Maywa Denki’s toy musical instrument, the Otamatone, was released for over the counter sale at Tokyu Hands Ginza last Saturday and promptly sold out by Monday. Meiwa Denki’s inventive and off-the-wall toys and art performances have been hugely popular both in Japan and the West for a long time now and new products tend to be pounced on by eager customers.

I was lucky enough on Monday to catch a performance that included rendition of “Greensleeves” on the Otamatone (see video above) at O’Crest in Shibuya as part of Japan Music Week. The Otamatone, whose names plays on the Japanese words for “tadpole” and “sound,” is a kind of electronic recorder that emits a sound when you blow through it and squeeze the cheeks of the cute character at the tube’s base.

Other instruments from the Tsukuba range were on display like these percussive flowers:

and this bizarre horn:

Their Web site likens each performance to a “Formula One Grand Prix race in which accidents and crashes are common.” Repairs are carried out during the performance, hence in the video of the percussive flowers you can see a cymbal being fixed.

The original Meiwa Denki company is far removed from its current far-out incarnation. The business was started up by the current president’s father in the 1970s and produced vacuum tubes for larger electronics firms. The firm was forced to close down in 1979, but after 14 years of bankruptcy was reestablished as an art unit by brothers Masamichi and Nobumichi Tosa, sons of founder Sakaichi Tosa. As a nod to the roots of the company all employees wear blue Devo-esque working overalls. The current president of the company is younger brother Nobumichi, who took over after Masamichi retired as president in 2001 at the ridiculously young age of 35.

While not all “products” manufactured by the company are available for sale, the company manages to bridge the gap between art collective and commercial enterprise with ease by both exhibiting, performing, holding workshops and releasing items for sale. Part of their philosophy is to create “nonsense machines,” which have no apparent practical use and, being Japanese, they also fully embrace the cute aesthetic.

On both counts, the Otamatone nails it.

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