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July 10, 2009

This is How We (Kappa) Roll

Filed under: Matt Alt,Stoopid,Toy Love — matt @ 12:20 am

Now it can be told: I’ve been working on a top-secret project for the last few months. The good news: it’s done and it’s cool! The bad (well, if you want your own, anyway): it’s a one of a kind art piece, not something for sale. But now that we’ve got that out of the way, may I present the Kappa Machine! It was a collaboration: based on my drunken scribble and rendered in glorious 3D by my pal Mr. Marugame.

Let me explain a little background here. Kappa are legendary monsters from Japanese folkore. Yokai, to be precise. They are frog-like creatures that live for two things: cucumbers and human colon-meat.

For close to a decade, a group of my pals has been putting on a “Kappa Exhibition” in a Tokyo gallery. Open to pro and amateur artists, it’s filled with all sorts of art dedicated to the kappa. Hiroko and I displayed original art from our book Yokai Attack last year, and after the show closed, Mr. Marugame proposed a collaboration. I jokingly suggested a Machinder. And to my total surprise, he jumped at the idea.

Mr. Marugame and I have known each other for three or four years. He’s a regular in my circle of toy- and anime-industry pals. He’s a carpenter by trade, but I only learned a year or two ago that he briefly worked in the toy industry back in the Eighties, at a company that prototyped design concepts for big toy companies. (This Machine Robo pull-back toy is one of his designs that made it into production.)

Anyway, four or five months back, I turned in this silly doodle to Marugame. I originally suggested using a Jumbo Machinder Mazinger Z to make things easier. Rip off the chest fins, jam in some plastic kappa maki rolls to approximate eyes, etc., etc. Ever the craftsman, he pooh-poohed the thought, telling me that if we were going to do this, we were going to go all the way. And so it began. He returned a sketch based on my crappy illustration that looked like it stepped out of an anime artbook:

And then quickly assembled an early, quick ‘n dirty prototype out of styrofoam.

We sat down for tea at his house and talked it over. I liked the look of it, but it didn’t feel very “Machinder” to me. Marugame is a good ten years older than me, a refugee from the vinyl generation; he knew the Machinders but didn’t play with them as a kid. Still, he’s an otaku pro. When I whipped out some photographs of vintage specimens, he got the aesthetic at once. The second styrofoam prototype was a hole in one:

Next came the process of turning it into something approaching an actual toy. We both knew that there would be no way to mold it out of actual polyethelene; it’s far too expensive for what amounted to a one-off project. But Marugame, ever the professional, had a solution. It turned out that his old company, which was still in business, was in the process of moving offices. So he convinced them to loan us their vacu-forming machine. Vacu-forming is a process where sheets of styrene plastic are heated and pulled down over wood “positives” using a vacuum hose, forming the parts. Being a carpenter, Marugame quickly turned out a series of wood masters:

And within a week or two, had managed to assemble a functional plastic version of the styrofoam prototype. This is easier said than done. It involved cutting down the plastic, inserting rods inside the assembled shells, and then using screws to fix them in place.

Now for the details. I whipped up a sketch of the “cucumber computer” inside the Kappa’s head, which Marugame used as a blueprint to make a plastic mock-up. Then he chromed it and covered it with a customized translucent dome to complete the effect:

“Ooh, we need Machinder-style missiles, too,” I remarked. “What do they look like?” asked Marugame. I forwarded him a link to a Yahoo Japan auction for a pile of them (which, I will admit, I tried and failed to win myself. Those suckers are getting expensive.) Two days later:

For the other leg, he fashioned a boomerang-like “cucumber shuriken.” Hiroko rightly pointed out that the kappa wouldn’t be complete without a “shiri-kodama” extractor — a “shiri-kodama” being mysterious source of “ki” energy supposedly located in the human colon, and a favorite food of the creatures; they traditionally rip them out of the backsides of unwary swimmers. Marugame was happy to oblige, creating an “XX-series” style attachment arm, complete with winding chain gimmick. He even incorporated a fitting mechanism into the arms, allowing them to be detached at will:

Other gimmicks included a cucumber-katana with an embedded magnet, allowing it to be “held” in the hand or stowed on the back, samurai-style:

What can I say? Marugame’s the man.

But no time for congratulations just yet. The Kappa Exhibition was rapidly approaching. At this point the prototype was unpainted white plastic. We still needed to decide on the final colors, which proved far more involved of a process than any of us expected. Fortunately, Alen whipped up a Photoshop file that let us tweak different combos at will. Here are some of the many variations we wrestled with:

And then the box! To do this right, we knew we needed to come up with faux box art. With the clock ticking, I turned to Walter, a French pal who lives near me in Tokyo, and who works as a professional comic artist and colorist. More to the point, he ran a vintage toy store in Paris years and years back, so he “knew what time it was,” as the old-school rappers would say. And over the course of a week, he turned out box-art in the best style the Seventies greats had to offer:

A word about that incredibly awesome Popy-style logo. I suck at Photoshop. But there’s this guy named Alen Yen who’s something of a renowned mouse-jockey. I begged Alen — already busy with work and his new baby girl — to help. And voila! Instant Kappa Machine logo! (For those of you who can read Japanese, we tweaked the last few syllables so we wouldn’t step on any copyright-holders’ toes.)

Talk about a team effort. America, France, Japan… It’s like a sentai show minus the spandex. (Actually, I’m clad in a stretchy cucumber-green body stocking as I type these words.)

Now as for the inevitable questions. It’s made of styrene plastic, not polyethylene. It is all handpainted save for the patterns on the arms and thighs, which were created using inkjet-printed stickers. And no, there aren’t any plans to mass-produce it — though if any toy companies out there want to license it and produce it as an actual toy, we’re all ears! In the meantime, it’s on display at the Kappa Exhibition in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, through July 21st. Drop by and check it out if you’re in the area. And who knows? You might just run into the legendary Mr. Marugame, too.

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