Wednesday, April 8, 2015

[DC008] A History of Kaiyodo

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Kaiyodo's founder, Miyawaki Osamu

                In order to understand how Azuma's theory applies (or fails to apply) to Kaiyodo, it is important to review the company's history, which can be roughly grouped into three phases.

                The first phase, lasting from 1964 to 1980, was characterized by the sale of plastic model kits known as puramokei and slot racing cars. The second phase, lasting from 1980 to 2006, was characterized by the manufacture and sale of garage kit models and small toys packaged with food items. The third phase, beginning in 2006 and continuing to the present, saw the release of the Revoltech toy line, designed by Kaiyodo and manufactured in China.

                 These three phases, of course, do not line up exactly with Azuma's three Eras discussed in the last section. Indeed, Kaiyodo was not directly involved with the otaku industry until 1980, almost twenty years after the company was founded. Prior to 1980, Kaiyodo's corporate philosophy was very steeped in the Grand Narrative concerns of art, education, and the transmission of cultural heritage, concerns very far afield from the society-rejecting 1980s otaku.

                In his memoir, Tsukurumono wayozora ni kirameku hoshi no sū hodo mugen ni aru (Things to Make Are as Infinite as the Stars in the Night Sky) company founder Miyawaki Osamu describes initially feeling a great antipathy to the "long-haired and noisy" otaku garage kit enthusiasts who frequented Kaiyodo. However, once we take into account the broader social changes described by Azuma, the lives of Miyawaki Osamu and Shūichi, and technological changes in the hobby industry, Azuma's periodization takes on a more relevant shape

                In April of 1964, Miyawaki Osamu opened a small hobby shop named "Kaiyodo" in Moriguchi, Osaka. According to Miyawaki Osamu's memoir, he knew he wanted to start a business, but was conflicted between opening a hobby shop and an udon restaurant. Unable to decide, he balanced a wooden sword on its point and decided that if it fell to the right, he would open an udon restaurant and if it fell to the left, he would open a hobby shop. As you might guess, the wooden sword fell to the left and Kaiyodo was born.

                Kaiyodo was a small shop, starting out at approximately six yards square. But business was brisk, and the sudden popularity of American slot cars in the winter of 1964 allowed Kaiyodo to expand to thirty-two square yards within their first year of operation. This expansion allowed Kaiyodo to construct a slot-car racing course in the store. Although the slot car boom subsided soon after the expansion, Kaiyodo was already well on its way to success.

                Aside from slot cars, Kaiyodo mainly sold plastic model kits. These kits were mostly of famous ships, airplanes, and so on, and were a hit with both children and adult enthusiasts. But Miyawaki Osamu was not content to simply sell toys. From the very beginning, he had a passion for social issues and was determined that his voice be heard. In 1965, he self-published the first of many Kaiyodo magazines, Umi no awa, attempting to explain his vision of plastic models as a tool for social change

                Miyawaki Osamu saw plastic models as a means of developing children's imaginations and personalities. In contrast to the "education mamas" who saw grueling study as the means of securing happiness, Miyawaki Osamu saw play as contributing to a child's mental, physical, and social well-being. These would be common themes in Miyawaki Osamu's future publications, such as 1966's Kaiyo or 1985's ARTPLA.
Artpla magazine on display
                Miyawaki Osamu did not contain his social visions to essays and magazines. After the end of the slot racing boom, Miyawaki Osamu dismantled the slot-car racing course and once again expanded the store to allow construction of a "model pool." This model pool was branded as a place for city children to escape from the summer heat. Miyawaki Osamu brought in live eels so that children could experience nature and learn how to catch them. Of course, it also encouraged children to buy model ships and submarines since they now had a place to play with them. By concerning himself with the well-being of his customers, Miyawaki Osamu was able to build a business strategy which adapted to his customers' needs.

                Once summer ended, the area was converted to a play area for model tanks. Kaiyodo opened a "Plastic Model Classroom" which taught children how to construct and display models (such as model tanks) of their own. Miyawaki Osamu then rented out the local Community Center and hosted what he described as "Japan's First Model Kit Show." Students of the Plastic Model Classroom and other model enthusiasts put up their constructions for display and judging as works of art.

                Convinced of the artistic value of model kits, Miyawaki Osamu began selling pre-constructed and pre-decorated model kits to Osaka-area businesses. This "Art Plastic" became a pet project of Miyawaki Osamu's, as he felt that these miniature versions of historical vehicles helped transmit cultural information to people who might never be able to see the real thing. In 1972, Kaiyodo collaborated with model company Imai Kagaku in designing a Roman Trireme model kit.

