Virtual Idols and Digital Girls
Issue #35, November 1997
Sexuality is a commodity within any entertainment industry, and marketers and image-makers have taken advantage of this for centuries. The rise in popularity of virtual idols within Japanese popular culture is an indication that sexuality has been packaged to the point that the focus of attraction no longer needs to be a human being, or perhaps it never did. We are capable of creating seductive beings just as we would produce any other cultural product. The heroines of Japanese animation (or anime), the proliferation of kisekae dolls on the internet, and the debut of virtual pop-stars such as Kyoko Date exemplify the spirit of a movement that does not discredit the sensual value of simulated beings. In fact, the distance that these images have from perceived reality is central to creating an atmosphere within which sexuality may be explored.
It has often been observed (either positively or negatively) that the images of female sexuality in the media are highly artificial. Whether it be silicone implants, eyelid surgery or stereotypical portrayals that are being commented upon, the images that we consume in both Western and Asian cultures are highly manipulated. Much social criticism of this scenario stems from the assumption that viewers gain some form of comfort from the fact that what they are looking at is a real person, therefore a deception is at work. However, the increasingly artificial nature of sexual icons within Japanese culture would tend to indicate that there is an astute awareness of the artifice surrounding these images for both producers and consumers. Images are being produced that are overtly artificial. Artifice becomes part of the charm and much of the reason that these images are appealing to their audience. Furthermore, the extreme separation from reality hinders (although doesn't necessarily prevent) any normative social function that these images may have.
I am not attempting to discredit claims that negative or unrealistic portrayals of females in media are damaging to social practices and attitudes. There is much writing on both sides of that issue, and most of it will be able to deal with the subject matter in a more comprehensive manner than I can. That is not the focus of this work. I am instead attempting to explore the appeal that such imagery holds for the audience that is consuming it, and the manner in which this form of imagery functions within a fantasmatic diegetic space. My interest in the removal of image from reality has to do with the psychological impact that it has on the viewer and the viewer's interaction with that image, as opposed to how the consumer's relationships with other (human)beings is affected by that interaction.
Throughout this paper, I will be referring to the consumption and enjoyment of products within a Japanese market, by a Japanese audience. I am not implying by this that there is a marked difference in the appeal that virtual idols would have from the Japanese context to a North American one. Rather, many of these products are only commercially available in Japan. Therefore, that is the only large audience that I have to use as an example at this point. For similar reasons, I will be focusing on a male audience. While readers of manga (Japanese comic books) and viewers of anime are both male and female, virtual idols such as Shiori Fujusaki and Kyoko Date are almost exclusively consumed by males. Since this is the group that actively consumes the product, they will be the primary focus of this paper.
The proliferation of internet sites devoted to anime and manga heroines can give us a fair idea of how many North American and Japanese males find these images attractive. There are innumerable devotional pages and virtual shrines in honour of individual characters, and of course they all sport a few pictures for the viewers to admire. These pictures will often cause the uninitiated to take pause, for the stylized nature of the females is grossly exaggerated in a manner that has only recently been exposed to a widespread North American audience. While the success of the television program Sailor Moon (and its extensive merchandising campaign) has spread the show's images across the continent, the exaggerated forms are often perceived as an anomaly to television animation as opposed to being a good example of a far larger art form anime in general. The heroines in Sailor Moon have quite a bit in common with their anime contemporaries. Characters such as "Mamono Hunter Yohko" share the exaggeration of form that make these images incongruous with human anatomy. The legs account for approximately two thirds of the character's height and the eyes are extremely large. In fact, if we were to imagine the rest of the orb that makes up each eyeball, there is a slim chance that they would fit within the character's skull...never mind leaving room for a brain.
So what is it that makes these images so attractive? They are physically deformed by human biological standards. They are depictions of persons that do not and cannot exist. So why are hundreds of thousands of young males drawn to them? I propose that it is precisely this impossibility that holds the most attraction. These images are free of any material referent. There can be no flaw in a synthetic girl, and there can be no deception from a person who is overtly 100% artificial. There is a definite lineage within popular Japanese cultural products that stems from an understanding that artificiality and physical distortion can itself be sexual. An example of this are the woodblock prints that have been produced in Japan since the Edo period (17th century) that employ highly stylized and exaggerated human forms in the name of sexuality.
