This clip for “Alice in Musicland: a VOCALOID Musical” debuted this weekend. You might want to check it out as it looks like the creative breakthrough for the Vocaloid music software that we all knew in our guts was going to show up one day. Although it originated in Japan, it’s a work that is rich in the tradition of the American animated musical by way of 21st century tech: no one has ever heard Vocaloids singing at this level of harmonic complexity before. It’s also nearly 12 min. long, but the whole thing just flies by as real entertainment for the masses should.
As you might have gathered already from the title, “Alice in Musicland” harkens back to the glory days of Walt Disney’s early works, when American musical theater was a prime inspiration (I think the style shifted to “parodies of other musical genres” after the arrival of the Sherman Brothers songwriting team at the studio in the early sixties). Heck, there’s even a 1935 Silly Symphony short called “Musicland” that features similar jazzy interludes to the ones seen here. “Alice in Musicland” may have originated in an otaku incubator, but it doesn’t waste much time trying to please Hatsune Miku fans. Sure, the Vocaloids are presented in super deformed variations, but the piece really goes for the “storybook + musical” jugular that was the hallmark of early American animated films.
But to make entertainment of that quality, Uncle Walt had to build and staff an entire studio, and then a corporate empire, to churn it out. Amazingly, this voice-synthesizer assisted musical was written and performed by a single person: a semi-professional musician who calls herself Oster Project. The art design and animation was completed by a skeleton crew. This is what Wataru Sasaki, who helped develop Hatsune Miku and the Vocaloid software, meant when he told me “We don’t need anime because I think the fan’s creativity is at a higher level than anime.” Maybe the best thing about "Alice" is that it is presented as theater, complete with scene changes and chintzy decorations. There’s no multiple camera angles or editing. We're the birth of a new form, but the roots of old fashioned show biz are as firm as ever.
While the clip only debuted this weekend, it has already racked up millions of hits on Nico Nico Douga (I linked the YouTube version here because Nico Nico is crap to embed). The Japanese comments there range from, “this will be a legend in Vocaloid history!”, to “this is just like good old Disney!” to sincere pleas to Oster Project of “how can I pay you for this? Take my money, please!” Just consuming “Alice in Musicland” for free isn’t enough. It encourages reaction and participation. And we’re all wired to do plenty of both these days. Hopefully, it will inspire many others around the world.
Final thoughts before the curtain call: Some pundits say that China and Korea are poised to strike at any moment with planet-sweeping pop culture sensations of their own. But “Alice in Musicland” could only have originated in Japan. While other countries were closed off or asleep during the 20th century, Japan’s deep America complex lead to careful study and familiarly with Western styles and genres, which allows the resulting mash-ups to travel easily abroad. Even as America forgets and forsakes it’s own native art forms, I have no doubt someone in Japan is already dedicated to mastering them all over again. During the 20th century, people used to complain that Japan could only produce "imitations" and "fakes" (accusations that could now be leveled elsewhere), but does "Alice in Musicland" really feel like either of those to you?