Towards the end of the 90s, the Otaku culture began to reach maturity as anime, manga and games became an indelible aspect of Japanese soft power. Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema looked towards Otaku culture for inspiration. Within Japan itself, the scene was undergoing transformation as those born after the 1970 Osaka World Expo became empowered income earners. A wormhole opened along the Yamanote line, a stop away from Ueno station – the small town of Akihabara became the world’s capital of Otaku culture.
January 2000 issue of Dengeki Hobby Magazine
Gundam became synonymous with Otaku Culture – if you’re an Otaku, there’s no way you can avoid Gundam’s pervasive presence. After a 13 years, B-Club ended it’s run in February 1998. Nine months later, Dengeki Hobby Magazine (電撃ホビーマガジン) cane onto the scene in to fill the gaping vacuum. Mediaworks, the publisher of Dengeki Hobby Magazine managed to attract editorial staff from Hobby Japan. It wasn’t long before Dengeki Hobby Magazine began to adopt the incumbent hobby mag’s format and became its worthy competitor – in terms of contents, look and coverage. The only difference is in the binding format – Hobby Japan’s publication reads from left-to-right like most English publications, while Dengeki Hobby Magazine reads from right-to-left in East Asian style.
Inadvertently, Gundam became an anchor feature for the new magazine. Instead of one magazine, there were two hobby magazines that provided dedicated coverage on Gundam related news. Gundam became a universal feature and currency for any hobby/otaku-related magazines. There were times when I wondered why the other robot anime franchises such as Super Dimensional Macross, Armored Trooper Votoms et al did not achieve cult status. Their original series were excellent works. I suppose one of the basic quality of an Otaku is not to be Robot-siao but must be Gundam-siao. (Gundam-siao: That’s what the old school military modellers used to label the other pla-modellers who are crazy over Gundam)
The Otaku scene began to diversify during the turn of the century. While robots/mecha remained as the primary obsession of most Otakus, girl figurines began sprouting on the scene. Girl figurines started to compete with robots and mechas for shelf/print-space. It was not so evident at first, as girl figurines were relatively new and received the same attention as garage kits or toys.
Garage Kit from January 2000 Dengeki Hobby Magazine
There’s Definitely more bishōjo garage kits than before, almost as many as the sci-fi (mecha, robot) kits. Around the same time, a new trend was emerging – fully assembled and coloured girl figurines that you could buy off the shelf. These came in the form of cold cast resin kit (polystone), and were categorised under the same group with action figures in the toys section of the hobby mag.
Cold Cast Resin (Polystone) Girl Figurines
Some of the cold-cast resin girl figurines featured on the toys section include the non-scale figure of Five Star Story’s Auxo and the 1:8 scale Sakura Kinomoto of Card Captor Sakura (both figures from Kaiyodo). There’s also the 1:7 scale girls Athena Asamiya, Blue Mary and Shermie from Epoch. And there’s also figurines of Serge, Kid and Lynx from the game Chrono Cross.
But when did girl figurines become a primary obsession for Otakus? I had to dig deeper into my collection of hobby mags.
Dengeki Hobby Magazine began dedicating a section to girl figurines in mid-2000. “DenHobby – Otome Gumi” (電ホビ．乙女組) began serialising in the July 2000 issue of Dengeki Hobby Mag.
Dengeki Hobby Mag July 2000
Girl figurines established a foothold amongst Gundam-saturated Otakudom without much fanfare. There were no publicity or notice from the editorial staff announcing this new feature.
The first instance of “DenHobby – Otome-Gumi” (電ホビ．乙女組)
Ami Mizuno aka Sailor Mercury from the “Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon” (美少女戦士セーラームーン) franchise inaugurated the birth of this new section. The first “Otome Gumi” feature only spanned two pages. It was a modest beginning to a lasting establishment. In the current issues of Dengeki Hobby Mag, “Otome Gumi” is a chapter on its own.
Cold-cast Resin Sailor Mercury
In the same issue, there was a special coverage on the 1:4 scale of Sailor Mercury from Kyosho. It was rather unusual for a company the specialised in R/C models to get involved in girl figurine productions.
1:4 Sailormoon Mercury Figure from Kyosho
Sailor Mercury might not be the first collectible girl figurine, but she’s got all the qualities of Moé (萌) and that made her an ideal harbinger of bishōjo culture to Otaku-dom. Within a year, there’s enough goods coming forth from the figure sweat shops for Mediaworks to start a new quarterly mook series dedicated to girl figurines – Figure Maniacs (フィギュアマニアックス).
