The story of Popy is the story of character toys in Japan. Character toys are a part of the commercial realization of Japanese character culture, the mass phenomenon that helped define the national zeitgeist of the modern age, fueled an entire industry sector, dramatically affected popular art and culture, and shaped the country's image overseas. The effect on Japanese science fiction and children's entertainment was pointedly profound.

Certainly, there were character toys and elements of character culture in Japan prior to Popy's arrival. Popy's contribution was two-fold. First, they stumbled into a rich, emergent product sector, as many businesses do. Secondly, they quantified this new area, and applied principles of industrial design, marketing, and manufacturing to it in a way many business fail to do. They nurtured a societal meme, and created a science out of its harvest.


Toy manufacturing giant Bandai started Popy in July of 1971. Their charter involved acquiring the rights to produce licensed merchandise, and developing the associated product. The tiny company, never employing more than a dozen people during most of its run, would use parent company Bandai's marketing, distribution, and manufacturing resources.

Popy was left to operate on its own. At this period in history, the business Popy was to pursue was small potatoes, and relatively ignored by Bandai. What was then sold that would be considered "character toys" today included tin toys and automobiles with heroes' heads affixed on top.

Also popular was the ubiquitous soft vinyl toy. Soft vinyls, or "sofubi" toys, were cheap to develop and manufacture. They were so cheap that margins were non existent and competition was thick. They were a low risk product in a high risk market, thus, Bandai didn't view the development of soft vinyl as a strategy for building new business.

Popy Managing Director Yukimachi Sugiura wanted to do something new. It ought to be possible to bring kids toys of their favorite heroes that were a little closer in form to what they saw on TV, and perhaps a little more fun, too.

Despite good intentions, Sugiura recognized two key challenges to the dream: Fads are hard to predict and technology wasn't available to create sophisticated toys at reasonable costs. For both of these problems, control strategies were formulated. Technology, at these scales, is created with money and necessity. Popy would have to start small, and develop the new technology themselves through business growth.

Creating a steady stream of fads is a harder problem. If you can create a fad, you essentially have a license to mint money. Striving for an ambitious goal, Popy pioneered a marketing concept that would change the ways toys and children's entertainment was produced in Japan. Forging tight alliances with media companies, TV shows and TV characters could be engineered around toys that were designed to sell. As the primary advertising sponsor of said TV shows, Popy's character products would be hawked in real time while the audience watched the characters in action. The half hour TV show would become the half hour toy commercial.

Popy was ready to make magic. But before they could plow new fields, they had to get some business moving with slightly less revolutionary merchandise. Fueling the coffers called for something simple, yet refined.


Popy had much success with early attempts at making miniature versions of popular vehicles from animated and live action shows. The technologies and techniques necessary to create these kinds of toys were already developed by companies such as Lesney, but the work allowed Popy to grow Bandai's internal skillset with miniature molding and diecast metal construction.

The line was originally branded "Mini Mini", but quickly renamed "Popynica" in line with an emerging Japanese naming trend for this class of product. Small "Matchbox" style cars were called "minika" ("mini car"). Tomy played on that name with their 1970 launch of their legendary and long-lived Tomica line (essentially, "minika from Tomy"). The Popynica name change was a natural step.

Britain's Lesney set the standard for 3 inch diecast vehicles in more ways than one. Their Matchbox line used a product numbering convention of 1 through 75, at which point the numbering would reset. Popy adopted a similar scheme, numbering their Popynica toys starting with "PA-01", and running the numbering up to roughly 99, at which point a new series would begin with "PB-01", etc. This scheme would be carried forward to other Popy lines.

Popynica would be into the PC series by early 1980. The line was a tremendous success, and would sport hundreds of toys and a brand that would live on to this day.

Ironically, when Bandai launched CharaWheels in September of 2000, a line that was essentially a return to Popy's root product, the venture was conducted in cooperation with Mattel.


In 1973, Popy secured the right to produce toys for Mazinger Z, and the start-up company had their first big project ahead of them. Mazinger Z was produced by Toei Animation, based on Go Nagai's giant robot manga. The showed aired on Sunday at seven PM, prime time, so there was no excuse for failure. It was time to execute the mission that Popy had set for itself, and develop a radical new breed of character toy.

