I’m in a convention hall in the heat of a Hong Kong summer day. Kids are lining up for hours in the street to meet their favorite Japanese artists. While you may think that this kind of reception for music stars or athletes but they’re actually waiting to buy toys or get signatures from a group of Japanese creators who, outside of this world most people wouldn’t have heard of. During the internet age, in which everything is easily accessible without much effort There are only few things — like sneakers designed by celebrities- that are so in demand that people queue for hours. This is however the norm for sofubi -which is a kind of limited-edition art object, made in small batches by skilled artisans who laboriously make each one individually.

Sofubi UK 101

“Sofubi” sofubi is a combination of the words “soft” or” vinyl” and is a reference to figures made of PVC. In the hands, they are quite tough, in spite of their malleable appearance which makes them appear squishy. They often reference Japanese themes like the kaiju monsters as well as traditional folklore characters, but are rendered using colours that are wild and psychedelic featuring glitter inlays, gradations and tones that range from intense fluorescent shades as well as soft pastels.

Domestically, they are made by skilled craftsmen, many of them are experienced in their field. This increases their status and attraction. Teresa Chiba, a popular sofubi artist whose figures tend to be based on traditional Japanese folk toys , such as inuhariko and akabeko. She states that the main difference between things like mass-produced gacha gacha (capsule) toys and artisan-made sofubi is that the former is a product, whereas sofubi are closer to handmade artworks. Chiba explains that the aesthetics of sofubi are very similar to traditional folk toys in that they have some roundness and a “looseness where you can see the hand of a person who made them.”

Sofubi are made from PVC which is polyvinyl chloride, which was first synthesized by Germany in 1872 and later made into a plastic by mixing it with different materials in 1926. The traditional method of production that is the norm in Japan employs a wax mold that melts while making an aluminum mold. Each step is done by hand. Veteran artisans use their skill to spread the materials across the mold’s crevices. This enables the final piece to have beautiful detail and a hollow, light body.

Although sofubi are now mass-produced in China ManabuTakeo, an sofubi maker and manager of several popular artists, affirms that Japanese creators only employ local artisans. He explains “The process of making these in the United States is very different. In China they put all the material in a box, and from an opening, they emerge instantly. Here, artisans make each one individually and are able to create gorgeous, clear sofubi using this method.”

Aren’t Toys meant for Kids?

Sofubi’s appeal for collectors is diverse. First, they have an subversive subculture. When compared to characters commonly used in commercial promotions or toys for children and toys, sofubi are mascots representing Japan’s underground. Hideyuki Katsumata works as an artist in Osaka who creates characters-driven art with vibrant colors and bold lines. While he was initially inspired by lowbrow art such as graffiti artists Barry McGee and Osgemeos, He incorporates motifs from the world of folk toys such as kokeshi, as well as shungas (erotic block prints made from wood) in his works. He has made sofubi over the past 10 years; the latest of which features the largest phallus that is on its head.

In the same way, Izumonster’s figures have an erotic, gritty look. Although he’s one of the most prolific sofubi artists on the field, with a vast studio in Nagoya where he works on designing, prototyping along with spray paint, he also gained his initial clientele base as a tattoo artist and currently is employed at Nagoya’s 8 Ball tattoo studio. Both his tattoos and sofubi use vivid colors, with motifs like monsters, kaijuand bizarre space creatures, and explicit naked figures with full body Irozumi ink. Some of the characters are created in the likeness of male and female genitals in vibrant colors.

Although Katsumata insists, while laughing, that his art school education isn’t his primary education, so his work is obviously “low and rudimentary” and without him consciously trying to make it accessible to consumers. this ease of access is part of the appeal. Chiba says, “Things like high culture and fashion are fabulous however they’re only accessible to a specific group of people. At a certain point in price you won’t find it. This is what I love about kabuki too, it is subcultural, an alternative to entertainment similar to TV, as opposed to Noh.”

Social Media Connections

Another significant aspect of sofubi’s popularity is the relationship to social media. Many of these fans use their social media platforms to showcase their goods. Izumonster informs me that both are inextricably connected. “Social media is extremely important for toy culture. With out Instagram it wouldn’t have been able to grow in this way.” He goes on to say, “Collectors love to show them on their feed -They take them outside and snap photos of them. If you’re looking to find out how to purchase them, you should follow the accounts of everyone as that is where you’ll find details about when the items are sold.”

