We are living in a golden age of anime figures and toys. More shows are getting more figures with more variety than ever before. Furthermore, many of those figures are designed to be compatible with each other, enabling you to stage almost any crossover you can think of complete with appropriate accessories. How did that happen? What kinds of figures are being made and who are the key manufacturers? And why does it sometimes take approximately forever months from the time you pre-order to getting the physical figure?
A few decades ago, figures were predominantly of three main types: cheap toys based on popular shonen anime series, expensive statuettes of women in revealing outfits and sensual poses, and a wide variety of robots. Figures targeted at girls or women were extremely few and far between, and few were the figures you might feel comfortable openly displaying at home. But as anime fans have grown up, society has become (somewhat) more accepting of otakudom and “nerd” culture has become big business. Furthermore, more people are putting off marriage and having children longer, if not indefinitely. That means more disposable income for toys. Companies who like making money have responded accordingly.
Manufacturers realizing the potential size of the market isn’t the only reason for the golden age, however. Technology has also played an important role. It’s easier to manufacture complex figures when you have computers to aid you, and the internet has made it infinitely easier for fans around the world to learn about new releases and pre-order them. No longer do manufacturers need to rely on inefficient, in-store distribution to sell a run. The internet also makes it much easier to judge fan interest, get those fans hyped about new releases, and show them all the ways you can combine multiple figures from a line, all of which increase sales and allow for more figures to be made.
What kinds of figures are we talking about?
When I say “figure,” there’s a certain stereotype that probably first comes to mind: a young woman wearing impossible clothing doing an acrobatic pose. It’s effectively a mini statue (“statuette”). But there are actually many kinds of figures that make up the Japanese market, and we’re starting to see more of them here in the US, too. Here’s a brief overview of the most common types.
The cheapest anime figures can be found in vending machines anywhere and everywhere in Japan or in small boxes in toy sections or at register counters. You’ve probably seen similar toys taking over the aisles lately at your local big box store. These figures are small, usually cost between ¥200 and ¥1000, and the figure in the capsule or box is randomly chosen from a set of 5 to 10. These kinds of figures are almost always made of PVC and around 1” to 3” tall, with some of the most “expensive” blind boxes containing figures as high as 6”. Gashapons almost always come in pieces which you to fit together to create the figure.
Despite their small size, some of these gashapons have quite dynamic poses, with some sets recreating entire scenes. Because new sets are constantly being released, gashapons are usually the quickest way to get a toy depicting the most recent anime events or newest character outfits. Collecting these kinds of sets can be a lot of fun without breaking your budget.
As you would guess, posable figures are figures you can pose. They have joints at the shoulders, elbows, knees, neck, and so on, allowing you to pose the figure in almost any way you can think of. Most lines of posable figures come with accessories and even alternate heads and hands so you can re-create iconic scenes from the anime. Posable figures are usually around 5” to 7” tall and cost between ¥2000 and ¥50000, depending on how detailed the figure is and how many accessories it comes with. All major posable figure lines use PVC for the figures, with some special accessories made of other materials.
Statues/Statuettes/Figurines This is the category you most likely think of when you think of an anime figure. Figurines are most commonly 1/8 scale, but depending on the scene and character that can vary wildly. They can be anywhere from 6” to 15” tall (or more for certain expensive figures) and cost anywhere from ¥40000 to ¥200000 (or, again, much more in special circumstances). While certain figures will have interchangeable parts (for example, a removable cape or a choice of arm positions), figurines do not have joints. The majority are made of PVC, but a sizable minority are made of resin, ABS, polystrone, or a mix of materials.
Model kits or garage kits are figures you make yourself using the materials provided in a kit. The most famous licensed kits are Bandai’s Gundam kits, which give you all the pieces you need to construct your own scale model of a giant robot. Kits can be resin, vinyl, PVC, or even metal. How much assembly and painting are required depends on the kit.
As befits a golden age, there are many, many companies making anime figures and other toys right now. New lines being introduced all the time, and old lines continue to grow. Here are a few big names you’re likely to see over and over again when you browse the (virtual) shelves.
Bandai Namco (BNEI) is known for a lot of things - not least video games and anime - but they’re also a merchandise powerhouse. (Think Disney but with a bigger focus on robots.) BNEI is responsible for a number of prominent lines you’ve almost certainly encountered if you’ve ever looked at anime figures, including seemingly endless Gundam model kits, S.H. Figuarts, and the popular Megahouse lines G.E.M. (which focuses on male characters) and Portrait of Pirates (One Piece characters).
If you like your figures cute, posable, and easy to make memes with, then Good Smile is the company for you. They are best known for their Nendoroid line and, in partnership with Max Factory, figmas. If you own a Hatsune Miku/Vocaloid figure, odds are very good it was made or distributed by Good Smile. They also have a brand for male characters called Orange Rouge.