Towards the end of the 90s, there was a renewed interest in the toys (action figure) collection as a hobby – and the resurgence could be attributed to the re-appearance of Star Wars action figures (Power of the Force) from Hasbro, a tie-in with the Star Wars prequels. Soon after, many other fanboy companies such as Marvel and Image Comics got involved in the fray (ToyBiz, MacFarlane Toys etc.) American Superheroes and other iconic characters received the action figure treatment. And it was boom time for both toy makers and collectors. This effect rippled across the Pacific Ocean and Japanese toy makers also got onto the collectible bandwagon. Japanese toys, traditionally packed in styrofoam cases, started to come in blister packs.
Clark Quay – The Cannery
The Singaporean fanboy/otaku community kept up with this new trend at Clark Quay. The fortnightly weekend flea market at Clark Quay became a bazaar that attracted hordes of toy collectors. The tired tourist trap found a new lease of life as an Otaku haven.
The Cannery – On a weekend
Where the fruits are, the monkeys will gather. From tiny stalls the ran along the perimeter and narrow corridors of the Cannery Building, some of the stall holders found it lucrative to move in to the low-rent shop space. In no time, the Cannery was filled by shops selling toys and merchandise associated with fanboy/otaku culture.
One of the stalls at the weekend bazaar
Just as Akihabara became the Otaku capital in the new millennium, Clark Quay became a meeting point for fanboys and otakus in Singapore. While it was no Akihabara, it was certainly comparable to Nakano Broadway. The shops sold a wide range of toys – the latest toys and merchandise from Japan and USA, and also vintage collectibles. You’d find stuff that the department stores wouldn’t (couldn’t) carry or the local distributors wouldn’t (couldn’t) bring in.
Some of the shops that I frequented because of their collection of tokusatsu related goods:
The old Clark Quay was an example of uncontrolled urban renewal at work. I don’t think the URA, STB, or EDB had a deliberate plan to rejuvenate Clark Quay as an Otaku paradise. It was simply the free market economy at work. The flea market became a focal point for hungry otakus and fanboys flushed with cash to spend. And suppliers came flocking when there is money to be made. The market was viable enough for shops to sustain a permanent presence since there’s money to be made seven days a week rather than for just one weekend. Since Clark Quay was a depressed dump, the rental was affordable for most small businesses.
But just as the going was good, the URA had a master plan to botox all the quay sides. Capitaland was sent in to do a thorough job with Clark Quay. All the existing tenants had to move out for the makeover – and the masterminds knew well enough to jack up the rentals so as to price the toy dealers out of the market, as they didn’t fit in to their tenant-mix profile. They have to make way for the likes of Crazy Horse, Ministry of Sound and some other chi-chi restaurants. As the tree fell, the monkeys scatter. 树倒猴子散。
And the dealers scattered to the winds – most of them settled around the Chinatown area, a stone throw away from Clark Quay. China Square Central became the de facto legacy of Clark Quay, since there’s still a concentration of toy retailers in that building and it’s the only place with an Otaku-themed weekend flea market. But that’s only a ghost of the former self.
Otaku culture has came a long way – in Japan, around the world and also in Singapore. Ota-culture came into the limelight in Singapore recently not because of “Densha Otoko” (In fact, this drama had not much impact here – it didn’t make Otakus cool), but because of it’s economic potential. The government realised that there’s alot of money to be made from this ‘light’ industry, especially from the gaming and animation sector. The Media Development Authority had included the development of the Ota-industry in it’s masterplan (Who would see the plan through when the scholar who came up with that idea gets rotated into another ministry/senior appointment?).
I wonder if all that the government see is just money. I thought that it’d be more meaningful if they saw the strategic value of the Otaku-media industry (’new media’ in Singapore’s context). The Otaku media is a powerful myth-making tool that is especially influential among the younger generation and the generation that is to come. If we have our homegrown Ota-brands and franchises (characters) that are well received by the domestic audience – if we have our indigenous myth-making tools – the conundrum of national identity would become less of an issue.
We’ve already got our Stikfas and Trexi. When will we have our own version of Gonzo Studios, IG Production, Bioware Studios, DC Comics, Kotobukiya or Shogakukan? Or would Singapore forever remain a net consumer of Ota-cultre?