Before expanding on the qualities of sexuality in the virtual body, it will be useful to look at the psychology involved in an interaction between a living person and the representation of a sexual being. In 1979, Jean Baudrillard claimed that seduction is always in the realm of artifice. His example of the perfect artifice of seduction was the transvestite. In such a case sexuality becomes purely that which is signified through conscious construction — a male body, given female sexuality. Biologically, the transvestite does not possess the necessary parts to be female, but instead creates a hypersexual version of femininity though simulated physical features and exaggerated mannerisms. Baudrillard's words are poignant when we think of them in relation to the female body in anime. In Seduction, he writes about the way a woman or man applies makeup in order to exaggerate her features: to turn them into more than a sign, by this use of, not the false as opposed to true, but the more false than false, to incarnate the peaks of sexuality while simultaneously being absorbed in their simulation." Is this not also what happens within the process of stylization of an animated female? The sites of sexuality and implied innocence are amplified. It doesn't matter to the viewer that these images do not closely approximate the human body. What matters is that the features that are deemed to be sexually appealing — legs, eyes, breasts — are exaggerated and brought together into a completely artificial, yet extremely seductive image.
The hypersexualizing of characters in anime is dependent on certain preconceived notions of feminine sexuality. The sites of sexual expression and the attributes that increase the implications of sexuality are quite often the result of a patriarchal image of what "feminine" should be. This may lead us to assume that, as in the case of the transvestite, the imagery in anime is a male construction of femininity for consumption by other males. Interestingly, a large proportion of the artists and writers that create manga and anime (including Sailor Moon) are female. In the context of this paper, that may seem odd, but manga cover a huge spectrum of genres that I do not have the space or inclination to describe here at length. Unlike the North American comic book market, females in Japan consume manga in similar or even greater numbers than males do. The stylized body and facial features are common across the different genres of the medium. This can be seen as akin to the portrayals of women that we would see in American fashion magazines such as Cosmopolitan or Vogue. These magazines are largely produced by, and marketed to, women. However, the women in such publications are portrayed and exploited in an overtly sexualized manner that cannot easily be differentiated from the images of females that we would see in men's magazines. The point of this observation is not to implicate females in the process of exploitation, but to differentiate between the female imagery in manga and anime, and the portrayal of women in the form of virtual idols that I will be discussing soon. The manga/anime form being something that is produced and consumed by both genders (although often in different contexts or genres), and the latter being deliberately produced for and consumed by males.
Despite the sensual nature of anime images, there is a limited amount of interaction that is possible between a living being and an image. That is, the interaction between viewer and image is generally confined to viewing. This does not prevent fantasies around the characters from extending to more physical interactions. Turning once more to the internet as an example, there are numerous sites of "fan-art" and fiction ("fan-fic") that depict the schoolgirls of anime in sexual situations, both with other characters and generic insert-yourself-here partners. Such fantasies are also depicted through manga or anime such as Video Girl Ai. Video Girl Ai is the story of a protagonist who rents a date on videocassette (such things do exist in Japan). She magically comes through the screen of his television in order to become a part of his lived experience (which generally doesn't happen). The desire for interaction expressed through products such as Video Girl Ai forced the market to create something beyond the comic books and videos already available — something that can be toyed with.
Several attempts have been made to broaden the amount of interaction that is possible with anime images through the use of computer software. Kisekae is the name of a program that acts much like a conventional paper doll would. A character appears on a computer monitor and the user is able to drag any item of clothing on or off the body. Originally, these dolls were created for the amusement of young girls but it did not take long before opportunities for sexual manipulation presented themselves. Not that there is a great conceptual leap between the original dolls and the more adult oriented playthings that followed. All that needed to be changed were a few of the accessories. The sailor suits that are so popular in Japanese pornography and burusera (fetish) shops were already apparent in the girl's toys — add a few leather items and some lacy panties and the sexual nature of Kisekae is made explicit. Of course, many of the Kiss sets go much further than that, incorporating dildos, ropes, used maxi pads and other objects that can be used to restrain, violate or humiliate the body on the screen.
