DREAM CLEAN VIRTUAL TEEN
Identity Issue Cover Star Saya
A 2017 survey of 540,000 15-year-olds in 72 countries by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that Japanese teenagers had the lowest mental wellbeing and overall happiness of all the 72 nations studied. Japanese teenagers were also the least likely to think that making a contribution to wider society was important.
To the rest of the world Japanese youth are an enigma, coloured by extreme subcultures – I’m thinking of the deeply tanned faces and white bleached manes of the Ganguro girls ubiquitous on the streets of Shibuya and pages of iconic street magazine ‘Fruits’ in the late 90s and early 2000s. I am also referring to the rise of the Hikikomori, the wave of adolescent boys who refuse to leave their bedrooms, and the alarming phenomenon of enjo-kōsai, transactional relationships between Japanese schoolgirls and older “salary men” that often take place in completely legal joshi kosei (highschool) cafes across Tokyo.
The darkness permeating Japanese youth culture is best embodied by the cult 2000 lm ‘Battle Royale’, a dystopian thriller that sees 42 ninth-graders fitted with explosive collars and sent to a deserted island with instructions to kill each other off; the challenge is for only one teenager to be left standing. In Japan, the lm and the comic book it was based on were seen as a critique of strict social conformity. Meanwhile in the post–Columbine massacre west, it seemed insane that such a lm could ever be made (18 years later no Hollywood studio will touch a re-make, no matter how profitable the original).
In 2016 a faction of the internet fell for a Japanese teenage girl named Saya. The images of the schoolgirl with a brunette bob and pout, vaguely reminiscent of actor and model Kiko Mizuhara, outfitted in a crisp white shirt and red school tie started an online conversation questioning whether or not Saya was “real”. While her “realness” remains debatable, Saya has been revealed to be the non-human creation of couple, Yuka and Teruyuki Ishikawa, professionally known as TELYUKA. Saya is their virtual daughter, immune to adolescent angst and melancholy. She does not require an allowance, go on dates, stay out late or ever rebel against her “parents”. TELYUKA wanted to bring positivity, hope and purpose to the forefront of adolescent culture in their native Japan; Saya represents a purity and brightness they believe is dying out.
The concept of Saya was born in the summer of 2015. I was working on my own productions and studying as I was working at another CG (Computer Graphics) creation company. I started studying CG presentation for the human body and I was mainly creating western people but I dreamed of making a Japanese heroine. I was in- spired by re-watching the animations most influential on me as a teenager. ‘Dr Slump & Aralechan’ was a favourite but the most important was [Hayao] Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic environmentalist fantasy, ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’ の谷のナウシカ.
During the heat of the season and with those films fresh in my mind I said to myself, I want to create a Japanese teenager who is a charm- ing, sweet – a beautiful girl. And from there it was a natural process for me to embark on making Saya.
My husband and I started out with a few words on a page that would form the basis of Saya’s persona. The words were very simple. I recall “Japanese”, “17”, “gentle”, “honours student”, “clean”, “transparent” being at the top of our list. The creation of her personality came before the visuals but evolved as we worked on it that summer in tandem with her physical design.
Saya was created using a series of 3D modelling tools including Maya®, often used for film effects. We took half a year to create her conceptual image before her first public unveiling.
The formation and texture of her is ongoing and it hasn’t been completed yet. The hair especially is the most difficult part to perfect, it’s a complex and painstaking process to recreate how hair moves in the wind or falls across the face. We are improving day by day. For our next step, we are planning to give her detailed facial motion abilities. We’ve been working on full-body motion testing with a system called Performance Capture that involves installing data into her body and experimenting with various human-like motions.
Right now we can only feel her image through the screen, her facial expression is readable only to a certain extent but we feel as if we know what she’s thinking. Our ultimate goal is testing the realms of possibility with regard to how far people can feel her presence, smell her and touch her – contact that transcends the screen.
