Pure plastic love. It lives on desks. Its lives on shelves. But in Japan, it lives everywhere. Figures are more than collectibles. They're sculpted fantasy that reflect the artistic tradition of the country's past and its present.
In Japan, there are events dedicated to figures and figure collecting. The summer Wonder Festival was recently held in Tokyo, dazzling visitors with figurines from famous figure-makers as well as ones sculpted by hobbyists. The figures ranged from super-heroes to bikini babes to sexually-explicit S&M themed pieces.
The range of figures in Japan is astounding. But it's not only the range, it's just how figure-crazy the country is.
But it isn't just collecting figures. Websites like Moeyo.com specialize in the latest figure news and reviews, while, increasingly, fans upload their own photos of figures. "Many folks have a small booth at home for photography," Tokyo-based blogger Danny Choo told Kotaku.
For figure connoisseurs, taking photos isn't simply a matter of turning a camera on a figure. "Figures look very different, depending on the angle," explained Choo. It's a matter of finding that picture-perfect angle. And, within the last few years, more and more collectors are taking their beloved figures and snapping photos. Using perspective, the photos give the appearance that the figures are actually life-sized.
Hardcore figure collectors pay a premium for limited edition statues or one-of-a-kind originals. Figure collecting is universal, yet figures in Japan are different from figures in the West—in terms of subject matter and craftsmanship.
Whether they're based on Star Wars, The Terminator, or even Iron Man, Western figures are often based on movies or cinematic video games; the figures have life-like realism and exist comfortably in our 3D space. It's ultimately all about the source material, and in the West, the source material is perhaps more realistic.
In Japan, physical features are exaggerated—they're more what the West would call "cartoony", a trait that does exist in Western figures. The reason why it's far more prevalent in Japanese figures is that the influence of manga and anime is felt more in video games and the rest of pop culture. The West excels in 3D creations that emphasize weight, heft, and physics, while many Japanese game creators still rely on 2D imagery. Historically, there is precedent for Japan to focus on "flat" illustrations, something that they've done for centuries and something that well-known modern Japanese artists like Takashi Murakami continues to explore.
"Of course, there are Japanese figures based on polygonal creations, but many are based on 2D manga or anime characters, which ultimately doesn't make them very realistic," Japanese blogger Monpuchi of website Moeyo. "The figures end up being 2.5D, with their roots in illustration." They don't look real, but they don't quite look fake, because at the same time they continuously remind you that they are an anime character, they also remind you that they are a figure. The attempt at realism is there, maybe through delicate sculpting or decorative paint, but the realism is found in a game or anime and not in our world.
Japan has a long history with dolls. There's a doll festival, the Hinamatsuri, that started during the Heian Period (8th century to 12th century). But in the immediate years after World War II, Japan went toy crazy. "The easiest way for many companies to make money was to retool their factories from military weapons or supplies to make toys," game localizer and author Matt Alt told Kotaku. "The toy industry was a quick method to jumpstart the economy." Tin toys ruled the 1950s and 1960s, until the advent of vinyl toys in the late 1960s. The decade saw new kaiju (giant monsters) like Gamera and Mothra and new TV shows like Ultra Q and Ultraman. According to Alt, the kaiju vinyl toy boom during the late 1960s was akin to the Pokémon boom during the 1990s. It was during the 1990s, after Gundam models were sold to adults as a reaction to the kiddy robots and kiddy robot shows, that things changed.
Up until the mid 1980's, all anime were sponsored by toy companies, but as Matt Alt explained, more and more original video anime (OVA) were released that were created independent from toy makers. Fans wanted to own figurine versions of the characters, helping fuel figure collecting, which might have previously been seen as simply buying older, retro figures. According to Alt, "Owning things is very otaku." Original video anime, which were made possible by video tape, allowed fans to own new anime in a way that was previously thought unthinkable.
"During the 1990s, there was the rise of beautiful young girl figures with characters from anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion getting figures," explained Monpuchi. Since fans were attracted to the drawn quality of these female characters, the figures were not realistic representations of the human form; however, they were realistic renderings of the anime original. Things like capsule toys, which contained little toy statues fans could easily assemble, helped bring figurines to a larger audience.
The shift from robots to beautiful young girls was a major one, and it reflected the changing tastes of Japanese otaku (nerds). While previous generations of collectors decorated their rooms with large mechas, robots, and monsters, many otaku of the late 1990s and onward began favoring cute female figures. Neon Genesis Evangelion was the bridge between the large mecha fandom and the growing beautiful-young-girl fandom. This conicided with the lower manufacturing costs and improved figure-making tech, which lead to better looking figures as well as ridiculous, ableit short-lived, innovations (such as squeezable boobs).
Figures change with the age. They are a representative of a segment of Japanese culture, what it likes, what it loves, and what it finds fetching. There's been a push to call figure sculpture Art with a capital A. The country's most famous artist, Takashi Murakami, worked with Osaka-born figure sculptor Bome, creating a series of bishoujo, or "beautiful young girl", figures and even exhibiting at major art galleries in New York and Paris.
Bome, however, doesn't view himself as an artist, but rather, a "modeler". "I don't understand art," Bome told author Patrick Galbraith in The Otaku Encyclopedia. "I don't understand the heart of art at all, and the border dividing what's art and what's not is unclear to me."
It's unclear to me as well, and frankly, it's largely irrelevant. Figure makers come from a long artistic tradition in Japan that spans centuries—even if they're making doe-eyed schoolgirl figures. The attention to detail is, according to Matt Alt, akin to what you'd find with netsuke miniature sculptures. The interlocking parts, while maybe not directly influenced, were used in Buddhist statue sculptures.
Yet, the subject matter—video games and anime characters—is so modern, so now. Figures might not be Art with a capital A, but they're representatives of Japan's digital and drawn culture. No wonder the country's guys are gaga for them.