Sugiura's pet project was the Jumbo Machinder. These two foot tall "jumbo" versions of your favorite characters would be made from polyethylene, tougher and more solid than soft vinyl toys. Jumbos had presence, charisma, and the sort of generic "Mommy, I want that toy" power that Popy was looking for.

Sugiura hired industrial designer Katsushi Murakami back to Bandai to head up a second project dealing with smaller toys. Murakami had worked for Bandai from 1961 to 1971, and temporarily left to pursue a dream of designing cars. Murakami worked to develop a toy that could be considered the inverse of the Jumbo Machinder -- a small, heavy, product of quality. The preferred medium was metal.

Mazinger Z was portrayed on TV and in manga as large and heavy. Certainly, a Mazinger Z toy that felt like one might imagine the actual robot would feel -- a weighty, metallic lump -- would be appealing to children. It only made sense to construct the new toy completely from diecast metal. The metal content would be the toy's primary gimmick. Murakami even went so far as to stamp "CHOGOKIN" on the box, to press the point.

Mazinger Z got his name from the special material he was constructed with: Chogokin Z ("super alloy Z"), a rare metal found only at the base of Mt. Fuji. With the "Chogokin" label, you knew you were getting a genuine piece of the real Mazinger -- or as close as a child could imagine.

As predicted, available technology was Murakami's enemy. Diecast metal poorly held fine surface detail, such as in Mazinger's face. Gaps and burrs were hard to iron out. The easy way out of the problem would be to make a hybrid toy, using plastics for the head. Murakami didn't want to settle for anything less than the best.

The initial Chogokin Mazinger Z, numbered GA-01, would have to settle for a less than an ideal head.

Fortunately, the toy surpassed expectations, moving straight to the best sellers' list. Through trial and error, the money made on Mazinger was put right back into Popy to improve the product. Chogokin Mazinger Z went through several iterations over a brief span of time as Popy perfected its art.

Murakami had found success in exploiting Mazinger's weight -- a core element of Go Nagai's Mazinger concept. Nagai intentionally designed Mazinger as an earth-bound machine in acknowledgement of the robot's heft. Over the course of the show's run, viewer feedback led to the creation of the Jet Scrander, giving Mazinger Z the gift of flight. This is a subtle anecdote, but its relevance will become clear shortly.

Popy advertised Chogokin and Jumbo Machinder Mazinger Z heavily during Mazinger's airtime, per plan, and generated heavy demand. The show itself was scoring a 30 in the ratings. By comparison, a major children's show airing in the mid 2000's earning a 10 was considered doing well.

The Jumbo Machinders made a huge splash in the market and in the industry. At the 4th International Trade Fair, Jumbo Mazinger Z won the Toy Grand Prix Prize. Both Jumbo and Chogokin were blockbusters. The first version GA-01 sold half a million units. Mazinger Z related Popynica toys saw their 2nd, 3rd, and 4th production runs.

Popy was riding the economic consumption wave of the time, which was strong despite the ongoing oil crisis. They had established the legendary Popynica, Jumbo Machinder, and Chogokin brands. The hardest task a star must face is following up a hit with another hit.


The story of Popy is the story of character toys. It is also the story of Katsushi Murakami. His challenge and legacy are of particular interest. As the Go Nagai animated robots rolled on, Popy was under pressure to duplicate its initial success with Mazinger. Resting on the success of yesterday's concepts is a fool's gamble.

Far more than a personal challenge, Popy was under the microscope. Character toys were suddenly serious business. The small company Bandai had created to keep licensed product out from underfoot was now looked upon jealously.

A small group including Popy representatives and people who worked on the Zero Tester animated series from Tohoku Shinsha got together to execute what might be loosely called "the Popy plan". Their job was the create their first ground-up entertainment package including a television show and merchandise, one designed to sell the other, hand in glove. Murakami came to the meeting with a concept.

He thought long and hard about what children might want in a hero robot. It should project strength, and not be confined to the earth, as was the early Mazinger Z. He also felt that Mazinger gave him little to work with in terms of toy gimmicks. He wanted a new robot, but something that wasn't purely mechanical; it should be something of a super hero, with supernatural strength from a mysterious source.

