YouTube: "【MV】ココロコスプレ / Kapruit + バーチャル美少女ねむ" / Oshiruko-chan (by Hyokkame)

Being Bishōjo: A dialogue between independent Vtuber Virtual Bishōjo Nem & kigurumi artist Takurō

Introduction

As readers of grape Japan can surely attest to, the kawaii aesthetic has become an internationally recognized commodity. But where does kawaii come from? In the context of Japanese subculture, kawaii traces its roots to anime and manga, and specifically, the image of the cute girl, the bishōjo 美少女. Although female fans were the originally intended target of shōjo manga, from the 1970s, a growing number of male readers, some of whom were dissatisfied with dominant cultural norms of masculinity, also became interested.

Fast forward to 2020. Today, how do some manga and anime fans express not only their appreciation for bishōjo, but also their desire to become a bishōjo themselves? How does “being bishōjo” allow them to express their identity? To seek answers to these questions, we turned to two Japanese subculture communities where such experimentation is taking place: kigurumi performers and virtual streamers.

We had the opportunity to organize a dialogue between Takurō たくろう, creator for the artistic kigurumi mask production unit Hyokkame ひょっかめ, and Virtual Bishōjo Nem バーチャル美少女ねむ, the self-professed world’s first independent Vtuber. Liudmila Bredhikina, live-entertainment and VR researcher at the University of Geneva, graciously agreed to moderate.


Interview

grape Japan (Ben K): To begin, please tell me what lead you both to take on the appearance you now have.

Virtual Bishōjo Nem (Nem): I was originally interested in "the influence avatars have on identity," and as part of my technical research, I began doing what people now call Virtual YouTuber (Vtuber) activities. In the process of actually transforming into a bishōjo and talking to myself in that guise, I got the feeling that a new self was awakening, and I made my first broadcast that very night. That's how I became "the world's first independent Vtuber."

The more I continued doing this, I became convinced that this transformation had the potential to "update" not only individual identity but our entire society and economy. Moreover, I understood that it also held the key to realizing an ideal world without discrimination or war. Thus, I began my activities in what I call the "World Bishōjo Project" (人類美少女計画). I started giving out "How-to" information for Vtubers, and I believe I contributed to the Vtuber boom which later occurred around Christmas time 2017.

With permission from Virtual Bishōjo Nem (@nemchan_nel)

Takurō: Although I had the feeling that I wanted to wear a kigurumi from my childhood years, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone about it. Later, when I became an adult, I learned in a magazine about people who wore bishōjo kigurumi, and I felt like I wanted to try it too. However, in my case, I'm very particular about being a "cute girl."

As for the details, I had come up with many of them in my childhood so I already had a concrete notion of what I wanted. You could say that what I'm doing nowadays is turning those ideas into reality.

Oshiruko-chan (by Hyokkame) | Photo by ambitake (@ambitake)

Liudmila Bredhikina (Mila): If you were not a virtual bishōjo or a bishōjo kigurumi, what would you be? And one day, will Virtual Bishōjo Nem or bishōjo kigurumi Takurō die? I do not mean you, physically, as a person (I wish long lives to both of you), but I mean your created personas. Or will your created personas live on forever? And what is the notion of a bishōjo existence?

Takurō: I'm not sure what I would be. But considering my abilities and my past experience, I can't think of anything other than bishōjo kigurumi.

This is my resume:

  • Crossdressing
  • Idol groupie
  • Diagnosed with gender identity disorder and confirmed my sexual orientation
  • Fighting game gamer (female characters)
  • Kigurumi actor
  • Worked for a love doll maker

If I had been born ten years later, that resume may have included Vtuber.

As for your second question, I think the masks, costumes, images, etc. of Oshiruko-chan (my own kigurumi character), for example, will remain after I retire, so, they'll continue if another person takes over. Also, it's just a vague feeling, but I would like my activities as "Bishōjo Kigurumi Takurō" to remain in a preservable form as a work of creation.

Nem: The reason why I became a "virtual bishōjo" is largely due to chance, so it's hard for me to imagine another self.

