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Thursday, Dec. 18, 2008
Introducing Magibon, Japan's YouTube darling
Special to The Japan Times
Of all the paths to fame these days, one of the quickest can be a video on YouTube. Within days or even hours the viral word gets out and — voila — celebrity.
Comedian Tina Fey's dead-on impersonations of U.S. vice presidential candidate Sara Palin may have first appeared on "Saturday Night Live," but they were seen by far more people on YouTube — which arguably made her the topic of many more water-cooler conversations than she would have been otherwise.
For a vertical trajectory from zero to YouTube hero, though, it's hard to beat Magibon, a 22-year-old former pharmacy-checkout clerk from a small Pennsylvania town with a four-figure population. Since she began uploading videos to her YouTube channel in July 2006 — the total has now passed 60 — Magibon has attracted 4.15 million channel views, while ascending to No. 1 on the Japanese YouTube view rankings.
Why Japan? Despite living in small-town America, Magibon became, via the Internet, a fan of Japanese pop music while still in high school — Morning Musume was an early favorite (the nickname of one MM member, Aibon, inspired her Internet handle) — and, later on, subtitled Japanese TV dramas. When she began making her videos, usually of herself in her home, usually saying little or nothing (and that little in beginner's Japanese), she was already a committed Japanophile and her on-screen persona was reminiscent of a Japanese teenage idoru (manufactured entertainer).
Petite, dark-haired and looking younger than her age, she already had the basic idoru attributes. The big, innocent-looking eyes staring into the camera and the cutely flirtatious smiles and V-signs completed the effect, with added dashes of sly metahumor (drinking soy sauce with a straight face right from the bottle or saying "I like pizza" in Japanese and taking an emphatic chomp from the real thing).
Americans, however, mostly didn't get Magibon — many of the English-language user comments to her videos range from the puzzled ("Why doesn't she talk?") to the rude ("how in the hell does she hav 69000 subscribers" [sic]) to the downright unprintable. For this reason, I have been asked not to reveal her real name and the town where she lives.
Japanese viewers, however, males especially, found her American Zen idoru act funny, charming and kawaii (cute) — and made her a YouTube star. As her view-count soared, the Japanese media took notice and in April, October and November of this year she was flown to Japan for Web, TV and print interviews and live appearances. Her biggest recent gig was the "YouTube Live Tokyo" event on Nov. 23 at Studio Coast, Shinkiba, together with artists such as BoA and Kreva and other YouTube celebrities. The event was held in tandem with a related event in San Francisco.
In person at the headquarters of the Amuse talent agency (Amuse is coordinating her latest visit), Magibon may have a Japan-influenced look (shopping expeditions to Shibuya and Harajuku saw to that), but still sounds and acts much like your average American girl. At the same time, she is sharper and more media-savvy than her YouTube image would have you believe.
In the beginning, though, she "wasn't expecting that anyone from Japan would be looking" at her videos, but after seeing global views reach 5,000, then 10,000, then higher, she did some investigating — and found that most of her fans were in Japan.
This made her happy, since being a Japanese pop-culture fan in a small town was a lonely affair.
"I was the only one (in high school) interested in anything of this," she says. "Also, my parents were old-fashioned — they didn't understand anything foreign."
But as much as Magibon wanted to go to Japan, she denies any desire, then or now, to "become Japanese." She was silent in her early videos not from a desire to appear mysteriously Oriental, but because "I was really nervous." Also, she spoke Japanese on camera not to fool viewers about her nationality (as some of her detractors claim), but simply to practice her Nihongo.
"My pronunciation is pretty good now, but I still don't have a big vocabulary," she admits.
Where does she take it from here? "I want to live in Japan forever," she says, apparently meaning every word of it. "I want to work in Japan and marry in Japan."
Beyond a desire to "work in the Japanese entertainment field," however, she hasn't solidified her plans. "I'll discuss that with other people," she says.
Meanwhile, she has to watch her yen while she's here, since being a YouTube celebrity — even a No. 1 — isn't all that lucrative. "I earn some money from it, but it's not much," she says with a laugh.
She also denies having any over-arching aesthetic as a video artist. "If I think too much about what I'm going to say, it doesn't work," she explains. "I don't use scripts. There's no grand plan."
While affirming her amateur status ("It's just a hobby," she says), she has developed that essential for anyone in the public eye: a thick skin.
"Someone at YouTube told me that 90 percent of (the viewers) like what I'm doing and 10 percent don't like it, but it's that small group that makes the nasty comments," she says. "So I don't let it bother me."
Magibon's video blog can be found at www.youtube.com/user/MRirian