Kizuna Ai Works because of Postmodernism
Hai Domo Virtual YouTuber Kizuna AI Desu! This has become the introduction of the phenomenon known as Kizuna Ai, the virtual YouTuber. She’s a Vocaloid with her own YouTube channel. Rather than sing like her contemporary Hatsune Miku, she instead does daily vlog style content and let’s plays. But why has she become so famous in the span of exactly one year? Some are confused on why she exists in the first place. It is possible that postmodernism is the answer.
Kizuna Ai appeared mostly out of nowhere with her first video advertising her twitter (above), and since then has become insanely popular with both Japanese and English speaking audiences. Her twitter is full of fanart retweets from both nationalities. You could say she’s jockeying off Hatsune Miku, or that maybe it’s her shojo-esque bubbly personality. Or we can try to apply the theory of a 16-year-old book to her; Otaku: Japan’s Database Animal’s by Hiroki Azuma is a masterwork in the genre of ‘otaku studies’, where critics attempt to apply academic theory to otaku, which is what you most likely are if you’re reading this article. But for those who don’t know, here is how Azuma describes it at the start of his book:
Simply put, it is a general term referring to those who indulge in forms of subculture strongly linked to anime, video games, computers, science fiction, special-effects films, anime figurines, and so on.
Azuma stands out from other authors in the field with his application of postmodernist theory to the behaviour of Otaku. And in reading his book, it’s not hard to see how the rules apply to Kizuna Ai. Her simplistic design and lack of an author are all postmodern characteristics, at least according to Azuma.
Postmodernism in characters
When the ball of the book finally gets rolling, Azuma uses doujinshi1 “Here I use the phrase_ doujinshi _as a general term for the largely (but not all) eroticized rereading and reproduction of original manga, anime, and games sold in the form of fanzines, fan games, fan figures, and the like.__They are vigorously bought and sold mainly in the Comic Market (which meets twice a year in Tokyo), but also through countless small-scale exhibits held on the national level, in various shops and over the Internet. Founded by a base of amateurs, the market, where numerous copies circulate and a great number of professional authors get their start, formed the nucleus of otaku culture both quantitatively and qualitatively over the past twenty years.” as a focal point of his book, and especially Neon Genesis Evangelion:
As described above, numerous fans of Gundam desired the completion and close examination of a singular Gundam world. That is to say, in their case they preserved the current passion for a fictitious grand narrative. However, even during the peak of the craze, the fans of Evangelion who appeared in the mid-1990s — especially those of the younger generation (the third generation of otaku)—did not really have a concern for the entire world of Evangelion. Instead, they focused exclusively on the settings and character designs as objects for excessive interpretation or “reading up” (exemplified in derivative works), and for chara-moe.
While Gundam focuses more on the world in order to build its narrative, Evangelion focused closely on the protagonists instead. This meant it was the characters who sold the work, rather than its world. He later claims that Hideaki Anno, the director of Evangelion, purposely set up the Evangelion world to continue living on through doujinshi. Kizuna even recognises that it is through doujinshi that products lives on, to the point she made her own Kizuna Ai dating visual novel. She is not at all praising of herself in it at all. She calls herself a whore at one point and plays herself off as stupid and gullible:
He calls this focus on characters rather than the world “The decline of the grand narrative”, where, in a postmodern society, we desire small narratives (Such as Evangelion) rather than larger narratives (Gundam).
Kizuna Ai definitely fits into the category of a work that sells the protagonist rather than its world. Well… what world anyway? The whole set of every video is an infinite white space devoid of anything except a sketch-board and Kizuna herself. Her narrative is entirely her. Her, and the nothingness surrounding her that she constantly recognises. Ignoring the obvious existential nature of these comments, it shows obvious self-awareness that it is her and her alone that makes AiChannel what it is.
Azuma would attribute our move from “grand narratives” (worlds) to “small narratives” (individual characters). This is narrative consumption. In a modern society, we want grand narratives, but in a postmodern one, we want small narratives. Kizuna Ai is one such small narrative.
This move allows doujinshi to sell easily and effectively. Small narratives in a postmodern society are constructed to replace the grand narratives of a modern society. Older generations of otaku (To which Azuma identifies three) had trouble identifying with these smaller narratives, while younger generations did so easily. I can confirm this, I can accept these small narratives (doujinshi) easily and effectively, without thinking for a second that it is a fake.
