In January this year I visited Japan – something I’ve always wanted to do. It was great. And it wasn’t quite as culturally ‘wacky’ as I think is often portrayed in the media and on the web. There’s definitely a lot of quirky stuff to enjoy, but I think it’s easy to get a distorted view of Japanese culture here in the West – especially if you’re a nerd.
I want to begin with that caveat because, inevitably, I am now going to focus on precisely the kind of wacky stuff that gave me the wrong impression in the first place.
Ahem. You’re no doubt familiar with Hello Kitty, a Japanese collectable brand that’s gone global. Hello Kitty still seems to be as big as ever in her homeland, but there are plenty of other, stranger characters that haven’t made it elsewhere just yet. So here are three of the most interesting collectable series I spotted in Tokyo shops, like Tokyu Hands and Kiddyland, which might not catch on over here…
Introducing: a personal trainer who happens to be an egg, a courtesy turned into a collectable, and what I can only describe as what would have happened if David Cronenberg had invented Pikmin.
The display below caught my attention in the corner of Kiddyland (click the image for the full picture), mainly thanks to the cheesy music emanating from it.
The music turned out to be coming from the video below. I was immediately intrigued. Without a proper translation it’s difficult to truly understand the purpose of Tamami Eggman, but what I have ascertained is that he’s a camp personal trainer, and he’s an egg. And with the help of his besideburned friends Bella and Maggie, he’s encouraging everyone to “eggcise”. See what you make of it:
My favourite part is where his crotch-shell cracks from all the strain. Surely being an egg is not suited to any kind of demanding physical activity.
But never mind the impracticalities – just look at all of the wonderful Tamami Eggman nicknacks you can buy! Like this tissue holder (not something we go in for much in the UK):
Or these notebooks for keeping track of your eggcise routines:
I got one of those for my friend. You can see all the other items on the manufacturer’s website. I wonder how many lives Tamami has changed?
‘Series Ikiru’ dogeza characters
Right. I’m easing you in here. Tamami Eggman is good oval fun, but things get a little darker with this next series of collectables – dogeza toys. Dogeza is the traditional gesture of humble prostration in which someone gets on their knees and puts their head to the floor in deference, which you might have seen in Japanese cinema. It’s very dramatic and direct (as I discovered when a beggar did it to me). And apparently, it makes for a popular phone charm.
The concept must have struck a chord with young Japanese as there really is a huge range of Series Ikiru products (the above was at Tokyu Hands) and you can get them in most capsule toy arcades. There seems to be a flavour for any occasion. The default is office workers but you can also get a guy in a Christmas outfit, this guy with a New Years’ mochi on his back, and look! A whole range for the summer:
Lots more on the official blog.
But what I find most disturbing (and darkly comic) about these characters is what’s on the other side: most of them are sobbing. Apparently ‘ikiru’ means ‘to live’.
So… to live is to suffer?
Kobito Dukan (‘Dwarf Encyclopedia’)
This is it. Time for those grotesque Pikmin I mentioned. Like Pikmin, the creatures of the Kobito Dukan (UPDATE: actually pronounced ‘zukan‘) universe are tiny little beings who live amongst us. Unlike Pikmin, they are actually humanoids, if not human, and seem to have personalities in common with The Borrowers and other, more mischievous mythological ‘wee folk’. They also look pretty damn ugly.
I puzzled over Kobito Dukan toys in many shops and arcades in Tokyo, but it was only when I found the books in Kiddyland that I began to understand the context: surprisingly, they were created for a series of children’s books which began with the ‘Dwarf Encyclopedia‘. This guide to identifying and catching the ‘dwarves’ not only contains illustrations, but photographs of these creatures in the real world. It’s a joyously creative concept and although – or perhaps because – they are hideous, they’re also compelling. I bought one of the books just for the pictures, and I’m still enjoying it. No wonder they’re a hit with children.
This video provides a little backstory – and it’s in English, for some reason:
You can read more about Kobito Dukan in this great blog post and I also recommend browsing the official website and online shop. Maybe they could catch on in the UK, but I just don’t see Toys R Us really going for it.
I just had to share this inexplicable capsule toy:
I mean to me it looks like a series of dogs wiggling their anuses – but that can’t be it. Can it?