Yes, the company responsible for Final Fantasy also has a healthy line of figures. It makes sense when you consider how character-centric their games are. It’s like they were designed to be toys. (Spoiler: they were.) Square Enix has several main lines: Play Arts Kai (posable figures), Static Arts (statues/figurines), and Trading Arts (prize figures).
Kotobukiya is best known in the figure world for lovingly detailed statuettes of women. If you’ve recently been in an American comic book shop, you’ve probably seen their Bishoujo line, which focuses on figures of popular characters like Harley Quinn and Chun-Li. Kotobukiya recently started a complementary line for male figures called Ikemen. Other lines include ARTFX J, ANI*STATUE, and Cu-Poche
Kaiyodo is one of the hardest figure manufacturers to summarize because they make so many different kinds of figures with so many different licenses. There are a couple places where their brand is well-defined, however. Their statuette line is headlined by well-known sculptor Bomé, and then there’s Revoltech. Before figma, Kaiyodo introduced Revoltech, a then-innovative line using “revolver technology” to allow for unprecedented movement in figures. It was a hit both then and now.
From prototype to in your hands
So how is a figure made? It’s a complicated, multi-step process with plenty of room for variation, but most figures follow this basic process.
- An artist sculpts a model of the figure. This is the figure prototype. Models can technically be made of any material, but clay is by far the most common. Some figures are even modeled on computers in 3D, but it can be difficult to be sure the pieces will hold together and balance without a physical prototype. These sculpts are the all-grey figures you sometimes see as “sneak peeks” on news sites.
- A mold is made for each sculpted piece. If the figure has a physical model, this means taking casts. If the model is digital, this means printing the inverse of the sculpt.
- The molds are filled with the material the figure will be made of, usually PVC since it’s a cheap and somewhat flexible plastic. If not PVC, the next most likely materials are vinyl, polystone, synthetic resin, or ABS.
- The cooled plastic (or resin) is removed from the molds.
- Paint is applied, either by machine or by hand. Usually an airbrush is used for a smooth finish. Particularly small, intricate details like eyes or logos may be added as stickers.
- The figure is assembled and packaged for sale. Most anime figures require specialized packaging like a plastic clamshell with specific spots for each accessory. Even small trading figures in gashapon capsules may require different plastic bags for different pieces or cardboard around a long, flat piece to keep it from bending.
- The figure is shipped to stores and fans. Shipping internationally is almost always via the proverbial (and literal) “slow boat from China,” since it doesn’t make sense to put pallets of figures on an expensive airplane.
Getting all of this in place takes quite a lot of effort and coordination, as you can imagine. That’s why usually a certain number of copies are made and that’s it. Setting up the factory for a second run is nearly as time consuming as making an entirely new figure. A figure has to be incredibly popular to create a second run, and that second run may or may not be able to use the original molds, paint, and stickers. A new figure is attractive because not only will it sell to fans who missed out on the previous figure, it may also sell to fans who did buy the previous figure and liked it. The upshot? If you've got an eye on a particular figure, your best bet is to pre-order it as soon as you can.
A word of caution regarding bootlegs
As figures become an ever-bigger business, so do attempts to profit by creating cheap, illegal knockoffs (usually known as “bootlegs”). Bootlegs are made with cheaper materials, no quality assurance, and rarely include accessories. What was a moveable joint in the original figure is likely to be a solid piece, since assembly is something that takes time and money. When sold, none of the profit goes to the creator of the anime or manga, and the low quality brings down the reputation of the original manufacturer if the packaging uses their name.
The easiest way to avoid bootlegs is to only buy from reputable sellers. (Another case for pre-ordering: you’re extremely unlikely to get a bootleg when the figure has only just come out.) If you’re buying a figure in person, you can look for holographic stickers on the box. Some figures are so commonly bootlegged there are guides on the internet showing exactly what to look out for. If you do end up with a bootleg, it won’t have any resale value. On the bright side, you’ll get a renewed appreciation for the high standards officially licensed figures are held to.
Now that you know
everything some of what there is to know about anime figures and the current golden age, we’d like to hear from you! Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and tell us which pre-order has you excited, show off your collection, or talk about how excited you were to get the last character you needed to create the diorama of your dreams. The best thing to do with figures is to appreciate them, after all.
-Lisa Marie Cooper
Long-time Right Stuf fans may recognize Lisa as Marie from the Anime Today podcast or as the OG RightStufSpecialsMinion on the Anime News Network and Fandom Post forums. Her non-anime articles can be found at PositivelyEditorial.com, where she offers tips and insights into how to write.