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Tomopinion: Land of the Setting Sun

4:00 PM on 01.20.2014 // Chris Seto

The Japanese figure industry might be walking straight into a dark period and it's our fault!

In the late 1950s, the then-prime minister of Britain, Harold Macmillan, gave a speech to the British people saying that “they never had it so good.” Back then, Britain was riding high on the post war economic boom so the economy was looking up, unemployment was down and generally, things were rosy (though it turned out to be a very fragile outlook). Fast forward to 2011, and some doofus adviser to the current PM used the same line to people who were in the middle of a global recession… Sufficed to say, his words didn’t go down so well.

Why am I bringing this up? Because the same line can be applied to the current state of the Japanese figure industry. The only question is whether we’re on the side of the 50s boom or the 2011 misstep? Well, you’ll be happy to know that it’s definitely closer to the 50s example but just as the boom back then was exceptionally fragile, our current situation with the Japanese figures is also very precarious. Or perhaps, we’ve already started falling down the dark path. I’m not saying that we’re going to go straight from boom to bust like many financial companies over the past few years but rather, we’re facing something far more insidious.



Take 2013 for example. How many figures were shown off which made you really excited? I’m not talking about ones which made you go “ooh, I think I’d like one of those,” but ones which really kicked off a “must get at all costs” reaction? I doubt that there were actually that many for each of us and looking back, 2013 was actually a pretty damn boring year for general releases. Nendoroids and poseable figures like the figma line totally dominated the release list and for a simple reason: They’re cheap! As for fixed pose figures, the majority can be fit into two camps:

▪ Static fixed pose figures (usually of the figure simply standing) with simple designs and not too much detail (swimsuits are a standard design we see)

▪ More dynamic posed figures which are based off known artwork so they come with a certain level of expectation as we know how they should end up as.

And that’s about it. There are some exceptions, of course, but they all come with caveats. Many of us were excited by the release of Bayonetta but she was marred by a lengthy delay before she was eventually released. The company who manufactured her didn’t exactly have a stellar track record when it comes to quality figures and they're better known for their Nendoroid and Nendo accessory releases.

Another example is Shinonono Houki from AmiAmi. She looks impressive, but she’s the first release from AmiAmi and has been delayed even more than Bayonetta. She’s now not due until mid 2014! In the meantime, bigger companies like Good Smile, Kotobukiya and Yamato are content with not really pushing the envelopes and releasing large numbers of pretty boring figures. The problem is that we’re still buying them!!

Business is Business

Let’s not forget that these companies are running a business and the role of any company is to make profit. And when it comes to mass marketing, the general rule of thumb is to minimize production costs and keep them as low as possible before the consumer starts taking notice. Basically, we consumers set the bar by telling the companies, with our wallets, how low we are willing to go in terms of costs and the companies will make a product within that budget. The lower the budget, the more corners need to be cut in order to reach the desired price point. And we’ve set the bar pretty damn low!

Remember when the Tomopop editors made a list of figure lines they would like to see disappear? We had Beach Queens, figmas, Nendos and a bunch of others in that list, but they persevere because people still buy them! And because there are buyers, companies will continue to make them and not take risks with more adventurous releases.

Instead of pushing the companies to create things to dazzle us, we’re effectively asking them to just push the barrel down further. If really impressive figures are released, we don’t buy them because we think they are too expensive. We don’t pay for quality but instead just hope that we can nab one on a sale. The problem with that is that it scares the makers away from doing something similar in the future.

Just take a look at Alter. Before, they used to create stunning, original works with huge, dynamic displays and price tags to match. Remember their Nanoha figures? Nowadays, their figures are far less interesting. They’ve also focused their attention on their male character Altair line, but even disregarding the male factor, their figures still lack the quality and excitement of earlier releases. Sales have been reasonable, but I think much of the momentum behind them is “it’s a figure of a male character!” rather than the strength of the figure itself. And this is a trend which is still going on.

One other thing which been creeping in is the gradual lowering of the size of the figures. Releases these days are pretty damn small. So small, in fact that the scale measurement on them are often better off discarded. If you actually measure out the height of some of the figures, you may find that many of them don't belong in the scale range which they are advertised as. Some 1/8 scale figures are actually closer to 1/10. Of course, this doesn't matter as much if the quality of the release is still high and is an effect of the limited spacing of buyers homes, both in Japan and in the West, but it's something to think about when looking at pricing trends.

Fear of Change

It’s not like figure companies haven’t tried to diversify their lines either. We just haven’t been particularly receptive of their attempts. Remember when GSC tried releasing more poseable (but more pricey) Nendoroid figures? Whatever happened to those? Alter tried to give us a high quality poseable figure line in their Almechas, but we didn’t bite. But when Wave introduced a cheap and cheerful Beach Queen line of simple characters in standing (or seated) poses in swimsuits, we snapped it right up, so much so that some of our reviewers have started to tire of seeing release after release of Beach Queens.

