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Adding some passion to our plastic world

by Mio Yamada

PLASTIC CULTURE: How Japanese Toys Conquered the World, by Woodrow Phoenix. Kodansha International, 2006, 112 pp., fully illustrated, 3,150 yen (cloth).

Plastic toys were once considered cheap, disposable and replaceable — bright and cheerful mass-manufactured dolls, model cars and trinkets that needed little care and attention. No one could have imagined that somewhere along the line they would become something of value, or that anyone would happily bid hundreds of dollars on eBay for a slightly deformed, 15-cm-high action figure with a skull head and Lego-like legs.

Woodrow Phoenix, a comic-book artist and illustrator, shows an adult sensitivity to childhood entertainment that reminds readers that such toys are not simply playthings. He wastes no time in telling us that “The power of toys is not about regression or infantilism. It is the recognition of possibility.” And that possibility, “our secret, wishing selves,” is something that has driven designers and artists to create not only toys but films, cartoons, books and so much entertainment that is equally enjoyed by adults and children.

In “Plastic Culture” Phoenix traces the history of our relationship with one type of toy — plastic models — their progression from cheap playthings of post-World War II to the unique pieces of art of Takashi Murakami. He follows their cultural journey across the Pacific and details the influence of Japanese manufacturing and design on today’s popular “urban vinyl”: sought-after limited edition collector’s models from designers such as Bathing Ape and Silas.

Japan, so often accused of infantilism, might be thought the birthplace of such designer toys, but Phoenix describes how plastic-toy culture, especially that of collectibles, may have its roots in the character or mascot merchandising of 1950s America. Those free mobile-phone decorations found attached to bottled and canned drinks in Japan are just a modern version of the plastic toys that were found inside ’50s Kelloggs’ cereal boxes. In the 1970s when freebie culture began to decline elsewhere, it was in Japan that it continued to thrive. And it was in this environment that the most famous of character goods, Hello Kitty, was introduced.

Sanrio virtually stumbled upon the secret of Hello Kitty’s success. Starting out as a character on a small plastic coin purse, she was not an immediate hit. Unlike the character goods before her, she was not created to illustrate and promote a product. She also had no back story, which made her early fans all the more curious. By slowly introducing details of her background in response to her fans’ questions, Sanrio allowed Hello Kitty’s fan base to gradually familiarize with her. Her birthplace was revealed, friends were introduced, and even though she was a feline herself, a pet cat was introduced in 2004. People grew up with her and interacted with her and this made her so popular that she was able to “endorse” and popularize brands with her image.

This display of dedication is a recurring theme in “Plastic Culture.” All the designers and artists that Phoenix interviews express that same personal passion for plastic toys. For example, the best Godzilla model maker for the model-kit company Kaiyodo was, in fact, a fan whose model design won a competition. Street-fashion store owner and urban-vinyl producer Hikaru Iwanaga named his chain of stores Bounty Hunter not just because he was a Star Wars fan but because his hobby is to hunt down old U.S. toys and memorabilia. Producer and toy distributor Press Pop’s Yatsutaka Minegishi and Maki Hakui felt so strongly about the accuracy of the beads of sweat on their Kaufman Twins models (based on Spike Jonze’s movie “Adaptation”) that they went to the factory and hand-painted the dolls themselves. And Michael Lau, cult Hong Kong designer of the “Gardeners,” a collection of plastic hip-hop characters that began the urban vinyl craze, is himself an avid collector of toys and advertising mascots.

There is a word for people with this kind of super-enthusiasm, a once derogatory word that is slowly evolving into something complimentary — otaku, what Phoenix describes as “a new species, whose father is the material society and whose mother is the information society,” and whose birth “has given way to a new type of consumer culture.” Artist Takashi Murakami, fascinated by this otaku-culture, especially figure-collecting, worked with Kaiyodo and the toy company Takara to create his “Superflat Museum,” a collection of small plastic reproductions of his artwork, to be given away free with certain items at convenience stores.

Phoenix writes of this blurring of art and manufactured good, and its new accessibility to the general public. Artist (and toy collector) Yoshitomo Nara’s “Pup Cup” and “Little Wanderer” reproductions are another example of this, as is the artistic expression found in the bright bunny-shaped Alessi kitchen goods and the Eero Aarbul animal-shaped seats on which Phoenix concludes his journey.

“Plastic Culture” is an intelligent study that, although written by a proud otaku, is accessible to anyone with a vague interest in toys and design. Well-designed and illustrated with vibrant closeup photographs on virtually every page, it is also an incredibly stylish book that has obviously been created with the same passion as that expressed by the collectors and designers it covers.