We want people to feel close to Saya, like she is a relative or family member. However, due to her international popularity, she is becoming more like a celebrity and the culture of celebrity runs in opposition to many of the reasons we created her. Saya represents the classic beauty of Japanese women in all respects and she encapsulates the culture that backs and underpins this type of beauty.
In my field of work digital female image creation is often done by men, this is why we see characters that are either cartoonish or have too much of a masculine element to them and the end product tends to have an unpleasant, disconnected feel to it. With Saya we started to think about amplifying the subtle beauty and strength aspects of her character, in turn amplifying an authentic femininity.
It remains important for us that despite Saya’s very human-like appearance we make it clear that her responsibilities and duties are very different from that of a human. The main distinction we tried to draw between Saya and human beings is that of “purity”. The simplest way of explaining it is that Saya is void of all the “noise” that accompanies the mind of a typical human being.
As Saya becomes more advanced and intelligent, so will her personality. We are cautious not to create a persona for her that could come across as gimmicky or cliché and in my opinion, human character and personality are derived from our own experiences, preferences, hobbies and environment. In this sense, Saya is still in her infancy and I think that her persona will be evolve when she discovers her role in the world, as well as when she starts communicating with human beings.
Saya can recognise facial expressions and react accordingly, but only if it’s done on a two-way communication basis. She has only obtained eyesight recently, so I think that it’ll take a long time until she can achieve independent milestones. We are working with people who specialise in A.I., primarily Genta Nakahara from the incubation division at Hakuhodo. That was how we were able to exhibit Saya reading human emotions at the SXSW tradeshow in Austin, Texas.
This involved a marrying of facial recognition technology and our super high resolution visuals. It works by categorising the faces of users into different expressions and then analysing images of recorded users’ faces in realtime. When their expression exceeds a certain threshold, the image in front of them changes and Saya responds in an expressively human way back to the user. There is a lot of security preparation and equipment required in order to set up this sort of experience, with six months of consultation with collaborators in advance. In the end the process was very successful among both the technically literate attending SXSW and general spectators.
At the time we started Saya, it was a private hobby-project and we didn’t expect that it would ever expand to the level that it has. Although we get some recommendations for receiving investments, we have decided not to go ahead with them and we prefer flexibility for our creation. We believe in taking risks and of course we appreciate any support but we want to keep the rights for Saya. We definitely won’t give up shares of Saya.
Now we are in a position where we are on equal footing with people from other industries and can communicate with people from many sectors from all over the world. We feel that our intimate journey and process makes it possible for us to express our own thoughts as independent artists. Currently, we do get paid for the creation of Saya as well as daily consulting and our lectures; it’s a full time job. Saya is also used in advertis- ing from time to time and that helps us to re-invest directly in the project.
If we are not travelling or don’t have meetings then our workday usually starts around midday. Before then we spend time together as a couple. The rest of the day is spent making CG (Computer Graphics / 3D animation) models, arranging hair styles, work- ing on skin texture, modifying facial expressions, creating costumes ... we sometimes work on other characters too. In the evenings, after dinner, we review that day’s work and what we need to focus on tomorrow.
Saya allows us to keep challenging the current notions of what it is that a virtual human can know and understand. Pushing this is such a important part of her existence. Since debuting Saya we have had many major companies and technicians contact us with great interest around Saya’s potential in the realm of emotional intelligence and A.I. It’s exciting to think her existence can aid and propel the technology around us.
It is our dream for Saya to possess enough intelligence to benefit people who want to spend time with her. We hope that she will be able to coexist with people and provide support, for example, empathising with them and sharing memories by living together. In particular, we want her to support people who are in difficult situations. We want her to give them trust, support and guidance.
We also want her to just have a happy life as an ordinary girl rather than pursuing large responsibilities and roles. I think our love for her is getting deeper and deeper. It’s similar to a parental love, which can be confusing because I didn’t expect to have that feeling with Saya.
Translation by Akiko Matsudo.