On Wednesday, young people all over the world were crying, sharing melancholic memes, and posting fan art following a shocking announcement. They had just found out that their Japanese idol, Kiryu Coco, is graduating, and they were bereft.
Oh, and we should mention: Coco isn’t real. She is one of the preeminent figures (she has more than 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube) of a Japanese cultural creation: the virtual YouTube scene. Here is a quick and dirty guide to virtual YouTube, what it means for an animated vlogger to “graduate,” and what Coco’s exit means for the growing genre of internet content.
OK, this is a lot. What is virtual YouTube?
A virtual YouTube is a channel that follows an animated or virtual character instead of a real-life person. These virtual YouTubers (VTubers for short) first became popular in Japan in the mid-2010s, and now have spread around the world. The characters are animated beings controlled by a human actor, often through the use of motion capture technology, and they inhabit livestreams on YouTube, Twitch, Bilibili, and other popular platforms. Sometimes the characters are cute anime-esque people, but they often take fantastical forms, from talking marine mammals like Chester the Otter to half-human hybrid creatures often with high-pitched voices and absurdist antics (like in this absolutely odd video from VTuber Ironmouse that begins with a riff on “Little Kay-zers,” as in Caesars, pizza). Some channels go even further, hosting virtual events where attendees can take a virtual form of their own to join in on the action.
And what is Hololive?
Hololive is a VTuber talent agency owned by a Japanese tech entertainment company called COVER Corporation. It manages 52 VTuber talents in addition to Kiryu Coco; some of the most famous include Usada Pekora, Houshou Marine, and Shirakami Fubuki. Hololive is one of the two biggest VTuber agencies (Nijisanji is the other) and launched three overseas branches: Hololive China (now disbanded), Hololive Indonesia, and Hololive English. At the moment, Kiryu Coco and other talents of Hololive have more than 40 million combined subscribers on YouTube.
Got it. So now I guess you’ll tell me about Kiryu Coco?
We sure will. Kiryu Coco is one of Hololive’s most popular stars. She debuted in December 2019 and since then has earned more than $1.4 million through YouTube’s Super Chat donation system. Her channel is the second most Super Chatted worldwide.
What does it mean to be Super Chatted?
Super Chat is a feature created in 2017 by YouTube that allows viewers to pay to pin a comment in livestreams. That way, your comment is more likely to actually be seen by other viewers and the creator themselves, as opposed to being lost in the rush of a fast-paced live chat.
Huh. Back to Coco.
Her official Hololive profile describes her as “a child dragon who is fond of human culture.” She is 3,501 years old (and yes, in dragon years, this means young), and her birthday is coming up very soon, on June 17. The profile also notes: “She traveled from another universe to ours, just to study Japanese in a random language school. Also an honorable and heroic dragon who is filled with justice. She tries really hard to keep her human form.” (Maybe you disagree, but we’d pick dragon form over human YouTuber. Then again, we don’t have millions of loyal fans.)
Basically, she is an important figure in the VTube world, in part because she’s fluent in English and was among the first to win over foreign viewers by adding subtitles to her videos. That bilingual aspect has attracted tons of English-speaking fans. Then, she (or rather the unnamed actor playing her—more on that in a second) tried to convince COVER Corporation to use the Streamlabs donation website when Hololive streamers, including herself, were getting demonetized by YouTube’s artificial intelligence moderator. This campaign further endeared her to VTube fans.
So what does she do, exactly?
She is the presenter of a satirical morning news show called AsaCoco Live News, broadcast in English and Japanese, that presents news related to her and her Hololive colleagues. Her other videos feature content like video game streams and meme reviews. Coco is outspoken, humorous, and swears quite frequently. She likes teasing other Hololive members over technical difficulties during her morning show, but is generally considered one of the most empathetic Hololive talents. During a livestream with Minato Aqua, another Hololive VTuber, Aqua spoke about the difficulty of life as a virtual talent, and Coco encouraged her kindly. At one point, Coco/her actor came up with the idea of building a “Hololive house” (think TikTok house, just with far more digital mutants) where all the streamers could live together and take care of one another. She was thinking about the VTubers who live alone and would need company, as well as the ones who stay with their families and don’t have privacy or live in rural areas with poor internet connections.
Still, like most real-life stars, Coco is not without controversy. In September 2020, COVER Corporation suspended her and her fellow female Hololive star Akai Haato from livestreaming for three weeks after they mentioned Taiwan on a list of countries where most of their subscribers come from and showed the self-ruled island’s flag. (China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and often censors celebrities who insinuate otherwise. COVER Corporation explained the punishment by saying that the creators “divulged confidential YouTube channel analytics information” and that they were “insensitive to residents of certain regions.”) That was another demonstration of Coco’s revolutionary spirit.
And now she’s graduating. What does that actually mean, and who decided it was time?
The term comes from J-pop, in which talents “graduate,” or retire, from their careers, generally when they have aged out and are moving on to other projects. Coco held a livestream announcing the decision on her YouTube channel on Wednesday. After saying hi, she informed viewers, “I have an important announcement to make today.” Messages started appearing in the chat: “I am all ears,” “I am worried.” Then, a message popped up on the stream: “Kiryu Coco will be graduating from Hololive.” In essence, this means her character won’t exist on YouTube anymore.
