Why We Go

by Darren Pierce : Densha Blues : 04.07.04 3:45pm EST
When I walked the aisles of Japanese toy stores in my youth, the overwhelming urge was to take notes. This seems like a strange reaction for a child in a toy store -- breaking out notepad and mechanical pencil to jot down rough block diagrams and crudely abbreviated memos -- a perfectly normal child would want to take the toys out of the box and play with them.

I was struck with a particular "scarce resources" mentality in my six years in Japan. What's scarce were the toys in my possession and the hours in the day available to mindless wander department stores. I'd never own even a healthy fraction of the bulk of toys available, and even though Japan has felt like a comfortable home for years, an Army Brat is keenly aware that his time is short and scheduling is not entirely predictable.

My contemporaries and I were also isolated from the US in a way that today's kids living overseas probably can't sympathize with. We were profoundly detached from home. There was no Internet (that we could access). There was no affordable overseas telephone service. Our television programming and theater entertainment lagged the real world by sometimes as much as a year or more. The books in the base library were old. In general, the Age of Information had not yet happened, and kids simply don't write letters.

So a crisis arose -- it was my cross alone to bear -- all of these Japanese toys had to be documented by someone, or they would be lost to all time the moment we left Japan. After all, nobody is going to care about these toys as much as I, and none of my poor, dumb American friends would possibly believe all this pure bulk of insanity ever existed to begin with unless I could provide some sort of proof -- books, catalogs, drawings, notes. It would be a great shame to lose all this creativity to history, and in 20 years, nobody is going to remember a damned single one of these robots ...

Why did I care? The robots obsessed me. I was obsessed in a way that only something stirring deep in every lobe of your brain could. The artist in me was enamored. The engineer in me was enamored. The kid was enamored, the budding adult was enamored, the passive fantasist was enamored, and the aggressive fighter was enamored. I thought day and night about robots. I drew them in school and designed new creations at lunch. I dreamed about what was going on, behind the scenes, in the minds of the creators because there was simply something more here than -- well, to abuse a cliche -- meets the eye.

These weren't superficial American toys, but deep and mysterious feats of technology. There were blueprints and back-stories and clues, very subtle clues, that conscientious adults, with minds for design and technology and fun, were putting a lot of loving work into these toys. Japanese toys didn't talk down to you. They weren't the cheapest pile of parts available that mommy could afford to sufficiently shut little Johnny up while the soaps were on. Japanese toys were aimed at the adult in you. The designers spoke to you as a peer. The fantasy engineer deep within me who wants giant robots to be real and fantastic machines to be taken seriously was being communicated to directly -- humored or patronized maybe -- but acknowledged.

When I saw all the elements of design laid before me, the vast myriad of shapes and lines and transforming pieces, each one seemed like a little slice of genius -- as if you are being given a rare glimpse of singular perfection that is fleeting and must be captured now or will be forever lost. Gotcha catch 'em all. Gotta document each and every one. These pure glimpses into the mind of fantasy design are what people like me live for. Every such moment lost will hang around my neck like a dead albatross forever.

Now it's the year 2004, almost 20 years since I've left the Island of Toys, and there are very few forgotten Japanese toys after all. It's somewhat ironic and poignant, then, that we inaugurate a new Japanese toy site that is primarily dedicated to documenting Japanese toys. You'd think after spending the vast majority of my short life cataloging toys, I'd be sick of this. Not in the least. I am confident of two things: I still obsess with Japanese toys, and I do not know why. I can cite reason and rationale, but in the end, the obsession is mystery.

We casually call this pastime a hobby. Whether it is a hobby, religion, sickness, fetish, or consumerist orgy, there are elements of a quest involved. There is something pursued for its own sake. I'm not sure why people climb mountains or search for God or restore old cars, but there must be some similar, primitive elements of quest involved, even if people could argue over relative merits.

With each robot discovered, dissected, analyzed, and cataloged, it feels like another holy piece of the puzzle has been put in place. Despite obvious market motivations, with each annual flood of new robot fodder, the mystery slowly resolves. Only when all the parts are assembled can we stand back and see the expanse, the tapestry whole, and the question will be answered. I do wish I knew what the question is.

I'll let the psychologists and armchair moralists work on that one. I don't really want to know what's missing. When you've been on a quest this long, you face a schism -- you're driven to complete the task whole, yet you don't really want it to be over. Getting the answer can be an anti-climax. Do I really want that little part of me to die? Often the path is far more important than the goal.