by Carlo Santos,

MIKUNOPOLIS in Los Angeles


Mikunopolis in Los Angeles Blu-Ray
Anime Expo 2011 plays host to a unique, once-in-a-lifetime concert as virtual idol Hatsune Miku performs before a sold-out crowd in Los Angeles. Recognizable by her green pigtails and distinctly electronic voice, Miku is the best-known mascot character for the voice-synthesis software Vocaloid. A semi-transparent projection screen on the stage allows Miku to come to life, and her computer-generated image sings and dances to a full setlist of Vocaloid hits while a live band provides accompaniment. Other Vocaloid characters including Len, Rin, and Luka also join in as music and technology collide.

What will music history say about Vocaloid 500 years from now? Will this fan- and creator-driven subculture continue to thrive, evolving into new genres and forms of media? Or will it be relegated to the rank of mere technological curiosity, like the glass harmonica and theremin? Whatever happens next, at least there will always be Mikunopolis, the first-ever official "live" Hatsune Miku concert outside of Japan. And there will always be this disc as a historical record of that moment: The first spark of international expansion? Or merely the peak of a brief viral phenomenon? In either case, the lively music, flashy visuals, and digitally-generated performers result in a form of entertainment unlike any other.

The best thing this concert recording does is to optimize the experience for Miku fans who missed the show or got a bad seating angle. While projecting a CGI figure onto a screen in a darkened room is a neat trick, it's not a true holographic effect as some mistaken observers have described. The projection works best when seen head-on, and the camerawork on this disc offers that exact view, basically giving viewers the "best seat in the house." Better yet, regular zoom-ins allow a closer look at the characters' movements and costumes, pixels and all. However, the dance moves and animation aren't particularly groundbreaking: this is essentially an upscaled version of the motion-capture animation used in Sega's Hatsune Miku: Project Diva games. For fans who simply want to see life-sized singing anime characters, it's pleasing enough, but stops well short of realism.

Visuals are only part of the equation, though: the real reason people are here is for a killer setlist of all-time Miku hits. However, once again Sega's involvement leads to some limitations. The songs featured in the concert basically overlap with the repertoire of the Project Diva games, which is not necessarily a bad thing—it means you get a ton of catchy, easily accessible tunes—but it also means most of the songs conform to a four-to-a-bar, 120-180 beats per minute structure (aside from the occasional ballad). No waltzes, no dissonant experimental freakouts, no testing the limits of the Vocaloid's singing parameters—everything stays within the big, radio-friendly cloud of pop, rock, and dance music. Despite the hype about Vocaloid being a software synthesizer that can do anything with the human voice, all it does here is drive straight down the middle of the road.

Even so, there's plenty to like about the setlist, showing just how big that pop-rock-dance cloud is, and how every Vocaloid producer tailors Miku to his or her personal style. Hummable, melodic tunes like "[email protected] In Love" ("Koi Suru [email protected]") and "SPiCa" could just as easily have been written for the human voice, and that human warmth is part of their charm—while on the other end of the scale are multisyllabic showstoppers like "The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku" and "Uraomote Lovers," with verses sung so fast that only a Vocaloid could pull it off (although that certainly hasn't stopped cover artists from trying). The goofy novelty hit about vegetable juice, "Poppippo," finds its way into this setlist, but so do heartfelt numbers like "The First Sound" ("Hajimete no Oto") and "from Y to Y." Genre-wise, the songs run anywhere from hard rock in "Disappearance" and "Electric Angel," to mainstream electro-pop in "moon" and "Saihate," to the infectious house beats of "Finder." One would be hard pressed (or, perhaps, willfully ignorant) to say that it all sounds the same.

If that's not enough variety, Miku's compatriots in the Crypton family of Vocaloid characters—pint-sized twins Kagamine Rin and Len, plus the more mature-voiced Megurine Luka—also show up to perform their signature hits. There's no escaping the head-bobbing goodness of "Just Be Friends," and a Miku/Luka duet relieves some of the monotony of the green-haired one being up there by herself the whole time. Still, she's never truly alone: a live band consisting of guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and string section adds a human element to the show, reminding us that even if everyone's cheering on an animated character, it's human ingenuity that makes the experience complete.

Two subtitle tracks—one for the English translation, and another for romanized lyrics—allow viewers to better understand the meaning of each song. While most of the tracks go for the standard pop themes of love and longing, wistful feelings, and issues of the heart, other topics are also up for discussion. Songs like "Koi Suru [email protected]," "The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku," and the iconic "World is Mine" make use of self-referential wit, poking at the curious relationship between songwriter-producer and virtual idol. A couple of other tracks simply express the joy of singing and music-making, rather than trying to be deep or clever.

Other extras on the disc include a short Making-Of feature, showing the Crypton and Sega team making the trip to Los Angeles, plus a clip of popular web-video dancers Kozue Aikawa and Ikura from DANCEROID performing prior to the concert. The slickly-packaged Blu-Ray set also comes with a mini-poster, plus an audio CD of the concert so that fans can take the music elsewhere and still enjoy the live-show ambience.

Wherever Vocaloid technology ends up in the grand scale of music history, one thing can be said about the Hatsune Miku concert in Los Angeles: it was a pretty big deal at that time, and Mikunopolis in Los Angeles provides a fitting keepsake of the event. Fans who went but didn't get the best view can have an unobstructed front-facing seat, while those who missed out can see what all the hype was about. The setlist is a crowd-pleasing selection of hits for those who like their Miku in a broadly mainstream, pop-rock-electronica mode, and the array of dance moves and costume changes add some visual interest (although perhaps not enough). It's not the definitive document on Vocaloid, or even Miku herself, but it may be the best snapshot we have of that memorable summer in Los Angeles.

Overall : B
Music : B-

+ Offers the best possible view of the action, and the catchy, genre-spanning set of tunes should please most viewers. Inclusion of a full audio CD is a substantial bonus.
Limits itself to a particular set of Sega/Crypton-approved tracks, and bland, motion-captured dance moves are a disappointment.

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