Tons of replies like “This is a pretty bad nightmare, I’ll be honest,” “Please be joking,” and “I’m crying” came in English, Japanese, Spanish, and other languages. However, she will continue streaming until July 1, so her fans will have some time to process the news and gradually say goodbye.
A virtual character can’t age out of VTubing! So why is she graduating?
“The reason involves a lot of things, a lot of things that I can’t talk about. So you won’t hear anything from me. I know that’s hard to accept,” Coco said in her livestream. She also announced a graduation event, airing on July 1 at 8 p.m. Japan Standard Time. COVER Corporation wrote in a press release: “We wish to extend our deepest apologies to all the fans and collaborators for this sudden announcement, as well as our heartfelt gratitude and thanks to everyone who supported her activities for the past two years. We as a company are saddened by her decision to leave, but after much deliberation between both parties, we have decided to honor her wishes.”
Who is “she” here? Coco or the actor?
Who can say? The lines here get pretty blurry.
Is she the first VTuber to graduate this way?
Nope. In the past, VTubers have graduated for multiple reasons. For example, some of the real-life actors behind the characters faced mental and physical health issues. The Hololive China branch was forced to graduate amid the complicated fallout in China from the comments Akai Haato and Coco made regarding Taiwan. In November 2020, Kagami Kira, a Hololive male talent, “graduated” too. COVER Corporation said in an official statement that “he now finds it difficult to continue activities due to his mental and physical health.” Another Hololive character, Hitomi Chris, “retired” in June 2018, less than a month after her debut, “due to an incident that led to a contract breach” with the actor behind Hitomi Chris, according to Hololive. The character’s channel was deleted.
What’s the deal with the actors behind the Hololive idols?
The actors who portray VTube sensations are not the main attraction on virtual channels. In fact, VTuber agencies like Hololive have faced past backlash for their treatment of workers, who can technically be replaced at any time. Unlike human YouTube stars, these virtual characters are intellectual property that can be leveraged by studios to export content overseas and expand business opportunities for virtual talent agencies. The talent is the virtual character, not its motion capture suit–donning human counterpart. In fact, massively popular VTuber (and sometime virtual pornographer) Projekt Melody was briefly banned from Twitch after the character’s artist filed a copyright complaint claiming that Melody owed him money. These stars are generally anonymous—we don’t even know the name of the actor behind Coco—but there have been instances of VTube characters’ human identities becoming public information. And when that happens, there can be quite a few surprises. When Nora Cat, who commands more than 80,000 subscribers on YouTube, was unmasked, it turned out the young female character was actually under the control of a middle-aged Japanese man. Oddly, this may have helped the channel’s popularity.
However, many comments in the VirtualYoutubers subreddit show fans react rather negatively to people revealing the true identity of the actors behind popular virtual characters. And that goes both ways: A study presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Virtual Reality International Conference in 2020 found that a key appeal of being a VTuber for many actors was the anonymity that came with the role—allowing for the maintenance of privacy in an age where modern celebrities rarely have access to it. And while multiple female VTube characters have turned out to be controlled by male actors, this format offers female and nonbinary streamers a safer, less invasive way to deliver content.
OK, that’s pretty cool. So what does Kiryu Coco’s graduation mean for the future of Hololive and VTubers?
Coco’s graduation is setting the standard for big-time VTubers’ exits from the platform. In past graduations, the Hololive talents have simply disappeared from the internet landscape. But Coco seems poised for a grander exit. This makes sense, given her massive following and revenue generation. The fact that such a popular character is graduating so soon in the middle of a successful career also indicates the short lifespan of VTubers broadly. Of course, Hololive can just create more personalities to take Coco’s place, but it may be difficult to recapture her meteoric popularity. Coco helped pave the way for an expansion of the VTuber industry into markets beyond Japan while connecting audience members to cultures overseas. Her “Reddit Meme Reviews,” in which she explains memes in English to Japanese fans, became a central component of Kiryu Coco content. Coco also blazed a trail for English-focused VTubers. Hololive’s first generation of English VTubers now has more than 1 million subscribers combined, and the English-speaking Gawr Gura (a 9,000-year-old shark descended from Atlantis, because why not) leads all Hololive VTubers with more than 2.8 million subscribers.
And it’s not just full-time VTubers getting in on this trend. Massively annoying YouTube personality PewDiePie briefly moonlighted as a VTuber himself, drawing waves of backlash. Popular Twitch streamer Pokimane also joined in on the action, debuting a VTube version of herself in September 2020.
Do I really have to get used to this idea of virtual celebrity YouTube stars?
Yup. It’s not like this is anything new, as Instagram influencer (and digital avatar) Lil Miquela has been garnering likes for years now. But with VTube, even Western media companies are entering the fray: Netflix is launching a “sheep-human lifeform” VTuber named N-ko played by a corporate employee, who is acting as an ambassador for anime content on the popular streaming platform. On top of that, there are tons of indie VTubers cropping up on video sharing platforms in an attempt to ride the new burst of popularity for the format. The fad could die out, but don’t be surprised if quasi-human cartoon virtual YouTube celebs continue to soar like a dragon.
Thank you to Julia Lee for helping us navigate this complicated and important story.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.