Within the universe of anime, manga, comics and movies, “figurine” holds a title of value over that of a simple “toy”. Depicted in elements of Japanese pop culture, figurines stand as idols, representing a fan’s loyalty to specific characters. In the well-known Japanese film Densha Otoko (Train Man) (2005), the main character is a typical otaku whose small, isolated room is lined with figurines of all different sizes and types. From magical girls to mecha-robots, figurines function as a physical manifestation of a fan’s biggest passions.
In Japan, figurines are a part of the otaku world– primarily connected to anime and manga, these models are both a source of preserved admiration and hands-on building. Ranging from palm-sized to desktop scales, delicately constructed replicas to do-it-yourself kits, figurines ultimately promote an obsessive want to collect due to the sheer variety that is offered. Japanese gacha (capsule vending machines) particularly elicit a wanton need to continue buying. The combination of gacha’s inexpensive nature with the inability to actually pick a figure makes it easy to give the machine multiple tries in an attempt to attain a sought-after collectible.
In the US, it may be hard to find similar machines that pop out novelty figurines, but that doesn’t completely limit fans’ options when looking outside Japan. Figurine culture in America largely mimics Japan’s — comic book and movie characters are placed into the 3D world through fragile figures and modeling kits. Western design has gradually become more molded by the source of figurine pop-culture.
Now, the society of fan-based followings is less distinct, overlapping culturally in the way that their design and depiction of characters. For example, the popular Japanese figurine business Good Smile Company is known for making characters with a distinct chibi – tiny – and kawaii – cute – style. They have gone from focusing solely on Japanese manga and anime to branching out to include well-known characters from Western genres, including Star Wars and Disney. The recognizable style used for Japanese anime and manga is now no longer limited to strictly Japanese products. This is seen in Western merchandise as well– American companies HKT Import Toys and Lunar Toys sell primarily Japanese figurines across the US, as well as equally popular figurines from Western comic books and movies. These include Marvel and DC superheroes in particular, with styles ranging from hyper-realistic to ‘chibi-fied’ adaptations of the characters.
In 2009, the popular figurine maker Kotobukiya formed a US team to bring its products abroad, focusing on iconic characters from Marvel and DC to appeal to US fans. There has been a widely popular bishojo (or “beautiful girl”) line of statues in these universes that follow the recognizable Japanese anime style. This fusion of Eastern and Western aesthetics transfers fluidly to comic heroines, and provides consumers with something new that stands out in the market for licensed merchandise. It can be said that, through the modern mingling of cultural practices and aesthetics, people have become familiar with the hybridized styles of Japanese and American figurines.
Both figurine cultures reveal an appreciation that goes into compiling and augmenting collections. Whether it be just one or two characters, or shelves comprising of an entire show’s cast, figurines are a way for fans to get a tangible thrill out of something they love and enjoy.