The young Kamen Rider franchise was very popular at the time, and did well with the notion of "transformation". Kamen Rider and other Ishimori characters transformed when necessary from an ordinary human form to a heroic fighting form. This created mystery, interest, and an exciting action climax that children looked forward to. Couldn't a robot transform?

Murakami decided on a robot that could transform into a bird, giving it the ability to fly. Unlike Ishimori heroes, the new robot would transform mechanically, in a format suitable for a toy. Transformation would be the toy's key gimmick. He worked on a design that was mechanically sound, and could be replicated in toy form easily. The crude prototype became his concept pitch at the team meeting.

Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, a rising star in animation at the time, refined the design, giving it character and style. Studio Nue staff ultimately cleaned up the design and prepared line art models, cutaways, and other assets for the production.

Brave Raideen was born, airing in 1975. In most meaningful terms, this was Japan's first transforming robot. The concept of the robot transformation has maintained an almost irrationally wild popularity that continues to be the basis for entire toy lines today.

Raideen was a multi-company collaboration from the start; where Mazinger preceded the toy, Raideen was born from a toy. Raideen was also the first giant robot work born directly into animation, and it was a commercial success.

Raideen was scripted to be created from Mutron Metal, rather than Mazinger's Chogokin Z, but the name "Chogokin", as a brand, had been well established. It was best not to tinker too much with a successful brand. Raideen would carry the Chogokin brand. However, as a deluxe transforming toy, Raideen would inaugurate a "DX" (deluxe) mark on its package.

Between animated and live action media, the giant hero robot, as a genre, was firmly "in".


In 1976, Murakami gave the consumer options with Toei's Combattler V, a robot composed of five interlocking vehicles. One could buy a smaller "standard" Chogokin Combattler that lacked the combination gimmick, or buy the individual component vehicles, and assemble a large Combattler with the parts. Finally, a DX gift set was available that contained everything you needed to build Combattler in one box.

The big box set was expensive, and a bit beyond what most people considered typical for a toy at the time. Nonetheless, toys were on a road to being regarded as something more than cheap, quasi-disposeable entertainment. They were objects of value. Popy had created two classes of toy buyers: those that had the DX, and those stuck with the standard offerings. The bourgeois had a toy niche.

Character toys were outselling non-character toys easily. Popy opened a large new factory of its own, no longer relying on Bandai's manufacturing resources. In August, Popy began exporting Jumbo Machinders, Chogokin, and Popynica to the west under license with Mattel. Despite the absent character context, the unique and innovative toys from Japan did well overseas under the name "Shogun Warriors". Character culture went from west to east as well -- Popy picked up the license to develop Charles Schultz' Peanuts merchandise for Japan.

Popy kept hammering away at the need for toy worthy gimmicks. Murakami substantially rearranged Ishimori's Daitetsujin 17 to include a transformation gimmick. Leiji Matsumoto's newest animation was forced to become "giant robot anime" at Popy's urging, creating Dangard Ace.

The robot transformations in new animation were starting to become completely pro forma. The writers had no need for the gimmicks, but worked in a weekly obligatory transformation scene to meet sponsor requirements and get their project sold. This mentality put both fans and industry types firmly in one of two camps: either you were a fan of animation, and didn't so much care about robots and toys, or you were a toy nut, and saw the animation as being secondary.

From the perspective of Popy and its customers, robots were all about the toys, and the innovative products continued. The money allowed Popy to develop complex designs with extreme narrow physical tolerances such as Gardian and Daltanias.


Quality was expected at ever increasing levels -- not just in toys, but in all product sectors in Japan. There was a nationwide obsession with quality. Children wanted adult-level products, or products that were as carefully crafted as adult offerings. It wasn't so easy to stick a kid with a cheap gift bought at the train station on the way home.

An item that epitomized "luxury" and "quality" in the minds of many Japanese was the ubiquitous cigarette lighter. Owners cherished their expensive lighters, which were carried around like heirlooms, even by people who didn't smoke. Murakami considered a robot that hid in your pocket in the form of a lighter, that came out to fight when trouble arose.