As for the permanence of bishōjo, I wish I could answer with: “bishōjo will continue forever on the net as a meme” but my answer is "no." It could exist as a “collection of works based on a commonly shared image” like Hatsune Miku. However, I think “existing” as a virtual bishōjo means being “a ‘flesh-and-blood’ virtual bishōjo who can speak in real-time through the net and whom you can actually interact with in VR.” At present, a human brain is indispensable to realize this. It won’t be until the far future that it will be realized through AI so that “virtual bishōjos don’t die.”

Just as new actors succeed to a professional name in Kabuki, there could be a different naka no hito 中の人 (human actor “inside” the Vtuber) taking over, but I don’t think we could call that the “same persona.” In other words, today’s “virtual bishōjos” may be ageless, but I don’t think we can call them a completely eternal existence. I think they have a lifetime.

Ben K: In your interview with True Colors Academy, Takurō, project leader Ishikawa stated: "I think that everyone has multiple identities within themselves." For both of you, when you take on this other appearance, do you consider it to be a "different identity"?

Nem: Normally, I do work which has nothing to do with Vtuber activities, and I've kept the fact that I'm a Vtuber a secret from both coworkers and family members. When I put on an HDM (head-mounted display) and take on the appearance of "Virtual Bishōjo Nem," I become my self which has transformed into a bishōjo idol in the virtual world. The personal pronoun I use for myself changes, as does the way I speak. For me, changing avatars is the act of changing identities. But my memory continues uninterrupted, so it's not that I have multiple personalities.

Takurō: Among those who wear bishōjo kigurumi as a hobby, you'll find great differences in opinion on this subject. Personally, I think people aren't particularly concerned about it at first, but as they continue, they may feel a difference emerging in some cases.

Mila: I would like to follow up on what Nem said and ask you this question: What makes you want to tell your friends/family/lover that you are a virtual bishōjo or a kigurumi, and what makes you want to keep it a secret?

Takurō: Let me start with why I wanted to keep it a secret in the past. There are many restrictions at school or at the office. I didn't want to talk about sensitive topics there because there many risks and little merit in doing so. Also, I was not confident that I could explain it well to people who were close to me, such as my family and friends, and I was worried that they wouldn’t understand. Now that my work is in line with my activities, this matter has been resolved. The feeling that I particularly need to hide it is gradually disappearing.

Oshiruko-chan (by Hyokkame) | Photo by ambitake (@ambitake) | Collaboration: 吊り橋ピュン Tsuribashipyun (@tsuribashipyun)

As for whether I should keep it a secret, on the one hand, I need to reveal my identity to a certain extent because I currently rely on collaborators during my performances at events or for archival (photography or video recording) needs. On the other, there are situations where I need to keep it a secret so as not to disappoint those who see me. Therefore, in the sense that I intentionally restrict information, you could say that I have a reason for wanting to keep it secret.

Nem: I couldn’t imagine it would happen, but I’ve appeared on TV, received an award for a novel I wrote, and got an opportunity to sing on an (upcoming) nationwide tour. My achievements as “Virtual Bishōjo Nem” have grown, so I would be lying if I said I had zero desire to confess (my real identity).

With permission from Virtual Bishōjo Nem (@nemchan_nel)

However, I don't think our current society is tolerant enough yet to accept "virtual bishōjo." If your identity is revealed to your family or workplace, it will surely have an adverse effect. Also, the main theme of “Virtual Bishōjo Nem” is the universal message that “Anyone can become a bishōjo!” so I don’t want people associating her with my real-world attributes and looking at Nem through "colored glasses." I think of “virtual bishōjo” as “a human being who has shed the shell of its physical body and is free to enjoy activities as an unfettered soul.” Ultimately, the ideal situation would be one in which “nobody cares who the naka no hito is” but I think that’s still far into the future.

Ben K: Would you say that there is not just one different identity but multiple different identities? For example, with kigurumi masks, when you wear a different mask. Or for Nem, when you update your model or change your clothes.