                Despite this foray into production, Kaiyodo would not be directly responsible for an original toy again until the 1980 garage kit boom. Technical limitations and the high cost of production presented two great barriers. Even in the production of Art Plastic pieces, Miyawaki Osamu had to create new tools such as the "Spray Ace" and "Plier Ace" to get the effects he desired (88). Plastic Models required the creation of metal forms, which cost several million yen to produce. Such an upfront investment was simply beyond the means of a small hobby shop such as Kaiyodo.

                All of this changed with the introduction of Vacuum Form and Resin Kit models, the two technical innovations which led to the 1980 garage kit boom. While the technical details of the Vacuum Form and Resin Mold processes are not relevant to the current discussion, their low cost and high level of detail were nothing short of revolutionary for hobby enthusiasts of the era. Hijiri Saki of the magazine Uchusen claimed that the term "garage kit" had been coined in imitation of American "garage bands," who created music suited to their own tastes in the comfort of their own homes. Similarly, hobby enthusiasts were now able to create models of their own choosing.

                Miyawaki Shūichi, son of Miyawaki Osamu, took the garage kit boom to heart. He specifically complained about the inadequate level of detail in officially licensed merchandise for Ultraman and Godzilla, noting that despite the fact that the Ultraman TV show used miniatures, the toys lacked all but the vaguest similarity to the miniatures. They were models of Ultraman "in shape only." With the Vacuum Form and Resin Mold processes, however, Miyawaki Shūichi and his fellow enthusiasts were able to spend all of their spare time creating models which lived up to their exacting technical standards.
 Kaiyodo garage kit of Tenchi Muyo's Ryoko from 1993 (from a private collector)
                Although garage kit models were a boon to Kaiyodo, by 1997 the cost of producing metal molds had fallen enough that Kaiyodo was able to start producing toys using this process. Inspired by the success of Todd McFarlane's bloody and highly detailed Spawn toys, Kaiyodo produced a series of Fist of the North Star figures that were well received (133).

                Around this same time, Kaiyodo was approached by candy maker Furuta to produce a series of toys to be included with chocolate eggs, for which they also used the metal mold process (149). Although Kaiyodo's chocolate egg toys were models of real animals, they outsold similar products with licensed characters (chocolate eggs with Hello Kitty and Pokémon prizes). While technological innovations reduced the cost of producing toys, Kaiyodo's technical proficiency and exacting attention to detail proved to be a formidable factor in driving sales.

                  While market research showed that children far preferred licensed characters to Kaiyodo's non-licensed animal figures, Kaiyodo's chocolate egg prizes continued to out-sell those produced by larger companies such as Bandai and Kinder Surprise well into the early 2000s (150-152). Kaiyodo and Furuta parted ways in 2002, but producing the chocolate egg prizes gave Kaiyodo invaluable experience in working with Chinese manufacturers to create metal form figures (183). Kaiyodo was now able to pursue a variety of other products, from figures based on classic anime such as Laputa to mini-figures of Sony's robot dog Aibo.

                This experience proved invaluable in 2006, when Kaiyodo released its first Revoltech figure, No.001 Shin Getter 1, from the New Getter Robo anime series. This was quickly followed by other giant robot figures from anime series such as Patlabor and Neon Genesis Evangelion. As the number and variety of Revoltech figures increased, it was broken down into sub-categories such as Fraulein Revoltech (young female characters), Sci-Fi Revoltech, Yamaguchi Revoltech (sculpted by famed modeler Yamaguchi Katsuhisa), and the Pixar Figure Collection.
The original Revoltech figure
                The Revoltech series has remained popular, and Kaiyodo consistently showed strong profits even in the midst of the 2008 global recession (Teikoku Databank 1).  2010’s Sci-Fi Revoltech Series No. 010 Woody proved particularly popular in both Japanese and international markets.

                With the release of the Revoltech line, Kaiyodo has reached its hereto highest levels of popularity and commercial success. The line has drawn imitators such as Good Smile Company's figma and Nendoroid series, but Revoltech figures remain ahead of the curve in terms of detail and quality. By combining customizability with detailed craftsmanship, Revoltech figures combine older otaku's desire for accurate reproduction with younger otaku's desire for "polymorphous perversity." I will discuss the Revoltech line in more detail in Part Three, but first let's look at how Kaiyodo stacks up against Azuma's theories.

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