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Sunday, Nov. 12, 2006
Serious toys for serious fans
By MARTIN WEBB
Ultraman is often cited as an example of just how different the Japanese outlook is from that of Westerners. While the bug-like eyes and clingy bodysuit of the hero himself may strike the uninitiated as ridiculous, it is the outlandish aspect of the monsters from whose wrath Ultraman is perpetually saving the world that really raises eyebrows.
Repulsive as they may seem, to Japanese men who grew up watching the series, these gargantuan marauding monsters -- with names like Kanegon, Gdon and Pegassa -- are a cherished part of their collective consciousness. Consequently, despite having kids of their own to buy toys for, many Ultraman fans spend large sums on collectible figures from the series.
The rights to each Ultraman character are owned by Tsuburaya Productions, the studio established in 1963 by the late special-effects pioneer Eiji Tsuburaya -- whose imagination yielded not only Ultraman, but Godzilla too. While mass-market Ultraman toy merchandise is mostly produced by toy manufacturer Bandai, there are also larger (around 30-cm-high) and more detailed figures created by a handful of small specialist companies. Foremost among these is Billiken Shokai, which, along with rivals like M-1 and Bear Model, produces stylized retro toys for serious collectors; the kind who subscribe to monthly magazines such as Hyper Hobby and Figure Oh (Figure King).
While Ultraman is not the only series with a following, Billiken spokesman Seiji Takahashi says that for his firm, and probably for its rivals, it is by far the most popular. "The Ultraman characters are an indispensable part of Japanese history," he says. "And even as the series continues to evolve, it looks like it will always be our most important product."
Takahashi puts the enduring appeal of the series down to its timeless pitting of a vulnerable good guy against mindlessly destructive monsters. "If you look at the current series, it's still pretty much the same as it was in the beginning," he said in an interview at the company's tiny store in the Aoyama district of central Tokyo. "There's such a universal appeal in a straight-out good guy versus bad guy scrap. These days many of our customers have sons who are also into the series, so it has assumed the role of a cross-generational bonding tool."
Billiken began life in 1976 as a purveyor of mostly U.S. retro toys, located just off Kotto-dori, a street famed for its antiques stores. Seven years later, founder Hiromoto Mihara launched its toy-manufacturing enterprise when he financed a run of 40 plastic-molded kit figures of a bizarre-looking mutant from the 1955 sci-fi flick "This Island Earth." Soon afterward, he decided to forsake hard-plastic figures and instead produce sofubi -- toys made from sofuto biniru (soft vinyl) -- later discovering that the market for Japanese characters was larger than that for those from American movies and television shows.
Billiken's figures are renowned as being incredibly detailed and lifelike, thanks to the painstaking efforts of its master sculptor, Hayao Hama. Spending as much as six months on a single design, Hama creates only two or three new models per year, which are limited to runs of 1,000 to 2,000, with each retailing for between 5,000 yen and 8,000 yen.
The firm wholesales to more than 40 stores across Japan, including selected branches of Kiddyland. There is also a small market for its beastly creations overseas, mostly concentrated in Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States, where they command prices far higher than on the domestic market.
And, although the wacky-looking Ultraman monsters might seem unfathomable to many, there's little doubt they offer a fascinating insight into the psyche of Japanese males.
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Billiken is at 101 Minami Aoyama Green Heights, 5-17-6 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo. Tel: (03) 3400-2214; open noon-8 p.m. (closed Mondays).