Collecting robot toys is a hobby that’s largely built on nostalgia—either for your own childhood or someone else’s showa-era upbringing that you wish you had. Collectors spend cash on vintage toys they couldn’t afford with their allowance when they were new on the shelves, or on new toys based on vintage designs. Robot collectors come in all forms, but they often go after the most accurate, detailed versions of their favorite on-screen robots while ignoring soft vinyl versions.
Compared to the highly-detail technical toy marvels common today, there’s something inherently reassuring and simplistic about vinyl toys (called “sofubi” in Japanese, for “soft vinyl”). That’s due in large part because their aesthetics remind us of an era before accurate transformation sequences or proportions that match production art. The history of vinyl toys stretches back farther and wider than the purview of this site, to tokusatsu series like Godzilla or Ultraman, but what we’re talking about here are toys made during the giant robot boom, for shows like Mobile Suit Gundam, Combat Mecha Xabungle and Super Dimension Century Orguss.
As what we’d now call “real robot” anime kicked off in the 1980s, vinyl toys offered both manufacturers and consumers a cheaper alternative to marquee items like Super Dimension Fortress Macross’ iconic VF-1 Valkyrie, produced by Takatoku. Because producing sofubi toys was so much cheaper, it was often the only format you’d find robots from shows like Combat Mecha Xabungle or supporting mecha like Macross‘ Glaug. But just because sofubi toys offered choice and a low price, didn’t necessarily mean they were more appealing for kids, or, decades later, for collectors.
If you put a sofubi VF-1 Valkyrie next to Takatoku’s 1/55 VF-1 Valkyrie and asked a kid circa 1983 to choose which one they’d want, they’d probably have chosen the toy that has diecast metal and can actually transform. The childhood roots of robot collecting meant that years later, the preference of collectors wouldn’t change much, still preferring the hard plastic, transforming toy. When these vinyl toys were new(er) their cheapness worked against them, viewed as disposable they’d be passed over by enthusiasts and thrown out. According to collector Matt Alt, until a few years ago it was difficult to find a market for sofubi toys, though this trend has started to change in a big way.
The disposability of sofubi indirectly lead to their increase in value years later as collectors began to search out these (now) rare toys. While trying to track down classic sofubi is becoming an increasingly expensive endeavor, there’s plenty of new sofubi being made, but many of these newer toys aren’t cheap or easy to find, either.
Banpresto’s modern Gundam sofubi may be the most ubiquitous, but because they were primarily manufactured for use as prizes in UFO catcher machines, you’d have to buy them from secondhand stores like Mandarake or online auction sites. Compared to other sofubi lines, Banpresto’s Gundam selection (including a sprawling selection of large, 1/72 scale Zaku IIs and a “Big Size” line featuring the goofy aquatic mobile suits from the One Year War) are cheap and easy to find.
In 2007, CM’s Corporation began manufacturing Patlabor toys and to go along with their AV-98 Ingram figures they produced a line of sofubi labors. Featuring such memorable labors as the Hercules, Tyrant 2000 and Pickle, the line was colorful, fun and, if we’re entirely honest, far more interesting than yet another boring, white Ingram.
But before the efforts of Banpresto and CMs Corporation, smaller companies like Denjin and Sakamoto Showten had already popped up, releasing small runs of sofubi based on Gundam and Armored Trooper VOTOMS at conventions like Wonder Festival. Both companies designed toys that wouldn’t have looked out of place on toy shelves thirty years ago. More recently, a company named Butanohana released a series of sofubi based on early Gundam pre-production designs. Gargamel, known more for their monster vinyl toys, also released a few smaller scale Scopedogs from VOTOMS.
Ultimately, when you’re buying sofubi, what you’re going to get is going to look a bit dated. Modern sofubi by bigger companies like Banpresto or CM’s benefit from modern manufacturing and accurate proportions, but they’re still based on decades-old mecha designs without any sort of Katoki-esque reworking (thankfully). The toys of smaller manufacturers, like Denjin or Butanohana, are intentionally retro and designed to invoke the feel of classic sofubi manufacturers like Bullmark. Their proportions aren’t what most modern collectors want or expect.
If you can appreciate their aesthetics, there’s a lot to love about vinyl; classic or otherwise. They’re refreshingly simple, without complicated articulation, finicky transformation or tiny accessories that’ll fall off if you sneeze too hard in another room. Thanks to typically being packaged in little more than a plastic baggie and stapled cardboard label, you also won’t have to worry about that age-old question: whether or not to open it up or leave it in the box.
Because, of course, you’re supposed to open them.
Huge thanks to Matt Alt for sharing his knowledge.