Designer Ricky Wilson holds up a figure that looks like the creature from Alien, only with a pink color scheme and heavy metal accessories. In fact, it appears as if three different figures have been cut up and mixed together. Wilson’s creation is an example of designer vinyl, a chaotic blending of cultural references in unique art objects.
“There is definitely a certain kind of fan who gets this,” says the 26-year-old American, who lives in Japan. “These figures are a little bit underground, like low-run punk and hardcore records.”
Vinyl figures in Japan were originally low-cost, mass-produced toys for kids to play with and, in the process, destroy. Because of this, not many of them in good condition survive, especially from the ’60s, and the ones that do are usually quite expensive.
This changed in the ’90s, when companies like Medicom started to make vinyl figures based on music groups and artist designs, and toymaker Bandai (through its B-Club) released reproductions of older figures by companies like Bullmark. Other firms began producing older-style vinyl, including a lot of the minor kaiju monsters that never made it into figure form the first time around. Vinyl is cheaper than PVC, which makes it possible to do runs in the low hundreds and still break even, and the material is more durable and cheaper than resin.
The result is a kind of subculture within a subculture. Designer vinyl figures are popular with collectors who grew up on a steady diet of monster movies and creature films, and a handful of artists produce items for them based on that rarified knowledge.
“There’s a certain handcrafted feeling to vinyl that a lot of other figures are missing,” says Wilson, a fan of kaiju movies who played with Godzilla and Ultraman figures as a kid. “It’s also cool to see figures that were made just because the creator believed in the design and without a lot of consideration for marketability—which, of course, is something you can’t do with a larger company or more cash-intensive production method.”
Besides selling their products in shops and online, most designer-vinyl producers organize events at galleries and otaku-oriented gatherings. Clients run the gamut of ages and interests, but most aficionados of vintage figures tend to be SF fans, while collectors of the newer stuff also like fashion and design. That helps explain stores located in hip neighborhoods like Daikanyama.
Toy collector paradise Mandarake is still the No. 1 stop for vintage vinyl, with a range of products spanning genres and time periods. Other core locations include Ichibanboshi in Koenji, FewMany in Shinjuku, and Itabashi’s Monstock!! AP, a fantastic café run by a vinyl producer and frequented by creators.
For his part, Wilson would like to see designer vinyl have a place of its own in the center of geek culture, Akihabara.
“A lot of the guys there would really like vinyl if it was presented in a way that was accessible to them,” he says, “but unfortunately vinyl can be a little difficult to get into, both from a stylistic point of view as well as from a collecting standpoint.”
Yet vinyl, despite its cooler, edgier image, isn’t so far removed from the otaku scene. There are beautiful figures of Urusei Yatsura’s Lum-chan and Neon Genesis Evangelion’s Ayanami Rei, and even some fashion dolls by companies like Marmit that are based on anime and geared towards otaku. Last year, the girls from Touhou, a videogame franchise beloved for its cute characters, got their own vinyl figures too.
FewMany: 3-17-21 Shinjuku. Tel: 03-3353-2532. Open noon-8pm (irregular holidays). Nearest stn: Shinjuku, east exit. www.fewmany.com
Ichibanboshi: 3-37-19 Koenji-Minami, Suginami-ku. Tel: 03-3313-8025. Open Tue-Fri 2-8pm, Sat-Sun noon-8pm, closed Mon. Nearest stn: Koenji. http://1ban-boshi.com/
Mandrake has four locations in Tokyo. Akihabara branch: 3-11-12 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3252-7007. Open daily noon-10pm. Nearest stn: Akihabara. www.mandarake.co.jp
Monstock!! AP: 6-86-10 Takinogawa, Kita-ku. Open Fri-Mon 5-11pm (gallery 5-9pm), closed Tue-Thu. Tel: 050-1183-3808. Nearest stn: Itabashi. http://monstockap.blog35.fc2.com