TOYAMA – A group of craftsmen working in a more than 400-year-old metalworking tradition in central Japan have dived into the world of anime as a way to survive the decline of their industry and boost their own sense of fulfillment as artisans.
At an event for anime and cartoon aficionados in Oyabe, Toyama Prefecture, in March, what at first glance looked like the helmet of a medieval samurai warrior with a face cover of burnished copper drew a crowd of picture-taking fans.
Although it was meant for the boys’ festival in May, when families set up altars decorated with items such as warrior dolls, the helmet was actually modeled on a robot that appears in the popular Japanese fantasy anime “Gurren Lagann.”
“This is what I came to see,” one of the spectators said of the helmet, the work of a group led by Shunsuke Wada, a 33-year-old repousse and chasing artist from neighboring Takaoka city.
“We started it for fun, thinking we’d be happy if just one of the helmets was sold,” Wada said of the anime-inspired artwork. “I never thought it would end up like this.”
Seventeen craftsmen were involved in making the helmet, including prototype production and metal casting, swept along by Wada’s enthusiasm and without regard at first for whether the end product would sell.
The artwork, however, has had a measure of success despite its price tag. The face cover alone costs around ¥150,000 ($1,470), and the price nearly doubles to ¥290,000 if it is sold together with a handicraft panel showing characters from the anime and a drill, an object that plays a key role in the anime’s story.
Seven sets have been sold since it was first shown to the public in July 2014 at Wonder Festival, a figures exhibition in Chiba City near Tokyo.
After the helmet featured on a blog well known among anime enthusiasts, media interest followed, with more public displays and eventually orders.
Born into a metalworking family in Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture, Wada himself was an avid anime fan since he was small, growing up watching TV programs such as “Ultraman.”
He was engaged in film production as part of extracurricular activities while studying at the prestigious Tokyo University of Technology. He later worked as a computer graphics designer for a Tokyo video game company.
In 2011, after the birth of his daughter, he returned to his hometown to take over his father’s studio, chiefly producing fittings for Buddhist altars. “I didn’t have any reservations,” he said about the switch of work. “They were the same, in that both involved craftsmanship appealing to the hearts of people,” said Wada.
The studio typically just follows orders to produce fixtures that will be part of an altar, with no scope for innovation, and after a while, Wada “began to feel a desire to engage in new challenges.”
In early 2013, Wada went to a meeting of young traditional artisans in Takaoka, hoping some might share his passion for anime and his vision of using the time-honored techniques of their trade to create something that would really engage them.
He had anticipated rejection but more than a dozen agreed with his idea and agreed to work together.
The first work they came up with was the Gurren Lagann helmet, for which the cost of purchasing materials was shared by the 17 associates, working on it in their spare time between their regular jobs.
Nobuyuki Noto, 29, who produced the wooden pedestal, said, “Everyone had that feeling of being limited in what they did, so I was happy when I was sounded out” by Wada.
The group is exploring ideas for collaboration with other anime series, hoping to eventually help pitch their traditional line of work to the public.
They have produced a bust of Godzilla, the creature from one of the best-known Japanese monster film series. Counting on the anime boom abroad, they envision exporting works some day.
“Although traditional industries have been declining, work for each young craftsman has been on the rise,” said Shiro Dogu, 41, the owner of a casting company and one of Wada’s collaborators. “This generally points to shortages of successors.”
Dogu said young artisans should not be content simply with an increased workload but need to take on challenges. “We won’t be able to survive unless we change and take chances by trying new things,” he said.
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