I didn’t choose Japan, Japan chose me. Well, my wife chose me and she’s Japanese, which kind of means the same thing…I think. With this regular column, I’ll delve into the weird and the wonderful world of Japanese pop culture so you don’t have to! From the Maid Cafe’s of Akihabara, through the hustle and bustle of Takeshita Street, to the collectors paradise of Nakano Broadway, my life as an Accidental Gaijin has only just begun.
Tokyo can be an overwhelming place, with each day rushing by in a blur of neon and the scream of kawaii laden, pre-recorded advertisements. But even amongst this maelstrom of sensory overload, I can’t help but feel the odd pangs of homesickness. Only last week, I was wandering through a cold, windswept Shimo-Takaido Station, a mere stone’s throw from Shinjuku and feeling particularly glum with thoughts of my friends back home, when the unexpected happened. In this far away city, the capital of this far away land, a very old, eccentric, impossible friend jumped out at me, almost knocking me off my feet!
When the bars fills up, take it outside! Al fresco, Shimo-Takaido style! (Flickr/oonnuuoo)
M.U.S.C.L.E Men toys (an acronym for Millions of Unusual Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere) were an odd toy line that momentarily, yet firmly gripped the imagination of boys all over Britain…and I was obsessed! Distributed in random four-packs, “garbage can” 10 packs, and a large pack of 28, these tiny, bizarrely designed figures could fit any schoolboy’s budget, from the meagrest of pocket money to that eagerly awaiting birthday surprise. Long before Pokemon turned a generation of kids into relentless, uncompromising collectors, we had M.U.S.C.L.E Men, and I had to collect them all!
There are more gachapon machines in Tokyo than people!* (Flickr/DocChewbacca)
*Not actually true
Thoughts of my childhood obsession were far from my mind as I navigated my way to platform 1, when I spotted a solitary gachapon machine (ガチャポン a “capsule toy” vending machine that can be found in just about every supermarket, storefront and train station in Japan). Emblazoned on this innocuous little box were…M.U.S.C.L.E Men! How could this be?? How could these treasured, highly collectable* toys of my youth be available here, in Tokyo, for a mere ¥200??Fumbling with my change, I tentatively twisted the silver handle and heard the satisfying thump as a plastic ball, full of promise hitting the small hatch. Hands shaking, I nervously opened the little capsule and held aloft…a M.U.S.C.L.E Man.
…the Gachapon machine of my dreams!
My mind began to flood with memories of childhood wonder. The cold train platform in Tokyo was replaced with visions of sitting in my bedroom, surrounded by hundreds of tiny, pink intergalactic wrestlers as I announced the Fight of the Universe!! The tiny contenders were on parade, flexing their muscles, tentacles and miscellaneous appendages as the crowd roared for blood! All feelings of despondency gone, I rushed home at top speed. Almost tearing the front door of its hinges, I thrusted the treasured M.U.S.C.L.E Man into the face of my bewildered beloved.
“LOOK!!!! M.U.S.C.L.E Men, here, in Tokyo!!! Can you believe it?!” I excitedly announced.
“M.U.S.C.L.E Men? It’s just a Kinkeshi” she replied.
“Kinkeshi?” I spluttered.
“You’ve never heard of Kinnikuman??…Here.” She asked with incredulity, while handing me her tablet.
I NEED to collect them all!! (Instagram/theretrodad)
It all started with a manga. Kinnikuman (キン肉マン literally translates as “muscleman”) first slammed onto the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump way back in 1979, as the inept, bumbling brainchild of manga duo “Yudetamago”. An antitheses to the heroic adventures found in chojin manga, the accident-prone wrestler was only reluctantly called upon to challenge the bad guys when the real heroes were otherwise engaged. But as the series gained in popularity, the focus duly shifted to intergalactic wrestling matches, with a seemingly endless host of surreal opponents for our clumsy protagonist to wrangle with.
Kids were screaming for more Kinnikuman and in 1984, just five years after our fin-headed hero’s debut, Japanese toy manufacturer Bandai Co., Ltd. heard their call. A Kinnikuman toy line had endless collectible and schoolyard trading possibilities, thanks to its vast, colorful cast. But in a society virtually built on rules, it goes without saying that toys were strictly banned in Japan’s houses of learning. So Bandai had an ingenious idea. By turning the colorful characters of Kinnikuman into “Keshi”, pencil erasers, Bandai magnificently circumnavigated the “no toys rule” and successfully unleashed Kin” (Kinnikuman) “Keshi” (eraser) into schools all over Japan.
They may not be the best eraser, but they make excellent desk buddies!
The country was soon drowning in Kinkeshi, gripping Japan’s youth much the same as Britain’s 80’s kids. With the “Kinkeshi effect” reaching fever pitch, Shueisha, the publisher of Shonen Jump threw down the gauntlet to the legions of Kinkeshi fans in Japan and ran a character design competition. Thanks to this pioneering move, Kinkeshi became so much more than a novelty eraser, it became a beloved community of amateur designers, future manga stars and avid collectors, but more importantly, it became a community of friends. If only I’d known, the offices of Shueisha would have been swamped with my endless character ideas!
I mused on this as I cradled the treasured Kinkeshi in my palm. Easy to carry around, affordable and glorious to look at, Kinkeshi were the pinnacle of 1980’s boys toys, cementing many a long lasting friendship between fellow enthusiasts around the world. They may not have been the best at erasing algebra mistakes, but Kinkeshi were mine, and many a boy’s best friend throughout those tumultuous schooldays.
“My two brothers had HUNDREDS of them.” My dearest announced, breaking my fond reminiscing.
“Do they still have them?” I hopefully asked.
“Nope…but I MAY know of a place where you can buy millions…” she replies, appearing to consider giving me this information against the promise of a holiday this Golden Week.
Millions?! Yes, a cursory glance on Instagram reveals that the “Kinkeshi effect” is still going strong, with a vast community of collectors and enthusiasts all over the world, still hungry for more Unusual Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere, and here I am, in the land of Kinkeshi! Suddenly, I don’t feel so homesick anymore.
* Trust me on collectability, “Blackhole Sunshine”, the Holy Grail of M.U.S.C.L.E Men is currently listed on eBay at US $3,249.95.
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