20 years ago, Volks sought a way to draw women to the resin kit market to bolster their sales. Their solution was the Super Dollfie, an approximately 24” tall, fully customizable, anatomically correct (yes) ball jointed doll that was sold at the time as an unfinished kit. New Super Dollfie owners were expected to build, paint, and style their dolls to their liking. Eyes, wigs, and even body parts were meant to be changed to suit the owner’s whims.
Much has changed over the past two decades, including a move from a kit-based sales method to pre-finished limited edition dolls, but the Super Dollfie (SD) market is still extremely prosperous. In spite of the move to finished dolls, owners are encouraged to customize their dolls if the wig, eye, clothing, body part, and customization tools market. Since the birth of the Super Dollfie, numerous other ball jointed doll companies have come and gone. When I first started collecting there were about four (Volks, Custom House, Luts/Cerberus Project, and Dream of Dream of Doll), of which Volks was the most popular. Nowadays Volks is still the most popular, but it’s impossible to count or keep track of how many ball-joined doll (BJD) companies exist or once existed. Volks is not a particularly large company by any means, but many other BJD companies are the work of a few or even a single person who sculpts, paints, sews for, casts, and sells their dolls.
If you’re unable or unwilling to fully customize a doll yourself, Volks offers a service called the “Full Choice System” at most of its stores. With Full Choice System, you start by selecting from about 100 head sculpts. You then have the option to select the doll’s skin tone, hair style and color, eye color, makeup style, body type, hand and foot parts, as well as a few other optional parts. There are even Full Choice System heads that are exclusive to certain store locations. A special type of SD sold by Volks is the one-off model – a one of a kind doll painted, dressed, and customized as a collaborative effort between several artists. One-offs are only available at certain stores and events and must be purchased through a lottery. One-offs may include discontinued or location exclusive Full Choice System heads.
Over the years I’ve found that people are interested in Super Dollfies and other resin ball jointed dolls but don’t tend to seek out more information due to the high price tag. Depending on the size, SD models run anywhere from about $300-$1500 USD. The price doesn’t seem to be that much of a deterrent for many people however; limited runs of dolls sell out almost immediately. In my 15 or so years of collecting I’ve only seen a few dolls released by Volks that were absolute flops. Volks has never released hard numbers, but it’s generally assumed that somewhere around 300 resin dolls are made per limited run. Demand is so high that most are sold via a lottery method before leftovers (if there are any) are sold online or in Volks’ many retail storefronts. The lottery method can be stressful as buyers have no idea if they’ll be able to purchase what they want for several weeks, essentially leaving a lot of money in limbo.
For example, Volks recently released Rose of Versailles collaboration dolls and the lottery for Lady Oscar was an absolute bloodbath. Demand for her was extremely high and the actual amount of dolls produced seemed lower than normal based on the number of people who won. Additionally, it seemed as if a huge portion of the dolls released at both live events and through the lottery process went to resellers. I went through the lottery for her twice, as Volks’ United States branch offers a second lottery for customers within North America. I lost the international lottery but won her in the US round. Still, very few people wound up with an Oscar and many of the dolls seem to have gone to scalpers.
As with garage kits, scalping and counterfeiting have become a major issue within the hobby in recent years. The most sought after dolls can sell for at least 150% MSRP and counterfeiters have been known to brag about ordering new models to recast and sell. Non-hobbyists definitely know you can make a quick buck off of desperate doll fans and enter online lotteries for dolls too.
After I lost the international round of the Oscar lottery I watched auctions for her on Yahoo! Auctions just to see what her resale price might be and most of the people scalping her were also flipping shoes like Air Jordans and Yeezys. Very few were being sold by people that could be considered BJD hobbyists. At a release event for the Lorina II sculpt styled after a Junichi Nakahara illustration, one scalper even caused a scandal big enough hit Japanese newspapers when he paid 50 people to wait in a line and acquire 2 dolls each (the per-customer limit). The event had a known quantity of 100 dolls and he purchased every single one of them. Fans were obviously outraged and Volks has since begun to take more steps to deter scalpers.