Nem: About my model, I've asked various modelers to make them for me, so the models all have different faces and make quite different impressions, but each one is just a model of "Virtual Bishōjo Nem." My image of changing models is like "makeup." But it gives me greater freedom than makeup can. For example, depending on the model, I have different ages. There's a childish me, a mature me, a strong me, a weak me. I use them separately in different situations. For my latest model, I wanted to emphasize vivacity, so I asked for a younger appearance. In other words, I get the impression that such changes influence your personality to some extent.

It's the same with clothes. For example, I get fired up when I wear stage clothes, but if I wore them all the time, I'd get tired. When I want to relax, I wear a hoodie or casual clothes. This is the same as changing clothes in real life. But still, all of them are models of "Virtual Bishōjo Nem," so it's not like I'm changing identities.

With permission from Virtual Bishōjo Nem (@nemchan_nel)

Takurō: I think it all depends on what kind of kigurumi mask it is, so it's hard to generalize for everyone. Is it a bishōjo kigurumi? Is it a rabbit kigurumi? If it's a mask representing a specific character, for example, then it's necessary to completely become that character. If anything, your identity is something that would get in the way. At the same time, however, as they continuously act as a specific character, it is quite common for people to start becoming conscious of their identity. Many people create kigurumi for people to wear in order to express that identity.

Mila: Could both of you imagine embodying a different type of character? Not even a different type of bishōjo, but a different type of character more generally. Let’s say a bishōnen?

Also, if at all possible, could we discuss the downside of being a bishōjo?

Takurō: I have various ideas when I wear kigurumi. For example, in the past, I’ve done part-time work in a Kamen Rider kigurumi show and recently, I became a character in a certain game. These kind of experiences are so natural to me that they even serve as references to me when I become a bishōjo.

I can’t think of any particular disadvantages to being a bishōjo.

Oshiruko-chan (by Hyokkame) | Photo by ambitake (@ambitake)

Nem: Within VRChat (a popular massively multiplayer online VR social platform), for example, when there’s an error in loading your avatar, you become the default robot avatar. When that happens to me, I get a sad feeling as if I’ve lost myself and I’m fading away. I get the same feeling when I try a new VR SNS which doesn’t support avatar imports. So, I really couldn’t imagine being anyone else.

With permission from Virtual Bishōjo Nem (@nemchan_nel)

As for the disadvantages of being a bishōjo, well, I need to be careful with the way I move and angle the camera (when I broadcast) so that people can’t look up my skirt (LOL).

Ben K: I’d like to ask all three of you what “bishōjo” means for you in 2020, beginning with you, Mila.

Mila: Actually, I discovered the world of bishōjo not that long ago. I grew up in Russia and Switzerland, not the countries most famous for having manga and anime. When I started reading manga, I was more interested in yaoi or the works of Suehiro Maruo. Again, not exactly the works most famous for bishōjo. I re-discovered bishōjo when I began my research on Vtubers. At first, I thought that it was only about having a kawaii appearance and looking young and innocent. So, for the longest time, I’ve struggled with my avatar because I did not feel good in the virtual bishōjo skin. Also, I think that since characters are not something that you find on every street corner in Western countries, for the longest time I made the mistake of associating bishōjo to actual, biological women. As a woman, I’m very independent, far from being innocent, and even further from the visual aesthetics of a bishōjo. Thus, when I tried being a bishōjo in the virtual space, I felt like I was disregarding everything I stand for as a woman. What a mistake to think that way!

With permission from Liudmila Bredhikina (@BredikhinaL)

Luckily things changed very quickly. After observations, talking with Nem and other Vtubers, I began to realize that bishōjo is so much more than that. Well, for starters, bishōjo is not linked to biological women.

Bishōjo is a kawaii concept, a liberating kawaii experience. It’s a warm world full of joy, one which is far away from the productive and reproductive norms of our societies. It’s a world of possibilities. Once I understood that, I discovered just how liberating it is to be a bishōjo. To sum up, for me, a bishōjo is a kawaii concept, a liberating experience, a fun, playful, kind, and warm entity.

With permission from Liudmila Bredhikina (@BredikhinaL)

Takurō: You mentioned Maruo Suehiro, but in his work “Shōjo Tsubaki,” I think you can also find the characteristics and the ephemerality of a bishōjo. In a way, I think the fundamental elements of bishōjo are expressed there. There are cases when you can talk about bishōjo even when no “moe” elements are present. I think it has great power in aesthetic forms of expression such as ball-jointed dolls, for example. Perhaps this is a good example of the ambiguity of the Japanese language.

