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History of Japanese Figures - From Garage Kit to Anime Figures

Updated on December 6, 2011
Special Full-action Body Type-3 (S.F.B.T-3) by M-FIELD can replicate human body movements.
Special Full-action Body Type-3 (S.F.B.T-3) by M-FIELD can replicate human body movements. | Source

From a figure that can replicate movements of human body to super realistic figurines, what you can find in contemporary Japanese figures is astonishing.

The most popular genre of Japanese figures today is anime figures. The level of replication done by popular figure manufacturers in Japan has reached to the point where appearance of their three dimensional figurine is identical to what you see in anime.

Of all dolls and action figures in the world, why has Japanese figures evolved in such a unique way? How did it start? This article will take you through a brief history of Japanese figure industry.

The Beginning

It was all started by the introduction of garage kit models in Japanese market in 1980’s. They were realistic models of anime characters and super heroes made by skilled modelers in Japan.

Unlike the character toys produced prior to this era, which were hardly identical to original appearance in anime and TV shows, the “garage kits” were made with much more details and realistic look.

Silicone molding
Silicone molding | Source

How Garage Kits Were Made

Each garage kit was produced with a contemporary manufacturing method of Japanese figures. The method uses a prototype made of polyester putty or clay to create a silicone rubber mold, and then molds a figure in synthetic resin.

This method allowed modelers in Japan to reproduce prototype figures with ease. However, there was a down side as well.

Most of production processes of garage kits were done by hands and life of synthetic resin used at that time was not long enough to be suitable for a mass production. This kept the price of most garage kits quite high.

Because of its high price, garage kit was no longer toy that kids plays with in a sandbox. It established a new genre of toy, an ornamental figure.

Becoming Popular

In 1990’s, there was a jump in the popularity of garage kits in Japanese market. The anime shows like Sailor Moon and Neon Genesis Evangelion made a huge success and their related products sold very well.

The sales of garage kits of these anime series increased as well, allowing garage kit manufacturers to expand their businesses in large scale.

This phenomenon has lead Japanese figure industry to two directions. First, it has created an environment to produce one of the world’s highest levels of skilled modelers. Second, it has made major toy manufacturers in Japan to advance into a figure market.

Jack Sparrow figure from Medicom Toys
Jack Sparrow figure from Medicom Toys | Source

New Era for Japanese Figures

Today’s Japanese figure industry is very lively. In addition to major toy manufacturers like Bandai, Takara Tommy Arts, and Banpresto, there are many companies specialized in creating figures; Kaiyodo, Good Smile Company, and Max Factory for example.

Genres of Japanese figures have been subdivided into many niche categories as well. Today, you can find figures of anime characters, super heroes, robots, cartoons, TV shows and even real movie stars.

Among all what has been selling the most is the genre called moe. It’s a term that generalizes Japanese otaku’s perspective of cute and sweet looks and moe figures usually points to figures of female anime characters.

One major change besides subdivision of genres is a decline in popularity of garage kit. Since garage kit requires you to assemble and paint to enjoy, it has not become popular as much as complete figures on a market today.

A head of HotToy's True Type Body figure
A head of HotToy's True Type Body figure | Source

After Thoughts

So, there you have a brief history of Japanese figure industry since 1980 to present day. It seems today’s trend in popularity of pre-assembled and pre-painted figures indicates ornamental figures are no longer toys only for modelers, but they are also popular among general population.

As foreign competitors like HotToys produces high quality figures that is every bit as good as Japanese figures now, toy maker in Japan will definitely strive to produce figures with more quality and details.

It is very exciting to think what the future of Japanese figures hold.

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