Events aren’t solely for purchasing dolls, however, Volks holds special events about four times a year to release new limited SD and Dollfie Dream models called Doll Parties, or “Dolpas.” I can’t find attendance numbers for the past few events, but to put it in perspective they take over a portion of Tokyo Big Sight, the convention center that houses Comiket. Dolpas include workshops, contests, a dealer’s market, special one-off models, and a shop where limited models and accessories can be bought. New dolls are purchased via a lottery system that sounds incredibly stressful. You’re given a number when you line up and after everyone has lined up, staff will pull a number out of a hat. Whoever received that number is now the starting point of the line to purchase new dolls, so it doesn’t matter whether you lined up early or late. You can read more about how Dolpa lotteries at my friend’s blog.
The dealer’s area is essentially like Comiket or an artist alley but for doll clothes and accessories made by fans and small ateliers. There are beautiful, intricate costumes and clothing sets, doll-scale weapons, eyes — just about anything you can imagine for dolls. I’ve seen everything from a vendor that sells doll-scale kitchen knives to one who sells tiny S&M harnesses (some fans aren’t quite sure how that guy gets selected since Dolpas are supposed to be an all ages, family friendly affair). Customizers even sell heads that they’ve painted. The most recent (at the time of writing) Dolpa held at Big Sight, #40, had about 460 vendors. You can view photos of the dealer market at Dolpa 40 here. A friend’s event report for Dolpa 39 can be found here and here.
Volks also makes a type of doll called “Dollfie Dream.” Similar to the original 1/6th scale Dollfies (a silly portmanteau of “doll” and “figure”), Dollfie Dreams are 1/3 and 1/4th scale vinyl dolls with an internal skeleton instead of the elastic stringing found inside their resin Super Dollfies. Their faces err more towards the anime aesthetic and most limited models are licensed collaboration dolls from anime, manga, or video games. Unlike SDs, whose facial details are painted by hand, DD faces are masked and airbrushed. They are assumed to be produced in larger quantities than Super Dollfies and run closer to $500-700 USD, though the value of popular models can increase two to three times on the aftermarket. A short video about Dollfie Dreams can be found here.
From Garage Kits to Dolls
As the story goes, the idea behind the Super Dollfie came from when Volks’ head sculptor Akihiro Enku created a large, realistic, ball jointed doll as a present for his wife. The wife of Volks’ founder subsequently saw the doll and was enchanted, wishing for the ability to offer something like that to customers.
There’s little information on Akihiro Enku in English and Japanese. From what I’ve been able to gather he was scouted by Volks’ president, Hideyuki Shigeta, to become the head of Zoukei-Mura, Volks’ design and production division for figures, model kits, and dolls. Prior to dolls, Volks dealt mostly in scale models and garage kits based on series like Five Star Stories and Armored Trooper VOTOMS. Enku has since gone on to create many garage kits and figure sculpts for Volks, as well as overseeing the general design and production of all Super Dollfies.
Most SD sculpts are attributed to Zoukei-Mura as a unit, but occasionally Volks will make a big show out of Enku personally sculpting a head or accessory, as was the case with the Devilman Yo-Midis and Lady Oscar’s horse. He’s not listed as the sculptor for either of the recent Lady Oscar and Andre Grandier SDs, but from a stylistic perspective, I think he may have sculpted them or played a very large part in their design. Lengthy Yahoo! Auctions spelunking expeditions and questioning hobby friends (and friends of friends) have turned up little in the way of sculpting credits on SD models. We can only speculate which artists may have sculpted specific dolls based on the styles seen in their past garage kit and figure work for Volks.
Returning to Mother SD’s Embrace
I recently learned about some terminology used in Japanese doll collecting circles that regard an owner’s emotional investment in their dolls. Those that collect them just because they’re fun to customize and pretty to look at are considered “dry” users, while those that have a deep emotional connection to their dolls and any characters that they may create a doll of are considered “wet” users. I personally don’t feel that I fit squarely within either category as a collector. My dolls bring me great happiness and I enjoy simply looking at them, even if I may go for long periods without changing their clothes or accessories. I’ve given some of my dolls names that are different than their basic sculpt names, but I don’t create characters or personalities for them as other owners do, and lately, I have not bothered renaming them at all out of a sheer lack of creativity on my part. But I can’t deny that there’s an emotional connection. I absolutely cried years ago when the Volks president pulled my name out of a lottery for a one-off model at an SD event that I’d been really hoping to win. Just looking at them or taking a nice photo of my dolls can elevate my mood too. So perhaps I’m a wet user after all.
