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The Mathematical Movement of Girl Clusters”: How Fandom Manifests Physical Intimacy in the Digital Age

2:00 PM, Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 (15 minutes)
Hatsune Miku’s market-tested long blue pig-tails wrap around her holographic thighs as she drops to her knees in ecstatic song. To a sold-out stadium she chirps prerecorded sonic samples before rising to droning electronic music. In a sudden burst of inhuman movement, Hatsune leaps towards the audience. An adoring fan base tides towards the stage, bringing a bioluminescent sea of glow sticks toward the virtual idol. Their movement is synchronized, almost religious, a careful swaying ritual dance.
Despite her stardom, Hatsune Miku was originally developed as a sound mixing tool. Formed from recordings of Saki Fujita, a voice actress famed for singing in a popular anime, the virtual pop-star operates through a sound bank of sounds which can be mixed to form any Japanese word. Created as an advertisement campaign, a way to package the new technology, Crypton—the company which makes the technology that animates and voices Hatsune Miku— had not foreseen the massive public embrace of their caricature.
Soon, however, people who bought the software adorned Hatsune Miku with traits and an invented narrative to animate her now famous personality. How could a virtual girl, customized by hundreds of disparate fans across Japan, and quickly the world, come to have a singular persona? Easy, fans of Miku drew from an existing culture around adorable young pop stars to script a subjectivity for the drawing. Pulling from tropes in anime and manga, Miku was assimilated into a growing culture that celebrates fantasies of girlhood. Using social media and live-streaming services, many young girls in Japan are using performative techniques modelled in Anime shows to be signed by music producers and develop lucrative careers as entertainers. Not quite musicians, not actresses, and too invested in the affect of cuteness to be professionals, these young girls are called “idols”.
“Otaku” used to be an offensive word in Japan, like geek, but worse, it carried a stern moral condemnation. The term is now synonymous with people who obsessively collect anime and manga. These mostly middle-aged, unmarried, and under or unemployed men identify with the figure of the rebel or the non-conformist. The word has floated around Japan’s mainstream periphery since the seventies, but in the past couple of years the phenomenon has erupted into popular culture.
Tokyo Idols! a 2017 documentary from director Kyoko Miyake explores this growing subculture of extreme fandom in Japan. The film opens by panning over a large crowd of men— middle-aged, many wearing spectacles—dancing in a dark concert hall with bucolic sweeping arms and serene lilting of their necks. An unidentified male voice, presumably one of the picture fans, stumbles to characterize the experience for the film viewer. “I wanted someone to talk to...” his voice waivers with emotion. The film then cuts to the object of the men’s: a group of girls, some of them looking no older than thirteen, are dancing in unison wearing matching cerulean school uniforms. “This isn’t a fad. It’s a religion.
The film then cuts to men on their knees bowing in unison and prostrating themselves. An explanatory line of text hovers over the image, in the film’s signature pink and yellow, “The Brother (Rio’s Fans).” Then we see the group of men, different ages and some in business suits, embracing each other in a huddle. Another textual explanation, “Pre-Show Rehearsal. In the next scene the viewer is introduced to an idol super-fan, a man named Koji. He used to have a full- time engineering job and graduated from a prominent 4 year university but he left that life, and ambitions to get married to an old girlfriend, behind to become a dedicated fan. In particular, he leads a fan group which supports 19-year-old idol Rio Hiiragi.
The otaku who worship Idols pick particular girls to stake their investment in. As a group, fans give themselves a name, design unique cheers and choreograph dances to accompany performances. Fan groups also compete with each other online, mocking poorly organized collectives or calling out uninventive cheers. In Male Subjectivity on the Margins, Kaja Silverman writes that fantasy “is less about the visualization and imaginary appropriation of the other than about the articulation of a subjective locus—that is ‘not an object that the subject imagines and aims at but rather a sequence in which the subject has his own part to play.’’’ (Silverman, 109). This seems clear in the self-abasement paramount to otaku fandom. They meld
into an indistinguishable crowd, orientating their bodies and voices in celebration of the fantastical idol.
Inherent in Idol culture and mannerisms, is the rehashing of content. Music producers often urge their idol groups to sing as if they were anime characters and to be as hyperbolic and exaggerated as a cartoon. The slipping between manga, online comics, tv shows (primarily watched online), video games and Idol culture is explicit. The most popular Idol group in Japan, AKB48, has a dedicated anime show which features drawn versions of the favorite stars and a video game that uses allows players to attempt to seduce and date characters based off the group members. The Idol aesthetic derived from anime and manga, but it is also reproduced as new, rehashed content in those form. An ongoing, and profitable, cycle of consumable mediums. Motohiro onishi, a Japanese sociologist, presciently summarizes: “the virtual was not enough. We wanted virtual plus reality.”
Hito Steyerl coined the term “poor image” to talk about pirate circulation, compressing and reformatting which spin photos through networks. Here I am curious about the ‘rich” digital image. The heavily mediated image which becomes increasingly specific and demanding through adaptions. A digital narrative which makes demands on reality through qualifications of perfection. Endemic to the rich image, in opposition to the poor image, is the rhetoric of preciousness.
Idols are strictly forbidden from having relationships and are expected to be virginal, many fans explicitly articulate their admiration for Idol’s purity. This preciousness, their rich image, is not just aesthetic. Being a fan of an Idol, coming into physical contact with the rich digital image is expensive. In a prolonged recession the idol industry is booming, now estimated to be worth 1 billion per year. Some men spend all their money on idols, it is their primary form of capital engagement.
In How to Conceive of a Girl, theorist Luce Irigaray writes that “Theoretically there would be no such thing as woman. She would not exist. The best that can be said is that she does not exist yet. Something of her a-specificity might be found in the betweens that occur in being, or beings." (166). By embodying the persona of a girl, in all their purity and sweetness, and inviting identification from fans, Idols allow audience members to escape the confines of their status and enter a liminal state.

Brown University
MFA student

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