Another notable aspect of the current sofubi culture is its massive female fan base, which has swooped into an untapped demographic of consumers. A few of the more well-known sofubi artists that are part of the present era is artist Konatsu. Konatsu has 67,000 followers on her primary Instagram account and her cute Kaiju toys — one of the most well-known of which is a cat monster character named Negora draws not just the typical doll-toy lovers, who could be described as to date, male geeks, but also a large number of females. Her fame, as well as other female artists who have emerged during the same period of time, such as Chiba along with Kaori Hinata, has cultivated a primarily woman-centric clientele, many of whom were originally attracted to dolls and it’s not uncommon for you to find as many females as males at the same events.

The Soft Vinyl Legacy

While sofubi are on trend at the moment, they have a long tradition and gained popularity following World War II. A large portion of these were designed for export into the US. The rise of kaiju saw soft-bodied toys explode in popularity during the 1960s. They were followed by other trends, such as robots, superheroes and characters. Takeo who is 58 of age, is of the generation that was raised with Ultraman and Godzilla as well as his love of sofubi is motivated by nostalgia. He says “Up until the junior year of high school my classmates purchased these toys and played with them. I did not think about them during high school, but once I reached the age of adulthood, people of the same age started producing sofubi during the 80s with sensibilities where I was reminded to my early days.”

A boom in sofubi fashion started in the 90s , sparked by male street fashion labels which were focused on Ura-Harajuku. Brands like Bounty Hunter sold astronomical amounts of toys. They also brought new meanings to these characters that were redesigned by fashionistas into items that were designed to be lifestyle, paired with sneakers and street fashion, targeted at adults. Takeo also noticed this popular culture as well and thought that this design had potential. He began producing the music with female artists from Indie.

Other current makers like Katsumata for instance, who started making sofubi 10 years ago, recall this boom. “When it was my early 20s sofubi began to gain popularity again and fashion brand Beams was making Ultraman and Kaiju remakes,” He says “I had seen them around this time too but it was much more popular in the day, more so than it is now. In my time, designers sofubi became fashionable, and I realized that even if you aren’t a large manufacturer, you can still make small batches. As a design as well as a decorative piece of art, the quality of the item itself is better than the competition.”

Consumer Craze

The one thing that the sofubi market shares with other essentials for street culture like T-shirts, sneakers and even T-shirts such as the ones produced by Supreme and Supreme is that the releases are generally limited. This makes them less accessible and adds to their desirability. Makers are adept at understanding consumer behavior and the market. Chiba states that earlier, independent sofubi makers were often people who just did it for some fun and created them for nostalgic reasons only, she belongs to the generation that “wants to make art and make money as well.”

Manabu describes, “With collectors, if you can get them at any price but they won’t buy it any more. They are looking for things that aren’t easy to come by, so we need to be able to control the things that are put into the market. But it can’t be too many. If they are too difficult to acquire, people will not purchase it, and, for them, it’s boring too. There are resellers who offer them for sale online at times for 10 times the price as well as others who buy their items to invest in they can make the item more valuable as well in a way. Instead of selling for two or three years with a crazy pace We are seeking longevity and to control the market in that way.”

He acknowledges that this approach can drive some consumers quite literally bonkers “Fans are very enthusiastic and excited, they are somewhat worried. They may get upset when they don’t get what they want and might go off and attack us. Stationery buyers don’t get angry like this!”

It’s not overly dramatic to suggest that the passion is a bit religious.

Chiba says, “The cultural background in Japan contributes to this type of culture because of animism. We are taught to believe that a variety of things have souls since a young age. Everything is a god so I think it is the kind of country that makes it easy to create characters.”

Katsumata adds “Japan is a yaoyorozu (literally eight million gods, the Shinto notion that everything has gods] nation, and there is the idea that if one has faces, there’s a soul.”

It’s almost the end to the Expo at the end of this year’s Expo in Hong Kong and punters are going home with their newly purchased collection. Although there’s a lot to be spoken about this phenomenon in Japan it’s clear that the notion of playing with toys is a common theme across different cultures. Chiba is in agreement. “When I attend conventions across the world, everyone is doing similar things: they take their toys, we have dinner together, take photos together and say, how cute. Although it’s essentially adult children playing together with their toys it is fun!”