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Anime Expo 2011
Mikunopolis: Hatsune Miku Live in Concert

by Carlo Santos,

It took a virtual idol to accomplish what no J-pop act had ever done at Anime Expo. The Nokia Theater was sold out.

The first level was filled all the way to the back row. So was the center balcony. And the only reason the side balconies weren't in use was because the technology didn't work from that angle.

The technology, of course, was the big draw: 3D CGI on a clear projection screen, a 2-and-a-half-D illusion with a sampled, synthesized voice. Hatsune Miku, the green-haired icon of music technology's new frontier, thrilled a crowd of thousands with a repertoire spanning pop, rock and electronica. Familiar anthems like "World Is Mine" and "SPiCa" made the playlist, along with humorous crowd-pleasers like "Popipo." Songs like "The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku," with its rapid-fire stream of syllables, showcased unique sounds that no human voice would be capable of. Miku's friends came along too—pint-sized twins Rin and Len, as well as the more mature-sounding Luka—to add variety to the show.

But for all the hype surrounding these virtual anime-styled pop stars, it was still the human element that gave the concert depth. Not only did a full session band consisting of guitar, bass, keyboards and drums provide the backing music, but a seven-piece string section was also on hand to complete the sound. The audience was part of the human aspect too, complicit in bringing the illusion to life as they cheered Miku on and even called for an encore.

Yet the limitations of technology also became apparent during the show, with the audio mix often turned up so high that the backing music was distorted and threatened to drown out the vocals. In addition, the projected image was less than ideal for anyone not viewing exactly head-on; the performers looked almost ghostly if they wandered too far outside of a narrow angle or if the lighting became too bright.

Not that anyone seemed to be complaining too much about those issues. A steady stream of costume changes kept the performance visually interesting, as well as character animation with an emphasis on smooth, dynamic dance moves. So while Miku's CGI creators may not have been on stage like the musicians were, they deserve just as much credit in helping to create a concert unlike any other. (And that also applies in the sense that the Los Angeles setlist was different from the original Japanese setlist—proof that this performance was no copy-and-paste job.)

No photo or video footage can really do justice to the Miku experience. How funny that the adage of "You haven't really seen them until you've seen them live" can apply to the virtual Vocaloid world as well. Certainly, there is a sort of magic that emanates from that sea of green glowsticks, from the stage musicians pouring their hearts out, and from the synthesized soprano voice that continues to evolve today. And as of July 2, 2011, it's a magic that has succesfully crossed international borders. It is the magic of make-believe, and on that Saturday night, it brought a virtual idol to life.

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