I may not be the biggest aficionado of Japanese pop culture, but I do consider myself a fan, having devoured lots of manga and anime over the years. What I also appreciate are the toys: Japan has some of the most exquisitely-made action figures and giant robots ever made, and in their native land, these items are generally aimed at adults.
Now when it comes to toys and games, Japan has long enjoyed a healthy foothold in North America—think of all the Pokémon, Hello Kitty, and Power Rangers products that have made their way over. So far in 2014, that trend has continued, with several new properties either just launching or expected to launch soon. But these are Japanese imports, meaning they’re sophisticated enough for grown-ups, even if they look like they’re for kids.
First up is Rilakkuma, which literally translates to, “bear in relaxed state.” I was first introduced to it at American International Toy Fair, but we were recently re-acquainted at FAO Schwarz‘s New York City flagship store. Founded a decade ago by San-X, the brand revolves around a group of plush characters, whose mission is helping relieve others of stress, either through mischief or empathy. It’s been a huge hit across all demographics in Japan, evolved to the point where Rilakkuma’s image can be seen on rice cookers, clothes, cell phone cases, etc. Now a line of toys is available in U.S. markets through Aliquantum International Inc. (AQI).
Rilakkuma is intended for all ages, though the older you are–or the more playful your sense of humor–the more you’re likely to get out of it. The title character may look like an average teddy bear; however, each doll has a zipper on its back, implying Rilakkuma is actually someone–or something–wearing a bear suit. Much of the franchise’s appeal comes from how consumers are the ones who create Rilakkuma’s personality and identity, right down to who is inside the costume. If anyone does unzip the plush, they’ll find light-blue cloth with a polka dot pattern inside, which in my opinion, only invites a more intriguing, homemade back story. To date, Rilakkuma has been at the center of some amusing and heady advertising campaigns, including one in which the character gradually unzips its suit, and out climbs… another Rilakkuma.
AQI’s first wave of toys includes plush Rilakkuma and Korilakkuma—the latter of which resembles a slightly smaller Rilakkuma with white fur and pink ears—in sizes ranging from 6-inch minis up to 41-inch jumbo. There’s also Kiiroitori, a yellow bird that comes in four different sizes.
Tomodachi Life, Nintendo‘s new 3DS game, was a huge hit in its native land. It features Miis, which are avatars with large heads and comparatively small bodies (also see the manga term, “super deformed”), living together in an apartment setting. In this world simulation-ish game, players check in regularly on the different Miis, solving their problems as they arise. These range from hunger to sadness, to issues stemming from their love lives. If the player makes a Mii happy—for example, through purchasing them a gift from the in-game store—their on-screen happiness level increases.
Tomodachi Life has a very quirky sense of humor, depicting Miis in a rapping competition (featuring odd-sounding computerized voices, which I can only assume was done on purpose), or exploding off the ground like a rocket if fed their favorite foods. Players can also snap pictures of their Miis engaging in odd behaviors, and with the push of a button, forward those images to friends and family via social media. The twist is, the Miis can all be modeled after real people that the player knows, with up to 16 different personality types possible, as well as customizable facial and vocal qualities. I really enjoy the customization aspect, which has something in common with Rilakkuma in that both allow consumers to project onto a “blank slate.” But in this case, that slate is the avatar, and what gets projected is the player’s feelings about a real-world person.
Kids, I’m sure, will have a lot of fun with Tomodachi Life. Yet I can also see how older players–or younger players who are unexpectedly self-aware–could enjoy it, too. The game allows the playing out of potentially complicated interpersonal relationships, or even issues about one’s self. After all, thanks to the customization aspect, players can view themselves from the outside, and even tweak attributes to see what they’d be like, if only they were different in certain ways. Tomodachi Life is due out this June.
That’s all for now, but keep your eyes open for the second part of this commentary, which should be out next week.
For more commentary from Phil, check back often. Views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Toy Book as a whole. We hope that you will share your comments and feedback below. Until next time!