Suddenly, Mayu Iizuka casts aside her calm personality and begins to make small screams and gesticulate in a makeshift recording studio in Tokyo while her avatar appears on the screens of hundreds of fans.

Long considered a small segment of Japanese subculture, virtual Youtubers ("vtubers") — like this 26-year-old, who lends her voice and gestures to a character named Yume Kotobuki — are now a lucrative industry, with some channels earning more than a million dollars a year.

The videos are designed to make fans feel like they’re interacting directly with the animated character on screen, with some subscribers paying hundreds of dollars to have one of their comments featured during a stream.

"When I play video games live and win, my fans congratulate me" and send small sums of money "to show your support"Mayu Iizuka tells AFP.

Thanks to a webcam and a motion sensor around her neck, the young woman brings Yume to life. With her high-pitched voice, her short skirt, and her huge purple eyes, she looks like a typical vtubers avatar.

Alongside her, her team controls the character’s facial expressions.

"is part of my family"

The world of VTubers has grown rapidly since its inception some five years ago, with 16,000 active content producers worldwide, according to specialist company User Local, and flourishing fan communities on platforms like Twitch and TikTok.

Japanese local governments sometimes use it to promote themselves, and even the leading actors in the movie "batman"Robert Pattinson and Zoe Kravitz, gave an interview to a Japanese VTuber.

Their sources of income are similar to those of traditional streamers, for example through the feature "superchat" from YouTube, which gives a place to subscribers’ comments in proportion to what they paid.

Last year, the nine YouTube channels that generated the most revenue through this system were from VTubers, all from the same Tokyo talent agency.

These channels receive up to $1.5 million in donations a year, according to data analytics site Playboard.

Kazuma Murakami, a 30-year-old auto technician, admits that he sometimes spends up to 10,000 yen (70 euros or 73 dollars) to have one of his comments featured and seen by his favorite V-tuber.

Kazumi, a computer scientist who only wanted to give his first name, decorated his small Tokyo apartment with posters, framed photos and key chains featuring his idol Mio Ookami, a half-girl, half-wolf character.

"I can spend five to ten hours thinking about her"He says. "It’s like he’s part of my family".

"Get attention"

This tendency for fans to open their hearts and wallets to their favorite character is similar to "an ancient practice where fans of idols and animations expressed their support by buying tons of stuff"says Noriyuki Nagamatsu of the online advertising agency DA Consortium.

It is "a way to get the attention of the loved one, and to feel superior to other fans"Add.

VTubers often take a backseat to their characters, and many fans like Kazumi say they swoon for Mio, not the actress who brings her to life.

However, the border that separates them is sometimes blurred. A Japanese court recently ruled in favor of a VTuber who claimed that online insults against her character were also attacks against her.

Virtual characters can "transcend gender, age or appearance, but the important thing is that there is a real person behind who reads the comments"estimated Kazuhito Ozawa, the plaintiff’s lawyer.

Mayu Iizuka says that revealing her identity after "play" Yume for four years made her nervous.

I was afraid that Yume’s fans "were disappointed to see the real person behind"but "reactions have been good"he assures.

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