There is a certain amount of amusement being derived from the fact that these were originally created for relatively innocent play. The users of the program are largely aware of the irony involved in transforming a little girl's toy into a sexual game. Perhaps this contains parallels with the Lolita genre of anime and manga that will be discussed later in this paper. Secondly, there is a liberation taking place because the figure depicted is not directly referencing a human body. The user has a sense of detachment while using this device. The guilt and societal taboo involved in the actual abuse or humiliation of a female form is minimized in this context because it has been removed from reality by so many steps. Since the vast majority of these dolls are stylized after anime characters, the proportions of each are similarly distorted. Beyond that, the primary physical object that we think of when we see this game is not a person's body — but a paper doll. To further detach the participant from signifiers of reality, the computer screen mediates the entire process. All of this allows the user to toy with the image with relative freedom. Where a user might normally attempt to avoid the objectification of women, Kisekae dolls are already objects — or at least they reference objects far more directly than they reference people.
In The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, Allucquere Rosanne Stone comments on sexual functions in virtual communities by postulating that a participant in cybersex gains a sense of fulfillment from the fact that there is a person on the other end of the line. Even though the interaction is often limited by text-based technology, the user knows that someone else is participating in the act with him or her — a virtual coupling. Stone goes on to describe how through time, the need for the other person becomes less important as the mode of communicating sexual messages becomes more familiar. I bring up Shaw's analysis as a means of demonstrating how the sexual desire generated by images like the ones discussed here differ from interpersonal virtual sex. First and foremost, the consumption of these images does not continue in spite of the fact that there is nobody on the other end. It thrives on the fact. Freedom from the social pressures involved in human interaction plays a major role in the popularity of these items. Secondly, the figure in a kisekae set does not acknowledge the presence of the user. There is no voice or agency present to implicate the user in the act of abuse or the act of playing with a doll (each one having the potential to be embarrassing or incriminating for the person involved).
A further step towards interaction with virtual characters (and the desire that drives it) is apparent in the phenomenal success of a video game called Toki-Meki. Within this game, the player needs to improve himself academically and physically in order to win the love of the beautiful heroine, Shiori Fujusaki. I intentionally refer to the player as himself, not only because the 'he' is positioned within the plot as male, but because the vast majority of the fan-base for this game is composed of men between the ages of 18 and 35. These are not young boys, but men in what is supposed to be the prime of their lives. They are most often university students and businessmen.
This is a significant shift in demographics when considered in relationship to the other images discussed so far. As mentioned earlier, both males and females enjoy anime and manga. Since kisekae originated as a small girl's toy, there is a great cross-section of users for the software. This includes the young girls who were originally targeted with the software, older females that find irony and nostalgia in the game and the men that have already been discussed. However, games such as Toki-Meki and the virtual idol phenomenon have a relatively homogenous fan-base. There seems to be nothing in Shiori Fujusaki that would inspire any female to relate with the character. She is created as a prize that a person may aspire to win, but there is very little that would cause a person to aspire to be like her (besides her lucrative career). Where anime/manga girls are visually stylized, Shiori is further simplified as a character as well as visually.
The point of Toki-Meki is to take Shiori out on dates and carry on conversations with her in attempts to woo the anime-styled heroine. The player must be a perfect gentleman, choose the correct responses and avoid the advances of the 12 other female characters in the game. If he can accomplish this, then he receives a confession of love from Shiori and the game is won. That is, if the player wants to win, which is only one way to enjoy the game. Apparently many players find the other characters more appealing, and actively pursue those females instead. This is evidenced by the fact that all the female characters in the game have large fan clubs of their own.
There are quite a few similar interactive video games on the market at the moment, with various alterations in theme, and levels of sexuality. Many of these games are openly pornographic, in which the player must sleep with, or torture the female characters in order to "score". However, no other game has reached the status of Toki-Meki, which focuses on an innocent courtship. In the process of this courtship, Shiori has become an idol to scores of young Japanese males. To capitalize upon the success of this character, Konami (the company that owns Shiori) has produced several pop music CDs under Shiori's name, and she has even performed "live" in concert via an on-stage video wall. The interactivity of the video game format is a natural progression from animated entertainment, while maintaining the blatantly artificial nature of the form.
