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Japan Trends

Virtual idols win legions of real-world fans in Japan

Technology brings anime fantasies to life for devotees of J-pop

TOKYO -- Animated pop idols are stepping off the screen and into the real world. With a bit of technological sleight of hand, they can perform live on stage -- singing, dancing and engaging with audiences in live performances like actual people. This blurring of the lines between the screen and real life has anime fans going crazy.

In late November, a 19-year-old university student in Tokyo, attended one such live event. She was there to see Egoist, a virtual pop group from the "Guilty Crown" anime series. The sole performer was lead singer Inori Yuzuriha, the anime's main character, projected onstage in 3-D.

"Tell me how many boys and girls are here tonight," Inori says. "Well, doesn't an upbeat number tire me out?" she says, reaching for water.

"My dear Inori waved back to me!" She enthused after the show. "It's like she just jumped out of the anime world. Even those songs with a surreal feeling resonate with me when Inori sings them."

Fans at an Egoist live concert at Zepp Tokyo

It is, of course, an illusion. A human singer who goes by the stage name Chelly does all the singing, dancing and talking backstage. Using motion-capture technology, Chelly's moves are recreated for Inori onstage. "When I sing, I imagine how Inori would sing," Chelly said.

Virtual pop stars are nothing new in Japan. The pioneer is Hatsune Miku, an anime character who sings with the help of a vocal synthesizer. As virtual-reality technology has grown more sophisticated, incorporating real singers and dancers, the characters are becoming more lifelike, creating a deeper connection with fans.

In October 2015, Japanese film producer and distributor Toei launched a virtual male duo, dubbed Eight of Triangle. The cartoon performers come with their own backstory. Kazuto Endo is 29 and his partner Ray Kimishima is 23. They are street performers who were "discovered" by the company. They have a live concert scheduled for January 2017.

Fantasies made real

"I'm so happy, because I can communicate with them on Twitter and on the radio as if they really exist," said one 35-year-old fan in Tokyo. She follows the duo's tweets and catches all their radio shows. On weekends, she and her friend visit cafes and restaurants the virtual singers mention in their show. She takes these "pilgrimages" very seriously.  "I must keep an eye on them," she said.

Unlike most anime programs, the identities of the actors who are the voices for the duo are kept secret. That does not seem to bother fans; for some, it adds to the mystique. "It actually allows me to focus purely on the characters without any preconceptions that might otherwise come from the voice actors," she said. "I can't wait to see them at a live concert in January."

Eight of Triangle have competition. Shinji and Rebel Cross are anime characters from the AR performers project created by Yuke's, an Osaka-based game developer. The duo will also perform live in January.

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AR performers are "the modern-day version of ningyo joruri (Japanese puppet theater), which combines motion-capture technology and the art of singing and dancing," said producer Akari Uchida, who has developed hit software titles, including romance simulation games, for entertainment company Konami Holdings.

The professional singers and dancers who bring Shinji and Rebel Cross to life give them a stylized perfection no human duo can match. Their first live show in April caused a stir. The characters were able to make eye contact with the audience and have conversations. "I hope people will enjoy experiencing what it's like to be seen by the performers from the stage," Uchida said.

Bandai, a game company, and others are working to synchronize the real and virtual worlds. The company has created the Dream Festival project, launching virtual male pop group and associated anime series. The young actors doing the voices for the group perform as the characters in real life. In November, the companies put on a concert featuring the group.

As the line between fantasy and reality blurs, their fans are evermore enthralled. One day, virtual stars may even outshine their human counterparts.

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