Ultraman Mebius in his simple (and easy to open) package.
I went to Japan for a month back in 2010, and before I went I scoured the web, trying to find as many different Japanese toys to keep a lookout for that I could find. Anyone who knows of my toy collecting ways also knows that I have a love of weird monsters. Well, Japan has tons of 'em. However, you can't have your monsters without your heroes, and Japan has plenty to go around as well. For those who don't know, most Japanese superheroes fall into the "tokusatsu" genre. Ultraman (pictured above), Kamen Rider, and Super Sentai (Power Rangers over here) all fall into that genre. Basically anyone in a rubber suit (Godzilla and Gamera included) are tokusatsu characters. Just as our superheroes are easily recognizable with their spandex suits, capes, and silly outer-shorts, Japanese superheroes tend to come in the rubber suit, plastic helmet, bug-eyed variety. Kinda makes me wonder if there are other superhero types in other parts of the world. Someone should make a team with each superhero type represented... But I'm getting off topic.
Just like all of our popular superheroes, the Japanese characters can be found in toy forms of all different types. The basic vinyl figure; the buildable gashapon figures found in gumball-type machines; super-articulated action figures; collectable erasers; even fashion dolls than can be dressed and re-dressed. Gashapon toys are fun because you never know which one you're going to get (and there's so many of them!), plus their smaller size doesn't hurt when you have to take them all home with you in a suitcase. The super-articulated figures typically have the best details (the eyes on the Kamen Rider figures are amazing), but they tend to be more expensive. The vinyl toys are aimed at kids - so these sparsely articulated toys are intended to be played with while the super-articulated figures usually end up frozen in some pose on a collector's shelf. I think that's funny. That might also be why I tend to be drawn to the vinyl figures first.
Gotta love monsters!
There's just something about the simplicity of the of vinyl figures that gives them so much charm. They're not bogged down by endless articulation and fragile accessories. Most tend to move only at the arms and waist, their details are basic, and their paint is simple. They're durable (just be careful with that paint, it can be scratched off). They just feel like they're meant to be played with, in that very basic zooom!-raaaaawr!-ptchoo-ptchoo! sort of way. You know what I mean.
I knew I would want some heroes to fight the vast army of monsters I planned to get, and I figured I'd end up with a nice collection of Ultramen (instead of Kamen Rider, who tends to have regular-sized monsters to fight instead of giant ones). Well, I only ended up with four vinyl Ultramen.
The First Four
My brother's knowledge of Japanese movies is far greater than mine, so I asked him to find an Ultraman movie that we could watch in Japan. He ended up choosing "Ultraman Mebius & Ultra Brothers" (quite randomly), a not-half-bad movie that led to my first choice for an Ultraman figure - Ultraman Mebius! Even though I had heard of Ultraman over the years (and owned a single Ultraman comic and a single monster figure from a North American line), I had never seen an Ultraman show or movie all the way through until this point. So Ultraman Mebius became MY Ultraman.
After that I wanted to get a version of Ultraman Tiga, since he was on TV over here and therefore one of the only other Ultramen I had heard of. I grabbed the purple "sky type" version to break up all the red and silver of the other figures. Even though every Ultraman is a unique character, they all basically look alike.
Ultraman Tiga (Sky Type)
- he has "flying" hands!
One of the Ultramen that jumped out at me early on was Mother of Ultra because, well, she's not an Ultraman. She's not the only female Ultraman, but she was the only one to be found in the stores when I was in Japan. Thanks to her rubber suit her form isn't overly feminine, so her helmet has armored pigtails to really drive the point home. I actually think that's pretty great. When looking at pictures of the actual tokusatsu costumes I'm always drawn to the eyes, which are usually intricately detailed. Those details often don't make it into the vinyl figures, but the eyeholes that the performers use to see when in the rubber suits are still here, which makes for an accurate (if not kinda silly-looking) interpretation of the character.
Mother of Ultra
My final Ultraman figure (little did I know), would be Ultraman Justice (Crusher Mode). By this point in the trip I had been looking up the bios of the various Ultramen to see which ones I liked for more than their looks. I thought Justice was interesting because (as far as I know) he's the only Ultraman partnered with a female host (an alien girl named Julie), and he's both helped and fought with the main Ultraman of his series (Ultraman Cosmos). He can also fuse with Ultraman Cosmos to become Ultraman Legend. Had that point sunk in at the time I most likely would have also got Cosmos and Legend, but I guess I was only skimming the bios to see what jumped out at me. The only version of Justice you could get at the time was the Crusher Mode, which is the one he needs to be in to fuse with Cosmos.
Ultraman Justice (Crusher Mode)
At the top of the post I said that you can't have monsters without superheroes. Well, who needs heroes if there's no monsters that need a good thwarting? I'll give the monsters of Ultraman their own post, but I can't help spotlighting a few of them now.
At the same time I was looking up bios for the different Ultramen, I started trying to find out if any of the monsters were "good guys". I admit in when it comes to tokusatsu I always cheer for the monsters. Well, I wanted some monsters I could cheer for that weren't trying to destroy the planet I live on. Turns out there's a few of them out there! I liked Eleking because he's weird looking, with his lack of eyes and baggy cookies-and-cream colored body. He kinda looks like a giant mutant cow. He's been around for years, most often as a villain, but he was seen as hero in at least two recent movies working with a guy called Reimon. His heroics can be seen in the Ultra Galaxy Mega Monster Battle movies. Man, that's a good name for a movie series!
Eleking's tail is as long as his body is tall, so it might not seem like it first glance, but his figure is pretty big!
Next up is a monster that is peaceful by nature: Litra. She's been around longer than Ultraman has, appearing way back in Ultra Q, the first show in the Ultra series, that had humans as heroes instead of giant Ultramen. This figure is the Fire Litra version, where Litra basically becomes a giant phoenix. She's also from Ultra Galaxy Mega Monster Battle, which I really have to watch some time!
One thing I'll point out about these Japanese vinyl figures: A lot of them don't have packages. They're found in the stores hanging on pegs by cards hooked into their backs. As such they get knocked around on the shelf and can get paint wear before they're even played with. Fire Litra was pretty much in every store I went to, but a good version was hard to find because they all had varying paint wear to the tips of the beaks, with red plastic showing through the yellow paint. My version is the ONLY one I could find without that problem. Just something to watch out for.
Agira is another monster who, as far as I know, has been portrayed as a hero more often than not. He was one of three "capsule monsters" used by Ultraseven, and honestly he looks more like a good guy than a villain. The good monsters tend to be a little more plain and less over-the-top than the villainous monsters. It's the fact that he's a good guy that gave him enough bonus points for me to buy him, as his weirdness-factor is LOW.
Rounding things up for now is EX Mecha Gomora. I can't recall what the "EX" means right now, and come to think of it that Agira shown above may be "EX Agira". Any way, the regular Gomora is another old Ultraman monster than has been featured a lot over the years. He became Reimon's main partner in Ultra Galaxy Mega Monster Battle, yet I foolishly passed on a figure of him (or a vinyl one any way). There were two versions of him in vinyl form that were everywhere, but for some reason I just never picked him up. When I got home from Japan one of the first new monsters I discovered was Mecha Gomora, so I bought him online to beef up my heroic monsters collection. Well, turns out Mecha Gomora is purely a villain (and was actually destroyed by the real Gomora). Oh well, he's a cool figure either way.
EX Mecha Gomora
There! Now that I've used this post to tell you why I love vinyl Japanese toys, I can spend more time in future posts focussing on the figures themselves, getting into the nitty-gritty and the oh-so-gloriously-weird!
She's lookin' at you!
The fin hides the zipper!