One could argue that many earlier points in this discussion do not apply to Toki-Mekibecause Shiori does acknowledge the viewer. There is a level of interaction that does not allow for the same implied anonymity that Kisekae dolls provide. However, that would imply some sort of natural discourse between the player and the character in the game and there is very little that is natural about Toki-Meki. The conversational interaction that exists between Shiori and the player is limited to multiple choice questions and answers. "Isn't it a beautiful view?" Shiori asks as she rides the monorail. The player then has three options from which to chose a response, the most obvious being "I hadn't noticed, I've been watching you the entire time."
The form of conversation offered within Toki-Meki holds very few of the elements that MIT's Andy Lipmann set forth as defining interactivity. These are: interuptability, which means that each participant must be able to interrupt the other, mutually and simultaneously; graceful degradation, which means that unanswerable questions must be handled in a way that doesn't halt the conversation; "limited look-ahead, which means that since each party can be interrupted, there is a limit to how much the shape of the conversation can be anticipated by either party; no default, which means that the converstion must not have a pre-planned path [and] the impression of an infinite database" (Stone, 135).
Toki-Meki falls short of almost all of these criteria except for the "no default" condition. The form of interaction that is possible between Shiori and the player is maintained as artificial, protecting the impression of autonomy in the player. This is compounded by the fact that Shiori refers to the player as a schoolmate, implying that she is seeing a persona other than the 18-35 year old male that generally plays the game.
The pop-idol success of Shiori has opened the door to the marketing of other virtual idols. This led directly to the creation of Kyoko Date. Within Japanese popular culture, the term "idol" refers to a genre of pop stars. They are generally pretty young girls or handsome young boys who perform concerts, make videos and often appear on television programs and magazine covers. Kyoko Date performs all of these tasks, but the major difference between Kyoko and her counterparts is that she was created using a computer program. Horipro is Japan's top modeling agency, and they collaborated with software engineers to create the 18-year-old singer who was first introduced to the Japanese market last November. She has now graced the covers of several magazines and even played a small role in a soap opera.
Now, why would a company create a singer when they can simply hire a young girl to do the same job? Well, the idol market in Japan has steadily declined since the late seventies. Flesh-and-blood representations of female sexuality are apparently no longer as appealing to young Japanese males as they once were. Devotional magazines for young men have become increasingly filled with anime and video game characters. A figure like Kyoko Date has the advantage of being able to pose for commercial consumption without her personal life interfering with the process. A major reason that fans cite for preferring virtual idols over their predecessors is that virtual idols cannot become involved with scandals, and they don't ever get married or grow old. Of course, that doesn't mean that they don't grow obsolete.
It is worth noting here that magazines geared towards young girls in Japan are still filled with young male pop-singers and television stars. Perhaps this is due to the fact that a greater number of males buy and play video games, and are therefore more heavily socialized to accept a computer generated image as a being in relation to themselves.
Another reason for the popularity of virtual idols is the play between accessibility and denial that surrounds the figures. Anybody can buy a copy of Kyoko's dance video or a CD-ROM of Toki-Meki for their PC, yet neither of these figures can actually be touched by the consumer. Of course, that means that other consumers cannot touch them either. Depriving access to the viewer acts to increase the allure of the figure while ensuring the player that the idol's innocence remains intact. The psychological comfort that this product provides holds parallels with the proliferation of Rorikon (Lolita-style) manga and anime in the Japanese market. When a small girl (especially a small girl in a sailor-style high school suit) is portrayed in a comic, there is an assumption of innocence. This innocence is highly valued by the consumer, and it is no coincidence that Shiori spends most of her screen-time in just such an outfit. Of course, Lolita manga (as the name would imply) are infamous for portraying these girls in explicitly sexual situations. However, the age and wardrobe still act as signifiers that the character was innocent and virginal up until that point when the viewer gains the privilege of visually deflowering her by witnessing the event. As in Lolita manga, the youth of the idol singer is important to the naive appeal and innocent look of the genre. They are untouchable. It is a societal taboo for a grown man to violate a high school girl. This taboo increases the appeal of the figure because it automatically makes a relationship more naughty. In the case of virtual idols this logic is compounded by the fact that there is no feasible way to access the person. Desire is often more permissible when there is no way of attaining that which one desires. Not only do Kyoko and Shiori appear as young girls, but they also do not exist in our physical reality. Even if the social taboo is virtually transgressed, it remains physically uninterrupted.
