Froggy-kun over at Fantastic Memes wrote a post the other day asking “Anime Figurines – Are They Worth It?” My answer, as it is to most questions, is “it depends.” Many of the downsides are pretty obvious – they’re expensive, they take up space, they don’t really do much, they can be fragile, the list goes on. So what’s the appeal of it? Why do people even buy figures at all? I, as far as I am down the so-called “slippery slope” of figure-buying, still occasionally find myself looking at my shelf full of figures and asking myself what I’m doing with my life. Why am I even spending my hard-earned money on all these useless things? Here are a few of the things I tell myself in response.
Warning and Introduction
By most reasonable standards, my figure collection cannot be considered small. It’s nothing like the absurdly expansive collections you’ll see in some otaku’s rooms, but I’ve got about 55-60 figures of various sizes strewn about my waning shelf space, and more than that if you include plushies. I’ve been at it for about two years now, and from this experience I can tell you that this hobby is EXPENSIVE and ADDICTIVE. If you can get them at a discount from sites like AmiAmi (link redacted for your wallet’s sake), they may not be as huge a dent in your budget as they could be, but the international shipping can add on a significant percentage of the price – at times canceling out your discount and then some! On top of that, the seemingly reasonable pre-shipping prices, as well as the appeal of the figures themselves, can lure you into getting “just one more” again and again. There’s a reason the “slippery slope” metaphor is so prevalent in figure discussions. If you lack willpower and/or financial stability, this is probably not a hobby you want to involve yourself in, and you should probably stop reading now lest my words below convince you to partake in it.
That said, I have also learned from the experience that figure collecting can be FUN and STIMULATING for the kind of person who knows what they want from it, and can provide a unique new way to interact with your favorite anime. Like anime itself, anime figures are a medium with a lot of variety, and it offers something to enjoy for a wide range of reasons. So, since everyone lacking the mental/monetary friction necessary to keep from sliding too far down the slope should have left a paragraph ago, let’s get to some of those reasons:
Immersion and Physicality
I really only buy figures of characters/robots that I actually like. Figures from JoJo, Mazinger, Votoms, Kaiji, Evangelion, Sunred, Digimon – you know, good shows. That’s where a large part of the appeal lies for me – the Tachikoma on my shelf is like having a piece of Ghost in the Shell right here in my bedroom. I’ve basically got the entirety of Battle Tendency going on right now atop my dresser, with some giant robots and dinosaurs thrown in for good measure. That kind of immersion in my hobby is something that’s really cool to me. Rather than just watching the show and forgetting about it after a while, I’ve got the anime living in my room. I can just turn my head to the right a little and see Tetsujin 28 giving me a heroic wave. It’s like having an anime picture as your desktop wallpaper, only everywhere and in 3D. You can look at them from any angle (yes, even THAT angle, you creep – don’t you DARE look at my Getter Robo that way), under any lighting, against any background, and most notably, you can touch them, you can hold them in your hand.
Anime, on the whole, is a very virtual activity. All of our interaction with anime is through a screen and speakers, using our eyes and ears. Anime is, as is often said, 2D. You can’t have anime in the 3D world – it just doesn’t work that way. While some people like it that way, to me, it’s really nice to have something physical, something you can hold in your hand to help you bridge that gap. DVDs are okay, but it’s still just a piece of 2D artwork on the box – not much different from looking at an image of your favorite character on the computer. There’s just something so special about being able to hold a figurine in your hand – it’s a way to interact with a part of the show you love in a way you never could otherwise. You’re able to experience the medium using a third sense where there would otherwise only be two. While in most cases this is just about being able to physically grasp a piece of the show, some lines like Super Robot Chogokin take it one step further – my Chogokin Mazinger Z is actually made of metal, which, aside from making him really heavy, gives him that extra feel of roboticity (calling dibs on this word).
Interactivity and Expression
Most of the figures I buy are posable ones, like Figmas, Revoltechs, and Super Action Statues. While it’s easy to dismiss figures as being useless and only for display, one thing to remember is that they are still TOYS. You can play with them, have fun with them, manipulate them, put them in goofy poses, give them accessories, bounce them up and down while making funny mouth noises and coming up with a nonsensical story off the top of your head. Heck, I’ve got a little Dio on a tiny wind-up roadroller that I’ve zoomed around the hardwood floor upstairs at my parents’ house before going back to my carpeted apartment.
True, anime figures tend to be “adult” toys (no, not that kind of adult toy, unless you want to talk about those Queen’s Blade figures with removable clothing), and they’re more fragile and susceptible to rough-housing than your typical action figure, but that doesn’t mean they’ll go to pieces if you so much as look at them funny! Well, not good ones, anyway. Despite my unbelievable clumsiness, I have to date only managed to break one figure. Anyway, not only can you reenact scenes from the show with your figures, but you can play around with all sorts of bizarre crossovers with characters from different shows.
