Jenna Gilley, Associate Curator of Exhibitions
Recently, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art has had the pleasure of unveiling our kooky collection of Kaiyodo figurines, generously gifted by Terry R. Myers. These small toys, situated opposite from our classic toy collection, are truly tiny works of modern art. Each mold is sculpted by renowned action figure sculptors and then hand-painted. They depict some of the most memorable characters in manga and anime, as well as everything from public art pieces to Japanese food.
In his corresponding exhibition essay, Terry R. Myers smartly linked these teeny trinkets to the history of miniature sculpture in Japan. Small carved fasteners called netsuke have been used since the 17th century to hold pockets onto kimono sashes (obi) and to secure essential everyday objects when out, like medicine, money, pipes, and even chopsticks! At first netsuke were simple, probably long, slender pieces of root (ne meaning root and tsuke to fasten) or bamboo punctured with two holes to weave a cord through. Eventually, the carvings evolved into an elaborate and personable fashion accessory featuring animals, humorous characters, and creatures from Japanese mythology.
People from all classes could sport netsuke, although the quality and materials varied widely. Netsukes from wood or nutshells were available for cheap, while wealthy merchants could indulge in extravagant examples made of precious stones or coveted ivory. Merchants even wore these small examples of conspicuous consumption to rival the flashy swords of the samurai!
Luckily, being made of plastic, Kaiyodo figures are designed to be attainable art objects for everyone. Most of our Kaiyodo figures fit into one of two categories: shokugan or gachapon. Shokugan, meaning “snack toy”, can be found inside candy boxes at the local grocery store in Japan (see below, on the left). In a statement for his line of “Superflat” shokugan figures with the company, famous Japanese artist Takashi Murakami expressed his hope that these affordable toys would become a “starter kit” for a new generation of art collectors. The second category of toys, gachapon, can be found in vending machines all over Japan (see below, right), from aquariums to airports. The name is an onomatopoetic from the device that dispenses it, containing the sounds “gacha” for the hand-cranking action and “pon” for the toy capsule landing in the collection tray; because of Kaiyodo figures’ distribution in heavily trafficked and accessible locations, these unique artworks can be easily attained in everyday life for a few dollars.
Looking at our Kaiyodo figures, I agree with Myers that the connection between these new age toys and traditional netsuke is remarkably clear. I first began to see the parallel when cataloging “strap” figures, which are meant to be cell phone or zipper accessories. When I eventually stumbled across this example, which Kaiyodo specifically created to mimic traditional netsuke, I knew the link was no mere coincidence.
Beyond that obvious comparison, in form and subject, these two methods of expression and decoration are almost identical—they just exist 400 years apart. Each also contain an astonishing amount of intricacy, personalism, and straight up charm. Let’s look at a few netsuke with a few modern Kaiyodo iterations.
Animals are an obvious favorite topic of today, and apparently in the 18th and 19th centuries as well! The largest categories of netsuke, carved animal sculptures could be naturalistic or imaginative (think cats in kimonos). They often were carried for their symbolic virtues, including kindness and good fortune. Additionally, they could reflect the wearer’s zodiac sign (yes, people were asking “what’s your sign?” back then, too). Animals were also simply an intrinsic part of the culture, based in Shinto and Buddhist practices of caring for the interconnected web of creation. Many carvers prized themselves on their photographic accuracy and detail, taking advantage of studying real-life models. Kaiyodo has reinvented this tradition through the creation of their prolific “Animatales” sets, found inside Choco Eggs. Often sold in partnership with zoos and museums, these figures aim to educate consumers on the animals they depict. The corresponding educational brochures contain numerous facts on each animal and tout the increasingly scientific accuracy of each released edition (“[Sculpted] more precisely and lively than ever!”). Whether for luck or simply their cute appearance, clearly, we still like to show off our favorite animals.
Most of us, or our children, have favorite TV or movie characters. In fact, when we think of “action figures”, superheroes frequently come to mind. Kaiyodo is most associated with this subject of figure, depicting bold protagonists of famous anime and manga series. Recently, they have started producing figures of international film and literary favorites, such as a set of figures inspired by the Swedish book series The Moomin’s by Tove Jansson. Above (right) is the figure Snufkin, a carefree nomad who enjoys wandering the world. He is shockingly reminiscent of another kind traveler (left) from our own netsuke collection, who similarly caries his pack and enjoys a passing bird. While perhaps not superheroes, both depict the quiet importance of positivity and optimism. I think it is safe to deduce that although over 200 years apart in age, both object’s previous owners were keen adventures.
One of the most common ways to get to know someone is to learn about their favorite things. Long before there were “Death Before Decaf” stickers (Paradigm Gallery plug!), the Japanese were using netsuke as conversation starters. Examples of guitars, tea, strawberries, beer, even gun netsuke have been found. One of my favorite Kaiyodo figures in our collection is an elaborate hibachi set up (above), complete with spatulas and sauce, on which a savory pancake called Okonomiyaki cooks (yaki for short). The different glosses and minute details make the food look so realistic I can almost hear the hiss of the griddle. Besides being an item of interest, I would feel comforted having images of warmth and home nearby; perhaps as Julie Andrews joyously sings, thinking of (or in this case, displaying) your favorite things makes you feel not so bad.
In my opinion, this comparison between contemporary Kaiyodo figures and traditional netsuke is a perfect example of how art has evolved with culture yet carries remarkable ties to the past. It is fascinating that after so much time, the same subjects still interest makers and consumers. People of the past had favorite animals and foods, characters that they admired, and an affinity for humor, just as we do today. Laptops and cellphones may have replaced the purses and tobacco pouches netsuke were fastened too, but we haven’t stopped adding our own personalities to our essential daily items. We hope that this new collection enlightens viewers to the whimsical and deep realm of Japanese culture and inspires connections across time and space.
Krebs, Margie M. Netsuke: The Collection of the Peabody Museum of Salem. Salem, MA: the Peabody Museum of Salem, 1980.
O’Brien, Mary Louise. Netsuke: A Guide for Collectors. Seventh ed. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle Company, 1977.
- Slideshow, L: Lacquered Sagemono Inro (purse) with a humorous figurative netsuke. Photo source: Dictionary of Japanese Artists, page 54. R: Cell phone with Saber figure phone charm, from Kaiyodo’s Fate/Zero Collection. Photo courtesy of https:://shopee.co.