Ben K: How about you, Nem, what does bishōjo mean for you?

Nem: I understand bishōjo, in the context of Japanese subculture, to be "a beautiful girl character appearing in a two-dimensional world such as manga or anime." She's a symbolic (idol-like) being who is "kawaii" incarnate, is loved by everyone, and who only needs to exist to create an appealing story. I think of her as a separate existence from women and girls in the real world.

The attempt to forcibly evolve into a bishōjo which doesn't exist in reality, that's "virtual bishōjo," that's babiniku バ美肉 (virtual bishōjo incarnation). Now that the limits of AI have come into view, I think that this is an attempt to become a superhuman (post-human). In other words, it's a "singularity." The novel I wrote last year on this subject is "Virtual Bishōjo Singularity."

Mila: Nem, there are different ways to express virtual bishōjo: virtual bishōjo バーチャル美少女, babiniku バ美肉, babiniku-ojisan バ美肉おじさん. What are the subtle differences between them? And when is one used and not the other?

Nem: When people in Japanese subculture hear the word bishōjo, they imagine “an iconic cute character such as the ones which appear in the two-dimensional fantasy worlds of manga and anime.” However, if you take the term literally, it means “young and beautiful girl,” so I use the term “virtual bishōjo” to avoid misunderstandings. Babiniku (=virtual bishōjo incarnation) refers to using virtual technology to attempt to become and conduct activities as a virtual bishōjo. Babiniku-ojisan is an interesting power word used to suggest that the naka no hito is male. It helped to popularize the term “babiniku,” which is a good thing. However, I don’t think the gender of the naka no hito is important for a virtual bishōjo, so I personally don’t like the expression very much.

Ben K: And you, Takurō, what does bishōjo mean for you?

Takurō: What is bishōjo? I think the answer to that question has greatly changed in the last few years. Before, anime characters (2D characters) represented the mainstream value for kigurumi. Nowadays, however, there are people who want to become dolls, for example. So, I get the impression that bishōjo represents a broader range of values.

Mila: As I said earlier, among Vtubers, there are different terms to express a virtual bishōjo (ex: babiniku, babiniku-ojisan, virtual bishōjo). Takurō, is there something similar among bishōjo kigurumi?

Takurō: The existence of bishōjo kigurumi is based in reality, so as far as I know, I can’t think of anything similar. Things have changed a lot now, but (in kigurumi circles) it's basically taboo to make any reference to the naka no hito, so nobody talks about or asks if they’re a man or a woman.

Ben K: For both of you, can you tell us why you wanted to take on the appearance of a bishōjo in the first place?

Nem: To tell the truth, I had no deep reason at first. When I thought about the appearance I wanted to take in the virtual world, the first thing that came to my mind was a bishōjo character. Why did I want to become one? ... Now that I think of it, maybe I had a vague admiration for bishōjo from manga and anime.

Takurō: Actually, I sometimes think that I'm not so particularly fixated on "becoming a 'bishōjo'." I particularly spend a lot of effort when I try to become "handsome" or "manly," so compared to that, I thought I could more easily achieve a high-quality result if I became a cute girl.

Oshiruko-chan (by Hyokkame) | Photo by ambitake (@ambitake) | Collaboration: 駄民具ダミラ Daming Damira (@damingnimad)

Mila: But why a bishōjo and not a shōjo? And does "kawaii" have anything to do with it? If so, in what sense is “kawaii” used within your respective communities?

Takurō: I think my answer would be based on my reply to the question above. Moreover, generally speaking, bishōjo is a term that contains a special nuance. For example, works like Sailor Moon go out of their way to use bishōjo in their titles. When you trace it to its roots, maybe the term spread because it functioned as a kind of symbol used to easily convey meaning. So, I don’t think I have a particular attachment or fixation on “bishōjo.” As for “kawaii,” in a sense, I think it’s used very conveniently by people, and it can be interpreted differently depending on who you ask.

