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VTubers star in drama about 3 sisters

© “Welcome to THE WATANUKI HOUSE” Film Partners

From left: Futaba, Ichika and Mitsuki in “Watanuki-san chi no”

By Kanta Ishida / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer“Watanuki-san chi no” (Welcome to THE WATANUKI HOUSE”) on TV Tokyo, the 12th and final episode of which was broadcast on July 5, was an adventurous program that pushed the boundaries of anime.

At first glance it was just a 3-D animation show. The lead characters are three sisters in their 20s living in a detached house in the shitamachi old downtown area in Tokyo.

The eldest sister is Ichika, a relaxed, slightly odd woman who’s just started her career as a voice actress. The second is Futaba, a frank woman who is getting married soon, while the youngest, Mitsuki, is a college student who is cool most of the time but can get hot-blooded over unlikely things.

It was a fairly pleasant drama in which sisters with different personalities interacted with each other in dialogue-based stories in each episode.

Remember “Yappari Neko ga Suki” (I like cats after all), a comedy about three sisters on Fuji TV that won much popularity from 1988 to 1991? You could say “Watanuki-san chi no” restored the essence of that show with computer-generated animation.

It was aired in a drama slot, not an anime slot. The sisters were acted and voiced by entertainers who are so-called virtual YouTubers, or VTubers. The characters’ movements were produced by motion capture technology, which was used to trace the movement of the actor behind a VTuber persona and to move the computer-generated character, or the avatar, in the same way at the same time.

According to a survey by a web analytics firm, User Local, Inc., there are currently about 8,700 VTubers, who first came along in 2016. For this show, VTubers who won an audition met for the first time in a virtual studio in cyberspace. Their performance with each other was then edited.

“I learned about VTubers around June last year and was greatly shocked. I was convinced that I can do some very interesting things by featuring them,” said producer Kimitaka Goka, 44.

“It’s the strength of VTubers that they can directly address fans during live streaming. We decided to make a situation comedy with a fixed stage set because that would be most fitting to generate a real-time feel,” he said.

VTuber Sarugakucho Futaba, who plays the role of Futaba, is a new face in the world of VTubers. Tokino Sora, who plays Ichika, and HibikiAo, who plays Mitsuki, are both popular VTubers in their own right. The creative team redesigned them from scratch by making the most of their original designs, to add a sense of unity on screen.

“The budget is lower than with an ordinary anime work,” Goka said. But he added that he and his team had to go through trial and error in terms of technical difficulties.

“Watanuki-san chi no” is decisively different from an ordinary anime in that performers can use ad libs.

“Ao-chan [HibikiAo] makes many improvisations, so you’d start panicking if you’ve read and studied only the script,” Tokino said. “But it was a fun experience.”

That gave their performance a sense of urgency, and it’s a delight to see the three VTubers’ having better and better chemistry every episode.

Is this a new horizon for animation? Or is it a sign that the concept of animation is changing and slowly merging with live action?

* * *

On the day after I finished writing this article, a devastating arson attack occurred at Kyoto Animation Co. It breaks my heart when I think of the pain fans all over the world will feel whenever they watch those entertaining and beautiful masterpieces created by the studio from now on. Maybe something decisively changed on that day.

And yet, violence cannot take away our love of anime.

Ishida is a Yomiuri Shimbun senior writer whose areas of expertise include manga and anime.Speech

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