can’t think of any idol agencies in recent times that would let their members get away with most of the stuff that Hololive Production lets their talents get away with, or at least not without losing their entire fanbases. I’d even go as far as to say that Hololive has some of the more outlandish content within the v-tuber communities across the board, even regularly fighting YouTube’s content restrictions to be able to fully express their creativity and feelings. Given that this would break the image that those idol agencies have built up in their communities, this is something that normal idol agencies would simply be restricted from doing.
I mean, really, how many idol agencies do you know that can promote lewd images of themselves, have an identity crisis with an alter-ego version of themselves, yelling strings of profanities and threats at a video game, or just simply talking about their worries and feelings openly to their fanbase? I highly doubt there are many, or even a single one, that allows their talents to do this.
This is why I think that when the community projects these standard idol subculture ideals onto Hololive itself, it begins to damage what has made them enjoyable and successful thus far. Expecting these talents to be constantly just pure and innocent like other popular idol agencies not only ruins what would be created by the talents but also ruins the community already established around them as well. It’s no surprise that some animosity among viewers is expressed when others expect the talents to act in this manner.
What’s even more telling, though, is that there have been actual idol agencies throughout the years that have also broken down those idol cultural standards. One of these agencies is, ironically, the same group that was referenced by Motoaki “Yagoo” Tanigo himself: AKB48. Sure, they are more of a standard idol group than not in terms of their ideals and entertainment media output, but the group had lots of unique ideas and broke some new ground into the medium of idols that surrounded it at the time, mostly in terms of their relatability by the audience and their unique ways of interacting with the fanbase. While the community can joke about the absurd differences between these two groups, they actually may be more similar than they think, at least in terms of format rather than actual ideals.
Many new community members that consume Hololive Production content may also not realize that Hololive has already changed a lot since its inception, perhaps even after the time of the famous initial interview with Motoaki Tanigo about the nature of his new talent group. Even some of the talents have had conflicting views as to what they thought Hololive was before they joined. This is likely just because of how much growth Hololive Production has received over the past year or so, but Cover Corporation has also likely learned a lot from its mistakes during that time and has likely changed its ideals on their business model as well. Letting Hololive Production be this blend of letting talents have their freedom, mixed with having some of the entertainment aspects that idol agencies have such as live concerts, events, etc., has likely been successful for them, based on the popularity of their subsidiary entertainment companies.
But even if you examine other entertainment groups and talents within the v-tuber industry, such as Nijisanji and smaller independent groups, there really aren’t that many differences content-wise between the two. Hololive Production may be a subsidiary company instead of a collection of independent talents, but the content between the two is arguably similar, albeit with some varying restrictions under Hololive that aren’t existent among the other companies (that we know of). This simply may just be due to a lack of community knowledge or different company ideals though, something which has been public knowledge about Hololive for a while. This is all mostly just speculation based on the talents involved within these groups, though, as there isn’t any way for us as a community to know what the ins-and-outs of each group really are as outsiders.
At the end of the day, how each v-tuber group portrays their talent and entertainment activities is honestly going to be different from each talent and group based on what they’re comfortable with their content being. Whether their content comes off as idol-like or not is solely up to them and will obviously vary based on the community’s expectations of what that means, as well. The community projecting their own definitions of what that means on others can simply give any outsider the wrong impression and can cause the talents themselves to begin to worry about meeting the expectations of their own fanbase. It’s easy to forget, especially in the realm of v-tubers, that the talents themselves are real people behind the avatar and should be treated as such, even if their behavior can make that easy to forget at times.
Idols and idol culture itself has evolved way beyond the status of the way things were in the early 90s, and can have a lot of varied meanings depending on the usage of the term and what it’s applied to. Perhaps because of a change in society over the years, or maybe simply because of the change of certain behaviors during the global pandemic, parasocial relationships between fans and the members of these groups have changed for the better, at least on the whole.
As for the communities surrounding these idol cultures and subcultures, and specifically, the ones surrounding Hololive Production itself, I think certain parts of these communities should do some introspection to make sure what they’re doing and saying within these communities is not only accurate and perceived correctly by surrounding fans, but also not harmful to the talents themselves. It can also be easy to forget that these v-tuber talents are fans of otaku, anime, and internet culture as well, just like we are.
From the outsider perspective, it’s probably really easy to observe idol subcultures in general and automatically label them all in a problematic way, considering some of the awful incidents that almost any media adjacent to those communities have had their fair share of. This is something that’s more prevalent in older fans, as well, since we’re more likely to be nostalgic (and perhaps more jaded) towards these types of media, especially when we’ve seen plenty of positive idol subculture media that have had their communities influenced by problematic people within the community. Things do change over time, however, and it’s important that we keep an open-minded approach to newer approaches to the subcultures in question, especially if they’re trying new things.
As a final point, I think it’s important to share a video from one of the Hololive Productions’ talents, Momosuzu Nene. It reinforces plenty of points that I shared in this article and was the basis for many of the thoughts behind this article as well. I encourage giving it a watch if you’re interested in the points that I’ve made here, as well.
Idol subculture ideals have expanded way beyond what I initially thought encompassed those ideals, and it’s likely going to continue to change moving forward as new concepts and entertainment media are introduced. Similar to how v-tubers have created a change in that direction, I think that many of the negatives of idol subcultures will eventually break down in a similar way, as long as members of those communities are open to change and keep in check other members that are acting way beyond the acceptable limits in terms of healthy behavior.
While that’s a big challenge to undergo to large communities such as the one that Hololive Production has, hopefully, the idea can spread and can keep the medium a positive example within its own community and to others as well, as well as keeping the overtly negative events and members to a minimum. While Hololive Production isn’t an exemplary example of a well-behaved idol subculture by any means, I think it’s a step in the right direction as to how the community can control the perception of a medium at large and can make positive changes in a progressive direction without resorting back to the ideals that once were controversial within the entertainment industry.
Does this mean that v-tuber subcultures are the ideal medium for this to happen in? No, of course not. But we as a part of this community can try to make it that way, and that’s all we can do as members of the community itself.
We can always strive for better.