Nem: This overlaps with my previous reply but, within the context of Japanese subculture, I use “bishōjo” to refer to “an iconic cute character such as the ones which appear in the two-dimensional fantasy worlds of manga and anime.” I consider them as separate from shōjo in the real world.

Ben K: Do both of you make any particular efforts to hide the physicality of your real selves?

Nem: I don't. I don't think "bishōjo" is something you perform, but rather your self, when you shed the avatar of the physical body and bare your soul, "as it is," in all its charm. There are no taboos. For example, I openly admit enjoying beer and trading cryptocurrency as my hobbies, which is somewhat inconsistent with the image of the "bishōjo." However, I don't think it's a problem. Rather, I think a bishōjo who can talk about beer and cryptocurrency transactions looks more attractive to the viewer as "a virtual existence" than any beautiful girl in the real world.

With permission from Virtual Bishōjo Nem (@nemchan_nel)

Takurō: When you wear a kigurumi, some people get very cautious and try to check you out. They wonder if you're a middle-aged man inside or if you'll play some kind of trick on them. That's why you always have to be on your feet to make sure you don't let your guard down. But, actually, it's the same thing with Takuya Kimura (a famous entertainer). He's probably always cautious in public to make sure he doesn't let his guard down when he's playing the role of "Takuya Kimura."

Mila: How much of your physical body would you be ready to expose? If yes, then why, and if no, then why? (I’m asking because Nem did a survey, and about ⅓ of people were not against seeing some physical body part of a virtual character's naka no hito). Or are you against exposing any parts of your physical bodies because it would break the illusion?

Takurō: I don't really understand the intention of your question, but I'm not going to show my skin because “being particular about hiding" is one of the central reasons for wearing a kigurumi. However, I do think that the number of people who want to show their skin will increase in the future.

Nem: This also overlaps with my answer to a previous question, but I basically do not want to expose myself. The reason is that, at this stage, if I expose my real attributes, I think people will see me with “colored glasses” and this weakens the message of “Virtual Bishōjo Nem” which is that "everyone can be a bishōjo." However, I personally believe that our virtual form is in fact our real form. So, ideally, I hope we’ll eventually create a world where people don't care whether the naka no hito’s real skin is visible or not.

Ben K: Nem, you express what you experience in VR as "Kokoro Cosplay" (cosplay of the heart). Can you tell us what you mean by this?

Nem: "Kokoro Cosplay" is the title of a song in the theme of "Virtual bishōjo" and "Babiniku (= Virtual bishōjo Incarnation)," the music and promotional video for which (see below) was produced through crowdfunding. As you implied in your question, I really want "Kokoro Cosplay" to spread as a term meaning "becoming a different person in the virtual world," not just the name of a song.

With permission from Virtual Bishōjo Nem (@nemchan_nel)

In January of this year, I made a guest appearance on the NHK program "Nehorin Pahorin" for their special feature on "Babiniku." Although "Babiniku" is a catchy word, it has a bit of a harsh nuance, as it implies that the person inside is a man. I want artificial intelligence, companies, and even concepts to become incarnated as "virtual bishōjo," regardless of the gender of the person inside. So I would like to see "Kokoro Cosplay" spread as a more gentle, pleasing expression that's easy for anyone to use.

Ben K: Takurō, do you feel that there are any similarities or differences between this concept and your own experience with kigurumi?

Takurō: Kigurumi can only be "real" so I'm not sure if I can give an appropriate reply to this question. What I can say is that I am very curious and really want to know if it would be the same if I had a virtual experience.

Mila: At the risk of sounding naïve, I'd like to ask you about voice changers. Could you explain why you do or don't use them?

Takurō: It’s not that we have a particular preference for “not using” one. If we need to use one, I think we should. It’s just that if there is any “not-a-girl-ness” in the way you speak (for example, if you use slang like “iketeru” イケてる which is no longer used by young people), I think you run a high risk of disappointing someone as a result.

Also, by not speaking, (Japanese kigurumi) may be able to communicate smoothly with people who don’t understand Japanese. If a person who can speak English wears a kigurumi, it may be a good idea for them to actively use a voice changer. However, here too, I think there’s the possibility you’ll have the same problem: your choice of words may be considered tacky or not cute.