This singular character, just like Rei and Asuka from Evangelion, is designed to be reproduced countless times. Kizuna, with her little pink bunny ear headband, pink and white sailor suit, and a face that always look like she’s secretly screaming inside, make her instantly recognisable. Her chirpy, constantly bubbly, sometimes angry, personality fits into the reproducible world of Evangelion in the same way Asuka’s Tsundere and Rei’s distant personalities do
To assist with cross-work recognition, we have the books database element. Azuma, a philosophy major, describes this in terms that go over my poor journalism student head, but here’s the basic theory:
Today, anime fans desire from a work a set of recognisable and relatable characteristics to relate to. From these, they dissect and push these characters into a database. Once we understand the works in this database, we can understand derivative works with impunity. It is with this format that we can easily create doujinshi of these characters.
Kizuna’s moe elements, big blue eyes, cute face, school girl uniform, allow her to easily slot into the database. And to get really meta, there is a literal online database to access. TINAMI allows searching of moe elements, such as ‘maid outfits’ to give all characters who wear maid outfits.
Postmodernism in creators
Using this database, he develops an idea known as ‘chara-moe.’ In the Kizuna Ai mythos, there is no animator or voice actor working behind the scenes to make these daily videos, there is only the super-intelligent AI, Kizuna Ai. Azuma prefaced his statement about the replication of works with a statement by philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard about the simulacrum. Baudrillard’s idea was that in a postmodern society, rather than there being an original and a copy, there is only an intermittent form known as the simulacrum. The simulacrum, rather than being made by one author, is the synthesis of the real with the ‘fake’. It shows attributes of the original but maintains its own originality. A simulacrum is not a fake or a knockoff. By creating a work within a narrative, and following the rules of the original narrative, it functions more as an extension rather than a knockoff. And then we have simulacrum of simulacrum. Using this database, we create chara-moe, characters created from numerous traits combined into one. Chara-moe characters are made from a work created upon the works of others. Kizuna Ai’s bunny ears aren’t original, but they are definitely her. Her clothes, face and eyes are all instantly recognisable from similar works and therefore accepted with no quarrel.
Postmodernism in both
Through this, Azuma attributes the lack of ‘an author’ to both the decline of the grand narrative and the propagation of simulacrum. He would describe a situation very similar to Kizuna Ai later in the book. The whole section of chara-moe is a goldmine for paragraphs related to Kizuna Ai, and I will quote the relevant ones at length
In such a situation, it does not make sense to ask what the original of Di Gi Charat is, who the author is, or what kind of message is implied. The entire project was driven by the power of fragments; projects such as the anime or the novel, formerly discussed independently as a “work,” are merely related products, just like character mugs and loose -leaf binders… In fact, the design of Digiko is a result of sampling and combining popular elements from recent otaku culture, as if to downplay the authorship of the designer… As one can immediately see in specialty stores in the Akihabara or Shinjuku parts of Tokyo, the moe-elements are proliferating within otaku culture. The “characters” circulating in these stores are not unique designs created by the individual talent of the author but an output generated from preregistered elements and combined according to the marketing program of each work…
Other than the creator of her model, by Tomitake and available on MikuMikuDance, the majority of how the channel work is a mystery and mostly up to speculation. But among her videos, her twitter account sell the idea of a real… person? Thing?… working, just like a real YouTube Vlogger, even if she is only an AI in her own mythos. It assists with the small narrative of the work and therefore is insanely popular. By being neither original nor a fake, she can become her own simulacrum, her lack of author, reproducible design all work together to make Kizuna Ai a piece of postmodernist fiction. When we watch Kizuna Ai related products, we are not simply doing narrative consumption, but database consumption: with Kizuna Ai we are absorbing the whole of otaku culture, through her synthesis of otaku elements.
Postmodernism is weird
In summary, Kizuna Ai works because she conforms to current otaku trends. Her personality, design, and mannerisms are all things we come to accept simply from watching anime over the course of our lives. He conformity allows us to easily accept her, and can be explained as one of the reasons for her popularity. Even having an obsession with postmodernism for over six months now, I only a rough idea of what postmodernism is. But Azuma’s book analyses otaku culture with an eloquent lens. Kizuna Ai easily applies to the postmodern analysis Azuma applied to anime over 16 years ago. If he wrote the book today, Kizuna Ai would no doubt be written about. I’d advise you get the book today if you want to be an “Intellectual Otaku” - it’s available online and on most universities.