Huddled around a table on the back patio of Porter's Pub on the UCSD campus, Tara Knight, Thomas Conner, Albert Deng and Alex Yoshiba are analyzing and debating their common bond—Hatsune Miku, a 16-year-old Japanese pop star who sports long, aquamarine-colored pigtails.
"Let's talk about her David Letterman appearance," says Knight, the organizer of the night's so-called "Vocaroom San Diego" meet-up.
"It was an opportunity blown," Conner answers without hesitation.
Everyone quickly agrees, and the group eventually decides that the biggest problem with Miku's appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman last October was that she wasn't really talked about or explained, and she wasn't given the opportunity to sit down for a quick Q&A with Letterman.
Instead, Miku appeared as a hologram on a screen. She performed a barely understandable English song (she's best known for her songs in Japanese) with a live band behind her and then waved goodbye to Letterman before disintegrating. For the uninitiated, the whole thing seemed awkward and bizarre: Why was some Japanese, anime-style character with a synthesized voice performing on a primetime television show in the United States? Without any context, it didn't make any sense.
Knight, a filmmaker and associate professor of digital media at UCSD, reminds the group that there's no easy solution to the Letterman problem. Miku, a so-called "vocaloid"—a character that personifies vocal-singing synthesizer software—isn't just a representation of one person or even the company, Crypton Future Media, that created her. She's a product of the many people—artists, musicians and other creative fans—who've given her a persona by writing songs and stories, making videos and drawings and otherwise transforming her into a virtual pop-star when she's projected as a 3D hologram on stage at live concerts or appears on shows like Letterman.
"Everyone kept saying Letterman should've interviewed Miku, but who would have answered for her?" Knight asks the group. "Who would have written those answers? And if they were to have a non-holographic guest on the show, who would that one person have been?"
Miku made her debut in 2007 as nothing more than one image attached to software that allows musicians to put a human-like voice to their songs and melodies. Crypton provided only a few details about her—age, weight, height and vocal ranges—and fans have since filled in the rest by creating Miku's backstory through the videos, songs and stories they upload to sites like YouTube and Japan's Nico Nico Douga.
"With Miku, potentially anybody is actually making her at any given time," Knight says, pointing to each member in the group. "You've made Miku. You've made Miku. I've made Miku... That's what makes her different than other things."
Conner points to Yoshiba's backpack, which has an image of Miku emblazoned on it.
"That's a depiction of a young girl," he says. "But that's a representation of..."
"A million people's stuff!" Knight interjects.
The participatory culture behind Miku is what first attracted Knight to the topic. A few years ago, she got to work on Mikumentary, a series of short web videos detailing the fascinating, fan-powered phenomenon, but she quickly realized that the most appealing quality of Miku—the many creators behind her—would also present her biggest challenge.
"How the fuck do you show something that's made by hundreds of thousands of different people online?" Knight asks. "So, I made the decision years ago when I started this project that I wasn't going to have any talking-head interviews and I wasn't going to show any one person in the Hatsune Miku community. I was going to show things they make, things that happen, events and whatnot, but no one talking head saying, 'Here I am as expert,' because it's a way of reducing down what it means."
The difficulty in explaining Miku to someone who's never heard of her is why Knight has purposely delayed making an intro episode for her Mikumentary series. Knight has six episodes that are roughly three to five minutes long finished and published online at taraknight.net. She's working on the last two episodes, and then she'll end by circling back to the intro; after years of research and countless interviews with fans, she finally thinks she has the Miku explanation down to just one simple sentence.
"Miku is what people make," she says.
Knight's Mikumentary videos are somewhat esoteric and probably best understood and appreciated by hardcore Miku fans, but even those who've never heard of the virtual pop icon can appreciate the films' artistry. Knight combines digital imagery with live-action shots, and all the voices featured in the episodes are woven together as one narrative that never makes a distinction between who's talking and why.
"The idea was to have the CEO of Crypton speaking right next to the scholar who's speaking next to a teenage fan," Knight explains. "I know it frustrates a lot of viewers because they want to know who's talking, but, for me, it's important that Miku is not represented by any one person."
Knight has covered the community and culture behind Miku in her existing episodes, showing, among other things, glimpses of the live concerts, conventions and big Vocaroom events in Japan. In the next two installments, she'll be detailing ideas and philosophies inspired by Miku and also looking into the complicated Crypton business model and copyright issues surrounding the rapid-fire spread of Miku-related works.
Her series has been devoured by Miku's international fans; she proudly cites the many languages in which the videos have been bootlegged. The work has even been elevated to the status of fine art; Mikumentary Episode 3 was installed at the Mori Art Museum in 2013 alongside a Miku hologram and a collection of tablets displaying user-generated Miku content that updated once a minute.
Ultimately, Knight hopes anyone who watches her series will understand how interesting, powerful and possibly world-changing the creative, participatory culture behind Miku really is.
"To see all the different directions people take her," Knight says, "for some people, it's the music; for some, it's the character design. For others, it's the stories they write. It's this mass-collaboration... Miku is challenging the notion of producer and consumer, performer and audience and breaking down these divisions between professional and amateur... It's exciting."