As someone who writes a lot of long-form pieces — and someone who is an old fart — I’ve never quite latched on to the appeal of “YouTubers”.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the value of having the opportunity to “get to know” someone via the videos they put out or, in the case of gaming-centric YouTube channels, to see how games look, play and “feel” before purchasing them, I’ve just always been someone who preferred to enjoy content about the things I’m interested through the written word rather than watching or listening to someone.
I say all this to give some context to the following: there’s one YouTuber in particular I have, to my surprise, come to enjoy very much recently. And there’s something rather special about her.
That YouTuber is Kizuna Ai.
Kizuna Ai first appeared on YouTube on November 29, 2016 with a video announcing that she was creating a Twitter account. This was her first video, numbered “#01”, but was followed up on December 1, 2016 with a video numbered “#00” in which she actually introduced herself.
Explaining herself as not being “a normal YouTuber” on account of the fact that she was “actually 2-D” and “virtual”, she claimed to be “very interested” in her viewership due to how different she was from everyone. She also said that she wanted to connect with everyone through her YouTube channel, livestreams and virtual reality to help everyone enjoy their time with her. She then also admitted that she wanted to become famous and be in a commercial before hastily adding that this would help her connect with more people.
Ai-chan exploded onto the scene full of energy, speaking rapidly, her videos edited in jump-cuts just like “real” YouTubers. But, as she says herself, she’s not “real”; she’s “virtual”. And one of the most interesting things about her is that even at the time of writing, some five months after her first appearance on the Internet, no-one quite knows why she exists or where she came from in the first place — all we have to go on are the credits for her Miku Miku Dance model file, which reference a “Project A.I.” responsible for overall planning and production, character designer Morikura Yen, modeler Tomitake and modelling production supervisor Tda.
Ultimately the reason for Ai-chan’s existence isn’t really all that important, much as most “real” YouTubers don’t really have a reason to exist other than a desire to be seen and heard — sometimes coupled with a degree of egocentricism, narcissism or a simple belief that they are somehow “important” — and/or a desire to entertain people.
And Ai-chan is certainly entertaining, partly because she’s a perfect parody of the typical YouTuber, and partly because she’s enjoyable and fun to watch in her own right.
That parody aspect is important to her overall appeal. Although clearly designed to be as visually striking, cute and fanart-baiting as possible with her distinctive outfit, cheerful face and jiggling heart-shaped hair ornament, Ai-chan demonstrates herself over the course of her videos to be a little bit arrogant, a little bit overconfident and very much in love with the sound of her own voice. None of these are particularly rare characteristics in popular YouTubers on the Internet — some might say that they are essential traits for one who wishes to make a living producing videos for the entertainment of others on the Internet!
Ai-chan’s videos work well as parody because they demonstrate a clear awareness of these traits by frequently subverting them and undermining Ai-chan’s perception of her own “authority”. She frequently states to the viewer that she is a “genius AI”, then demonstrates herself to be completely lacking in common sense or seriously deficient in certain areas (speaking English is one that comes up quite often). She also regularly claims that, as a virtual being, physical exertion doesn’t tire her out at all, before inevitably being reduced to a wheezing wreck by the end of any activity that requires her to do more than talk to the camera. And she thinks she’s a lot better at video games than she actually is.
She’s even undermined by her own technology sometimes; she clips through herself when clapping, she walks through objects, she floats when doing anything on the floor, and she has to purchase “friends” from the Unity asset store. Ultimately settling on a cheap bundle pack of character models representing a family — models that don’t match her art style in the slightest — she then falls at the next hurdle by having no idea how to animate them to bring them to “life”.
Ai-chan’s constant failure to live up to the expectations she sets for both herself and her audience is what makes her entertaining to watch. She never lets her failures get her down; she always confronts “adversity” — a relative term, since, as a virtual YouTuber who exists primarily in an empty white room, she doesn’t come across a lot of genuine adversity — with a smile and an earnest desire to do better next time; she never lets herself get sad or too serious.
In many ways, she’s the perfect YouTuber as well as the perfect parody of a YouTuber. It’s hard to imagine Ai-chan being at the centre of a high-profile controversy such as those that happened with popular YouTubers PewDiePie and Jontron earlier this year — partly because, despite her numerous character flaws (which she makes no attempt to hide) she still comes across as an overwhelmingly nice person, albeit a virtual one; and also partly because, as a very Japanese character, she’s likely perceived as “niche interest” by the mass media and thus isn’t subject to the same kind of scrutiny.
This means that even were she to say something controversial or provocative — not out of the question, since she occasionally delivers some absolute zingers and demonstrates a particularly acidic wit — it’s unlikely that any sort of sustained media campaign to highlight her flaws or brand her as somehow “harmful” would have the same impact. She’s far from being a household name on the same level as PewDiePie in particular, after all, and thus a Polygon headline informing its audience that she said something that might be construed as a bit racist if you hit your head and squint a bit would likely result in a fair proportion of that readership just going “…who?”
Also, well… she’s not, y’know, real.
All that aside, another particularly interesting thing about Ai-chan when watching her videos from a Western perspective is that she’s a fascinating window into Japanese culture. When she’s not doing Let’s Plays of unusual video games and virtual reality experiences, she often talks about things like Japanese new year festivities and how to participate in acts of worship online, ways that high-schoolers interact with one another, and popular cultural phenomena such as the messaging app Line.
Sometimes her particularly Japanese episodes can be a little hard to follow as a Westerner — especially when the poor folks responsible for writing her generally excellent closed captions get a bit confused or have no idea what she’s saying, bless them — but, on the whole, her output remains a fascinating insight into both Japanese culture in general, and Japanese popular culture’s approach to YouTube and social media. Yet another way in which technology can help us to understand one another.
On the whole, Kizuna Ai is a fascinating phenomenon that, at the time of writing, appears to show no sign of slowing down. And with good reason; although she’s “just” a virtual character, she’s fun to have around. She’s cheerful, energetic and endearingly flawed; she’s also cute, sexy and just plain well-designed.
And she’s made an old fart like me log on to YouTube for more than just watching old episodes of British police chase shows. Which is, so far as I’m concerned, a pretty significant achievement in itself!
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