Live Report

Vocaloid Opera “The End” Starring Hatsune Miku Lives Up to the Hype in Stunning Fashion

June 17, 2013

© Crypton Future Media, Inc. / © Louis Vuitton / Illustration: YKBX

When one thinks of an opera, they tend to imagine some sort of era-themed backdrop, occupied by actors in elaborate costumes. An orchestra tends to be involved. The area visible to spectators is very busy, usually even before the performance starts.

Yet at Tokyo’s Orchard Hall, the stage for “The End” featured no activity before the show started. No dazzling backdrops yet – just three overlapping screens and what appeared to be a cube positioned in the center. Avant-garde sound engineer and electronica beatmaker Keiichiro Shibuya would later take his place inside the latter, the only human somewhat visible during the 90-minute performance. Rather, “The End” starred a projection of Vocaloid idol Hatsune Miku against surreal backdrop images – and although the physical space wasn’t cluttered, but the digital opera was oftentimes very busy.

“The End” promotes itself as  new style of opera, one comprising computer-created music and video, free of human appearances. Shibuya, who did the show’s music, teamed up with writer Toshiki Okada and visual producer YKBX to craft “The End.” This new type of performance, billed as a “Vocaloid opera,” debuted in Yamaguchi City last year, with every show selling out and prompting additional dates. “The End” came to Orchard Hall for three shows this May, and will travel to Paris later this year. It’s worthy of the hype; it’s a genuinely enthralling show, one that sometime can get overwhelming but still capable of captivating minds through to the end…

© Crypton Future Media, Inc. / © Louis Vuitton / Illustration: YKBX / Model: ModelingCafe

The story is abstract, but there are enough details present to piece together what’s going on. “The End” jumps between vignettes, featuring Hatsune Miku clad in clothes designed by Louis Vuitton’s artistic director Marc Jacobs and his design team. All of her singing gets translated into English, which is displayed prominently on the screen. In some scenes, she’s joined by a rabbit-like creature reminiscent of the yuru-chara boom going on right now, speaking in cutesy, grammatically incorrect Japanese. At other times, Miku speaks to an unseen character over the phone. That’s about it.

Although a specific narrative never fully emerges, “The End” fittingly focuses on death; the show’s central question is “What is death?” The whole production brings to mind the work of David Lynch, from Miku’s one-sided, existential phone calls to the primary setting being what appears to be a simple living room, reminiscent of chunks of Lynch’s “Inland Empire.” Also like a lot of Lynch’s work, it’s tough to figure out what’s actually going on – Miku is facing the prospect of death (or the awareness of dying) and trying to come to terms with this. I think.

Photo: Ryuichi Maruo

One doesn’t need to dwell too much on the plot, though, because everything else about “The End” does a great job of monopolizing one’s attention. The visuals are stunning, YKBX using every inch of the projection screens to immerse the audience. The view can get trippy – lazers, giant eyeballs and waves of Miku’s aqua-green hair flowing across all the screens. The best touches, though, are what the folks behind “The End” do to Miku. Her physical appearance undergoes various alterations during the opera, ranging from simple additions like a gas mask to a total transformation during the show’s climatic musical number.

And the music matches the images in spectacle. The songs themselves are relatively straightforward in structure, yet Miku’s digi voice makes them more intriguing, adding a digital imperfection. Unlike a traditional set of opera songs, though, the ones in “The End” sometime morph into four-on-the-floor bangers, tracks that would be just as home on a club dancefloor. Shibuya peppers the music with little disruptions throughout – a digital ripple here, a stray beat there – that add to the disorienting feel. The most important aspect of the music, though, is how huge it sounds. For a blown-up stage production, the grandiosity of these songs matches well.

Photo: Ryuichi Maruo

“The End” at times feels a little too ambitious, especially when it comes to the themes. The central one of “What is death?” seems a bit all over the place, yet more intriguing – and maybe more confusing – is a question that springs up later: “What does it mean to be alive?” Hatsune Miku, a non-physical being, is forced to ponder her existence. Yet we also get various views inside of Miku – literally, as the video screen zooms into her mouth or nose – and these moments segue into shots of the blood and muscles of a real human being. By the end, though, it isn’t really clear what the opera is trying to say about Miku.

Although the plot and theme can get twisted, the visuals and music of “The End” ultimately steal the show. They justify the hype for this Vocaloid opera, creating an entrancing shows that feels like a dream. It’s a triumph of technology intertwining with emotionally resonant art, and one of the most unique shows this writer has ever seen. “The End” might not take up much stage space, but it has enough sensory overload for a dozen productions.