Given the elements that have combined to create Kyoko Date, along with an intense marketing campaign, it would seem natural that she would be winning the hearts of millions of Japanese men. Not so. The sales of Kyoko's first CD have been sluggish when compared to the projected figures. There seems to have been a flaw in logic when creating this persona. If it is the artificiality of image that attracts young men to virtual idols, then perhaps the error was in Horipro's intense efforts to make Kyoko appear and act human. Much of Shiori's appeal lies in the fact that she is pure simulation in Baudrillard's sense of the term. That is, Shiori was created through "the generation of models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal." Kyoko, on the other hand, is an amalgam of features that directly reference the real without necessarily being real. Her physical features are a combination of those seen in former idols from the Horipro agency, which have then been mapped onto a virtual body. Her singing voice belongs to one female and her talking voice belongs to another. Her dance routines are created by applying sensors to the body of a performer, and then mapping those sequences onto the virtual model. Where Shiori's lineage comes from manga and video games, Kyoko owes her genetic make-up to human models: former idols from the Horipro agency — those same idols that young Japanese males have largely turned away from.
There is a phrase for this phenomenon, nijikon fetchi, that translates as "two-dimensional fetish". The term applies here, although it is generally used in a negative context. It is seen as a negative social phenomenon that affects young males who are unable to cope with living females in a social environment. The assumption is that they turn to manga and anime versions of the female in order to compensate for their social ineptitude. Perhaps this is true. One way or another, it's an unfortunate label, but it addresses the innate appeal that an image has when there is no physical signified for that image to correspond to. The term, although it implies that the image being fetishized must be flat, does not necessarily exclude three-dimensional idols such as Kyoko Date. It was after all coined before Kyoko had made her first appearance. In essence it implies the preference for a created body as opposed to a living body, the artificial nature of the latter being a primary draw.
Since Kyoko's debut, Horipro has continued its efforts to create a three-dimensionally articulated virtual idol and other corporations have followed suit. Pink Lady X is a duo of virtual idols that sing and dance together. They are intended to pick-up where Kyoko left off. This time, choreography for the idols is not determined by the limitations of human movement. The two frequently perform impossible kicks and movements within their dance routines. However, the physical bodies still conform to human standards. Absent are the impossibly long legs and huge eyes that are so common in two-dimensional idols. The designers from Horipro have yet to take advantage of their ability to distort the body. Furthermore, Pink Lady X references past idols even more directly than Kyoko Date does. If it is true that the "transubstantiation of sex into signs is the secret of all seduction," then perhaps designers should keep that in mind. The seductive nature of imagery is more complete when the signs of sexuality are made explicit. Perhaps future prototypes will take proper advantage of these elements and produce a fully articulated computer generated idol with the exaggerated qualities and limited interactivity that make Shiori Fujisaki so successful.
From anime girls to Kyoko Date, virtual idols fulfill a "need" for many young males. A site for affection is provided that is completely risk free. The woman is created to the specifications of a selected audience. There is no risk of her character betraying the model that has been constructed because she does not exist as an entity outside of her function. Idol otaku (extremely devoted fans) feel free to add aspects of personality to the character, or even write fan-fiction or dojinshi (amateur comic books) with the character as central. If there is no material person, facts can be invented if they are not already available. While accessibility to each character is key to their success, these synthetic girls also share an elusive quality that adds to their appeal. There is no mechanism for satisfaction within these images, only the simultaneous perpetuity of sexual possibility and impossibility...and that's what keeps us watching.
Art © 1996 HoriPro Inc., 1990 Nippon Computer Systems Corporation, Ltd., 1993 TOHO Company, 1992 A.D.Vision, Inc., and 1994, 1997 KONAMI.
Robert Hamilton is an artist and MFA candidate at the University of Windsor. As part of his research into popular culture, he watches an inordinate amount of television animation and consumes chocolate flavoured breakfast cereals. He can be reached at email@example.com.