A ~dream~ of many SD owners is to go with their doll to Tenshi no Sato in Kyoto, an estate owned by Volks that houses a traditional Japanese garden and Taisho-era home once owned by the painter Takeuchi Seiho, as well as a five-story main building. The main building has an observation room, Super Dollfie museum, special shop, café, and an atrium with photo setups. There’s also an outbuilding that occasionally offers classes on customizing SDs and where you can have someone help you perform maintenance on your doll. Sato is for Volks VIP members only, but foreign visitors can purchase a one-day pass by appointment.
Aside from the museum, garden, photo ops, and store with Sato-exclusive items, another draw is performing an Omukae ceremony, where you uh… basically get soul bonded to your doll. I think they can be done at all Volks stores that deal in SDs and SD accessories, but why do it there when you can go to Sato and have Mother Super Dollfie preside over the ceremony.
According to Volks lore, Mother Super Dollfie gave birth to all Super Dollfies. In reality, she’s a statue of the Virgin Mary that sits in the atrium at Sato and watches over you and your doll as Sato staff perform a ceremony that I can only describe as pseudo-Onmyoudou bullshit. We’re talking capes, candles, and staff that walk a perfectly rehearsed route with precise steps and twirls, and recite a perfectly rehearsed script to bond your doll to you. If this sounds hilarious, it is.
To top it off they play Tonight I Celebrate My Love on the Sato sound system at the end. It’s ridiculous and I wanted to have one performed when I visited. Unfortunately, I asked on very short notice (I hadn’t planned to buy the doll I wanted an Omukae with, oops) and someone had already scheduled one for the day I was visiting. Apparently, they only do one per day. I had an Omukae performed at a past Volks Halloween party in Los Angeles, but I can only liken that to a shotgun ceremony that was lacking in the Mother Super Dollfie and performance art aspects. There was still a cape involved and they might have played Tonight I Celebrate My Love, I don’t recall. I had to try extremely hard to keep from laughing so I cried instead.
As my time in the hobby has progressed I’ve come to enjoy buying and fixing up old dolls, especially if they were models that were unobtainable when I was younger. As a general rule, SDs hold or even increase in value for a long time. However, prices on old models have begun to drop with new innovations in body technology and resin durability. I can’t remember what spawned the idea but I wound up looking for the first doll I ever wanted from Volks on second-hand sites a little over a year ago. While I didn’t find the particular release I had in mind, I found a very sad looking version of the same mold for a nice price and checked its status daily for a few weeks before caving and asking a friend if she was available to repaint it and bought the damn thing.
This doll is about 17 years old and probably on the first version of the SD boy body. To put it bluntly, it sucks. I expected that I’d clean him up but he’d be unable to stand, so he’d just sit on my desk and look cute. I had literally no expectations. But there’s a technique called sueding in which you can glue strips of moleskin or suede into the doll’s joints to increase friction and help it stand and pose better. Or you can take the easy way out apply a thin layer of hot glue inside the joints instead. I did the latter and despite my doubts, the doll stands now and poses about as well as his limited range of motion can allow.
For his age, he’s in remarkable condition. I took him apart and separated the fingers on his hands, removed parting seams along the sides of body parts, sanded out a dent in his chest, and sanded off the carved-in eyebrows that early SDs used to come with. The resin that SDs (and all resin ball jointed dolls from other companies) are made from yellows over time as the red pigments in the mix break down over time and via exposure to sunlight. Around 2003 Volks introduced a new resin type called “Pureskin” that was reportedly less likely to yellow. The inside of this doll’s head says he’s from 2002. Anyway, I have the same sculpt that was released later in Pureskin and he’s much more yellow than my new old doll with the old resin type. I keep my dolls in a dim room and have no idea how that happened or why this one is such a nice color in comparison.
Note: All photos other than those of my own dolls were taken from official Volks websites and social media accounts.
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