Nem: I basically always use a voice changer. I believe that communicating through real-time dialogue is an important element for a virtual bishōjo. Some bishōjo Vtubers use onnagoe 女声, a special technique in which a man speaks with a woman’s voice. However, it depends heavily on the individual’s natural aptitude, so it’s quite a difficult skill to acquire. Personally, I’d like to see a world where anyone can easily become a bishōjo, so I have a preference for voice changers that are easy to use.

Ben K: Nem and Takurō, is there any possibility of a cross-over between the two of you? I'll give a few examples. Nem, can you imagine wearing a "Virtual Bishōjo Nem" kigurumi and attending events in the real world? And for Hyokkame, can you imagine setting up a kigurumi mask shop in VR? For Takurō, can you imagine wearing a kigurumi mask and exploring a virtual world?

Nem: That's interesting! I'd certainly like to appear (on a show) and talk to Takurō, or do a live broadcast together! But it's a very high hurdle for me to try kigurumi. I've kept (my VR activities) a secret from even my family, so I'd have a hard time hiding a kigurumi (lol). In VR, there are many people who use avatars in the form of kigurumi. If you'd like, Takurō, I can guide you into the world of VR!

Takurō: Of course, I think there is great potential. I think there could be a future where you could open a mask shop in a virtual environment and enjoy crossovers between the real and virtual worlds.

Ben K: Thank you so much for your time!

This interview was conducted online between June 16th and July 1st, 2020. We'd like to thank all the participants for their time and cooperation.


Participant Profiles

Interviewee: Virtual Bishōjo Nem

With permission from Virtual Bishōjo Nem (@nemchan_nel)

As the self-professed world's first independent virtual YouTuber, active since 20117, Virtual Bishōjo Nem contributed to the Vtuber boom. She actively promotes the World Bishōjo Project which posits that humanity can achieve an ideal society if everyone takes on a bishōjo avatar. Her range of activities include Vtuber evangelist, virtual economy critic, cryptocurrency investor, blogger, novelist, and singer, among other things.

With accomplishments such as appearing on the NHK show "Nehorin Pahorin" in January 2020 and helping to popularize the term babiniku (virtual bishōjo incarnation), being selected as HTC's official VIVE ambassador, producing the VR and 3D debut of the world's first assembly member Vtuber Minori Ogino, and collaborating with Ludmila Bredikhina on the report "How Has COVID-19 influenced people to become virtual characters?", Virtual Bishōjo Nem continues to expand her activities worldwide. As a testament to her continuing leading role within the independent Vtuber community, a cover contest for her most recent song Kokoro Cosplay had over 50 entries. You can view the awards ceremony here.


Interviewee: Takurō of Hyokkame

Oshiruko-chan (by Hyokkame) | Photo by ambitake (@ambitake)

Hayashi Takurō, born in Ishikawa Prefecture, 1978.

From a very young age, Takurō developed an interest in kigurumi and wanted to create an original design. After conducting individual research, he began producing kigurumi in 2003.

From 2015, Takurō began making masks under the name Hyokkame. Not limited to mask production, he broadened his range of interests to kigurumi performance and more. Throughout his activities, Takurō continues to promote "bishōjo kigurumi" as a subculture genre.

Moreover, on the art front, Takurō most recently had a solo exhibition (representing Hyokkame) at mograg Gallery in January 2020, and he continues to actively pursue artistic endeavors.

Upcoming event:

Oshiruko-chan will make a guest appearance on the weekend of July 23rd and 24th. She'll be serving her homemade lemon sour and will be happy to pose for photos. Details are as follows:


Moderator: Liudmila Bredhikina

With permission from Liudmila Bredhikina (@BredikhinaL)

Liudmila Bredikhina is a virtual anthropologist at the Geneva University. Her research focuses on avatar society and virtual beings, such as VTubers. She tries to understand virtual beings through a gender studies approach, questioning how human interactions, self-expression, and kinship relations are negotiated, performed and expressed in a more than human world. As a virtual researcher, she also designs idol-like clothes for VTubers!


By - Ben K.