The concept became Gold Lightan, airing in 1981. The toys attempted to duplicate the luxury of a real lighter, and Murakami insisted on the same level of sophistication and technique in the toys' manufacture. High end dies were used, as well as diamond milling to achieve a "crystal cut" finish. The phrase "Crystal Cut" was emblazoned on the box, and a faux red velour tray held the tiny treasure inside.

Gold Lightan was a smash hit.

Sales were so strong that Popy's gold leaf suppliers -- and there was real gold leaf used -- couldn't keep up with demand. Nationwide, supply capacity for gold leaf was outstripped. Character toys and giant robots were having a real effect on the Japanese economy.

An industry observer may note that toy designers were methodically applying every possible design pattern, theme, and concept to the robot toy. Iterative design was being exploited for its own sake. Popy and Murakami were a principle force behind this phenomenon, but the sheer volume of design work was more than one mere industrial designer could handle.

There was a solution. In the post-war period, it was common for Japanese manufacturing firms to employ or own a design house. Popy had used houses such as Studio Nue in the past, but Murakami had done a great deal of the work himself. It was time to let go. Planning for growth, in April, a new company was formed called Popy Kikaku Shitsu ("Popy Planning Office"). This spin off would eventually become the legendary PLEX, whose designs would carry Popy and Bandai into the next decade and beyond.


Giant robot animation would be around for decades, but the shine was starting to wear off the fad, now approaching a ten year mark. The animation was entirely too formulaic, and viewer interest was waning. The early eighties was the age of Gundam and the "real robot". The generation of animated robot viewers was getting older, and turning to kits and more advanced hobbies to pursue their robot fascinations.

Amongst younger children, toys and robots remained popular as ever, and Popy moved their attention away from animation and into a new sustainable medium that could easily regenerate toy sales annually: Super Sentai.

Using the clinical approach to business Bandai is well known for, three popular live action show categories were transformed into broad spanning entertainment genres: Kamen Rider, Ultraman, and from successful sentai works was born Super Sentai. Every year, the genres would re-invent themselves -- while never really changing at all -- under a new name with new faces. It was an ideal vehicle for toys, and a successful formula.

But Popy's situation had changed. Electronic games were on the rise. PLEX was on its way to working independently, and character toys were no longer considered a "side business" by Bandai -- it was very much a primary business. The explosive growth had plateaued, and what was left was being efficiently managed, mostly though Bandai's live action franchise genres in cooperation with Toei and Tsuburaya.

In March of 1983, Popy was fully absorbed into Bandai in a giant reorganization that involved several other wholly owned Bandai subsidiaries. The Popynica and Chogokin brands would remain.


The book is closed on the Popy of the 1970's(1), but a strong legacy carries on into the decades beyond.

In the late 1990's, a strong sense of nostalgia began to hit the children of the 70's. Many characters, toys, and television shows that lay dormant for years were being revisited with a fresh eye for the adult fan. In 1997, Bandai launched a "Soul of Chogokin" and "Soul of Popynica" line that would market high-end collectible versions of old Popy heroes to the reminiscent fan.

By the mid 2000's, the nostalgia wave would be in high gear, with some 30 Soul of Chogokin offerings, and countless high end nostalgic toys from various manufacturers, all striving for that sense of heft, quality, and wonder that was established in the early days of toymaking.

Popy left us with enduring brands such as Chogokin, Jumbo Machinder, Popynica, PlaDela, and even Big Scale. They showed the world how to collaboratively engineer a fad and generate product demand using a method that has become a model for the industry. Reaping the benefits of economies of scale, Popy pioneered manufacturing technologies that led their industry.

Popy unleashed the methods and techniques of industrial design on a simple toy maker, and was part of the revolution that changed people's perception of toys. They helped sweep the wave of character culture over Japan, and introduced hundreds of innovative and design-worthy characters and toys into Japanese scifi culture. They helped define the Shuyaku Robot ("leading-man robot") genre of televised entertainment, and built a legacy that lives on as one of the most significant brands in the toy industry today.

Popy is a paradigm for Japan's economic success and design aesthetic, and a central player in Japanese character culture.

Note 1: Another Bandai subsidiary picked up the "Popy" name, and uses it today.

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