This represents an aspect that I feel is often overlooked when discussing figures. In addition to looking nice around your room, they can also serve as a form of expression. Similarly to how something like fanfiction lets you funnel your creativity into your hobby through words, figures can serve as a creative outlet through play and posing. Through figures, you can craft your own stories and scenarios with the characters, and create a more tangible form of transformative art. People often post funny pictures of figures doing strange things or put together in unusual ways (one figure’s head on another’s body, for example), but it’s easy to miss that this is its own form of fan art, and that this expressive potential can be a big part of the fun of owning figures. Here are a few of the fun crossovers I’ve done with my own figures:
And beyond that, some figures have more unique ways to serve as a creative vehicle – for example, these Lupin and Fujiko figures have the ability to replace the paintings in the frames with anything you choose. You can have them stealing the priceless works of art included in the set (such as the Mona Lisa), or even something a bit more dubious:
Assembly and Customization
All this talk of assembling scenes with your toys, and I haven’t even mentioned that many of these toys can be assembled themselves! Models such as Gunpla and Plamos and the like are rather popular, and these offer the rewarding sensation of having built your own model, like a LEGO, in addition to all the benefits above. These are often very detailed, accurate, and to scale, as well as far more articulate than comparable “sculpted” figurines, and contain lots of little “inside parts” that you wouldn’t get to see on a normal figure. And on top of that, plastic models can be mixed and matched to create custom versions of your favorite robots – this is basically the central plot point of Gundam Build Fighters, adding yet another layer to your ever-growing creative outlet. The fact that you assemble them from scratch also means you get to paint them, and a lot of hardcore plamo otaku love to give their robots awe-inspiring custom paint jobs. I personally lack the dexterity to even assemble one on my own without breaking it, let alone apply a proper coat of paint, but the one model I built with a friend was a very rewarding experience and totally worth the not-insignificant wad of cash I plunked down for it.
Appreciation and Artistry
All this talk of creativity and movable/buildable figures – what about the ones that really ARE just for display? Well, one of the main reasons that people commonly accept and recognize for buying figures is that, well, they LOOK COOL. And they do. Figurines are an art form unto themselves – they are essentially small statues. Small, mass-produced statues, but still. One of the draws of figure collecting is admiration of a well-made figure. Many times, this is the reason people will buy figures of a character they don’t like or even know – just as it’s easy to appreciate an anime’s art style whether you like the story or not, so too can you appreciate a finely-sculpted figure. Figures can simply be nice to look at. Small details like well-sculpted clothing folds or hair, well-realized poses, an accurate recreation of the anime’s art style, an eye-catching paint job, realistic textures, unique and creative accessories – the artistic merits of a figure are just as valid as any other type of sculpture art, and there are some truly gorgeous ones out there.
Statues (or at least the ones I buy) tend to come in two forms. One is candy-box type statues, which are small and inexpensive, but can often look quite good for the money. They give you a pretty good bang for your buck if you don’t have a big figure budget. The other end of the spectrum is the more expensive statues, which tend to be larger than posable figures and have a LOT more fine detail. They don’t have funny-looking joints all over. They have nicer textures, smoother lines, and overall more care put into painstaking accuracy and/or realism (the butts also look a lot nicer without the leg joints there, but you didn’t hear that from me).
My friends are better at this than I am, but it’s also fun to find really derpy-looking, cheaply-made figures that are kind of adorable as a result. They are often pretty inexpensive (because they’re cheap and/or bad) and can slap a smile on your face pretty quick just knowing that they were made. There’s a fine line to walk between figures that are endearingly bad, and figures that are just bad, but you can end up with some pretty cute/silly results.
Friendship and Fandom
Speaking of friends, figure-collecting is a lot like anime for me, in that while it’s a moderately enjoyable hobby to spend money on by yourself, it’s infinitely more fun when you have friends to share it with. In fact, the gap between with-friend fun and without-friend fun is significantly larger for figures than it is for anime watching itself. Most of the fun of figures is sharing the results of your creative outletting with people, or just showing off the cool toys you’ve got for nerd bragging rights. Honestly, why do you even think I’m writing this post? If I couldn’t take pictures of all these toys and post them on the internet, or show them to friends when they come over, what would be the point? They can serve as a conversation piece, or better yet, they can serve as, you know, TOYS. Some of the most fun I’ve had with these useless pieces of plastic is when I’ve invited friends over for “figure parties”, where they brought their own figures or just used some of mine and we absolutely went to town goofing around with them.
(You don’t want to know how long it took us to set up that tower of Kaijis)
Where watching anime together tends to be only passively engaging, playing with figures together allows you to more actively interact with each other as you partake in your hobby. It’s a lot of fun sitting on the floor and playing anime with your friends, as I’m sure most of you will remember from back in the days of their Power Rangers and GI Joes and Barbie dolls and Dinosaurs and Stuffed Animal Dinner Parties and Hot Wheels and My Little Ponies and Xena Warrior Princess toys (one of my biggest convention regrets is failing to pick up an Aria: The Natural – Neo Venezia Action Playset that I have never been able to locate since).
But let’s go back to that “nerd bragging rights” thing for a moment. Because that’s actually another layer of the appeal. While the idea of being a “better fan” of something just because you buy the figurines is blatantly false, it does point to another reason why buying figures has value to those that do it. For many, this is the closest we can get to the actual Japanese anime fandom. Importing DVDs back in the day was ridiculously impractical due to region restrictions, and importing Blu-Rays seems silly when you can often buy the licensed version for a fraction of the cost. Figurines, then, seem a good way to show the Japanese creators direct support for their show, and to receive a piece of authentic merchandise straight from the source. Are they still overpriced and expensive to ship? You bet they are, but compare a $40-60 figurine with a several-hundred dollar BD box and you can see the reasoning here. For all the reasons described above, figures are pretty darn cool, and wouldn’t you rather have all that coolness for a semi-reasonable price than pay an order of magnitude more for a blu-ray of a show you’ve already seen, in a language you don’t understand? We baka gaijin can easily be left out of the Japanese market, but figure collecting is an easy way to actively participate.
Figure-collecting is very much a niche hobby – it’s certainly not for everyone. For many (probably even most), it would indeed be a waste of time, money, and space. However, there are a great number of ways to get value out of those toys you just sunk most of your paycheck into. If you’re the kind of person that sees that value as being… well, valuable, it can be a fun hobby that gives you a more satisfying return on your investment than you may initially think. Just be careful that you don’t fall too far down the slope, because there’s definitely a point where the cost of figure collecting outweighs its worth. But for the discerning collector who knows what they want from their toys, yes, anime figures can very much be worth it.