It's the same with Nendoroids and Figmas. Personally, I'm tired of seeing more and more releases a long time ago, but others have started to feel the same way. You can almost guarantee a new figma and/or nendo being released every month. The top 10 Good Smile Company releases of the year are awash with them and they're still selling well. So well in fact that other companies have jumped onto their bandwagon, so expect lots of new releases of these types in the coming years. Whether you want to or not. And, don't forget, it's likely to be at the expense of fixed pose figures. After all, companies only have a finite amount of resources to make new products and when you compare the costs of producing a figma to a fixed pose figure, which needs to be made from scratch, it's a no-brainer from a business sense. Unfortunately, it's having the effect of lowering the diversity in the scene.

The knock on effect

And it’s not just the fixed pose figures which are facing issues. It’s crept over to the garage kit scene as well. Before, events like Wonder Festival and Treasure Festa were ways for aspiring makers to show off their wares and to catch the eyes of the bigger companies and possibly get a job with them. Essentially, they were marketing their skills so we got some really extravagant and dynamic kits designed to show off what they could do. Now, rather than selling their skill sets, GK makers these days are looking more at selling their works for a fixed fee to companies so they can get a general PVC release. And to improve their chances of being picked up, they have somewhat dumbed down their kits so it’s easier for companies to mass produce from the offset. Many GK makers now are not taking advantage of the benefits of resin as they’re thinking about how easily their kits can be made into PVC.

On the plus side, more figures are being released for those less inclined to paint their own kits, but the skill set in the GK pool is rapidly diminishing as a result. Kits are generally far less interesting now than they were a few years ago. Just take a look at our galleries and see if you agree!

Of course, there are exceptions but they are getting fewer and far between. I think the last one was that huge Metis kit or perhaps the bloody shadow Labrys from Persona 4 Arena. People used to look at kits at events and remark "I hope that this figure gets a PVC release". Well, be careful what you wish for!! We are getting more PVC releases of GK figures now, but it has come at a cost and we may be paying for it long into the future!

On the fringes

The only areas which seem to be resisting these trends are actually areas you wouldn't expect. The most obvious one are limited edition figures. With makers taking fewer risks in the mass market, the more interesting figures are being pushed as limited releases which need to be ordered directly from their site or from their events. Of course, GSC just uses those to push more variants down our throats, but this is where we get things like the Seven Deadly Sins figures and Queens Gate figures such as Noel Vermillion (probably one of my favourite PVC releases in a long time!) But this means that many of them are out of the reach of overseas buyers, who must rely on proxies which incur extra costs and other possible issues, which are enough to scare off more than a few potential buyers and end up making such releases rather niche.

The other main area which is bucking the trend is a little more interesting. It’s the Ero-figure market! Take it from me,adult figures is the one area which has improved the most in the shortest space of time. Ero-figures, until recently, were pretty damn awful. Low quality and generally not nice to look at in any way. But in recent years, they’ve really upped their game, but many haven’t noticed this change as very few people are willing to look at having an ero-figure in their collection, much less actually purchase one. Of course, the niche nature of the ero-figure market and the drive to higher quality products have meant that they’re going in the exactly opposite trend to the mainstream. Prices are going up, the average ero-figure is priced at the high end of the regular figures and usually exceeds them by some margin, and production numbers are usually pretty low as the companies probably don’t expect to sell that many of them. It was surprisingly difficult to get a hold of C.A. Yoko from Lechery, for example.

At the edge of the abyss

And that pretty much takes us to where we are now. In terms of sheer quantity of figures available, we really haven’t had it better, but it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish them from each other as the companies start homing onto a standard template to maximize profits. We’ve actually gone past the peak when companies really still tried to wow us with their releases and we’re going down a slope where releases are dictated by current anime shows or trends with the biggest advertising budget. The question is, when will the consumers wake up and realize that we’ve boxed ourselves in? Figures are simply boring for the most part and is there a way back to the heyday (which will, no doubt, be different depending on who you’re talking to)?

The Japanese figure industry is in a weird place now. I liken it to where Hollywood censorship is at. Hollywood studios are breaking their backs (and their films) in order to get their movies to appeal to the widest audience. To them, that means the 12A/PG-13 rating is the golden ticket to aim for and that has scuppered a hell of a lot of films recently as they cut bits to hell and back to shoehorn their films to the specs to receive the right rating. The newer Die Hard films and the new Robocop are examples of this.

Figure companies are in a similar boat, in that general consensus says that the figure designs that are cheapest to produce with the broadest appeal are ones with the character standing in place, like they’re posing for a tourist pic while they’re on holiday with as little detailing as they can get away with. And we’re not challenging that. Perhaps we should, and the sooner the better!

We haven’t had it so good, but just as Harold Macmillan was deathly worried about how it would be near impossible to maintain the boom experienced by the Brits in the late 50s, perhaps we should be worried about the direction our hobby is headed. Looks like the train has already left the station though so it may be more of a matter of damage control rather than aiming for a resurgence...

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments or, if you're got more to say on the topic, write it up on our CBlogs and let us know how you feel about the current state of the hobby!

Chris Seto, Associate Editor
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Chris is one of the many tomopop writers. While often hibernating (even in the summer), this creature will often arise from his slumber to cover some of the more niche parts of the japanese figur... more   |   staff directory

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