Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Vintage Tales: Barbie and Licca-chan: The Queens of Sofubi

As the story goes, sofubi manufacturing came to Japan after World War II, as one of the industries set up to help the country on the path of economic recovery. In addition to making toys for home grown properties like Godzilla, Japanese factories also provided the labor for international companies. That  included manufacturing what was to become the world's most famous doll: Barbie.

In the mid-20th century, American toy maker Mattel was a relatively new company, having been founded in 1945 - the same year WWII ended. At the end of the following decade, in 1959, Mattel released Barbie. Interestingly, the idea for the doll was conceived by Ruth Handler, the wife of Mattel's cofounder Elliot Handler. I'm not sure if she received a big check for her contribution, but she did later lead the company as its president. And she named the doll after her daughter Barbara.

So, Barbie was manufactured in Japan from 1959-1972 as a multi-part sofubi toy. The quality was exceptional. Here are pics of a couple of the early Barbie and Ken dolls:
 More after the jump:

With this design, you can see how Mattel tried to appeal to the Japanese market by outfitting Barbie in a traditional kimono.
Barbie soon became America's doll of choice, but not so in Japan. That spot was claimed by Licca-chan (full name Licca Kayama), a doll manufactured by toy legend Takara (founded in 1955) starting in 1967.

Here are a couple of looks at some Licca-chan dolls. These particular figures are not too old, but they give a nice idea about the dolls and make a good cross-reference alongside Barbie:
There are some interesting differences between Licca-chan and Barbie. Note in this cropped shot of the top pic how much smaller Licca-chan is:
Plus, Licca-chan has a disproportionately large head and big eyes. Note the interesting parallel between her facial features and iconic Japanese manga characters like Astro Boy.
There are also backstory differences, Licca-chan is a 5th grader (click here to read her profile on Takara Tomy's site), not a teenager or adult. An interesting part of her backstory is Licca-chan's mother is Japanese, while her father is French, making her biracial.

Over the decades, Licca-chan became an iconic figure in her own right. Besides massive sales, the doll has inspired an anime series,video game, etc.

Licca-chan does have something very important in common with Barbie. Just as Barbie was created by a visionary woman, so was Licca-chan. The iconic doll was thought up by manga artist Miyako Maki, the wife of anime + manga legend Leiji Matusumoto (Space Battleship Yamato, Captain Harlock, etc.)

It's a shame that when we think of properties like Barbie and Licca-chan, we tend to primarily associate them with the companies that manufactured them. Maybe more thought should be spared for the creative visionaries behind the iconic toys.

By the way, I snapped all the above shots at a small shop in Kobe during my most recent trip there.

I'm certainly no expert on the history of dolls, but I do find the interplay of Japanese and American toy culture and manufacturing to be very compelling, Plus, I've been wanting to dig into the history of sofubi toys more. And, Takara is one of my favorite toy companies. How can you not love the company that brought us (among many amazing toys) the wind-up R2-D2 and the Microman and Diaclone toy lines - which made Transformers possible?


CMR said...

Your article was an enjoyable read that sums up Barbie's Japanese manufacturing roots nicely.

I recently visited the Barbie store in Harajuku, & while browsing their small doll section I became aware of the doll's early manufacturing roots for the first time. I considered buying one, but since dolls ain't my thing I walked away with a pink soda drink instead.

That store in Kobe, in the Motoko shopping arcade is a trippy place, more people need to visit Motomachi & it's weird & surreal shopping arcade.

andy b said...

Thanks, glad I got the basics right!

I've never been to the Barbie store. If they've got a nice vintage set up, I wouldn't mind snapping some pics - would make a nice follow-up post.

I agree the Kobe arcade is lots of fun. I had some soba and a beer at a tiny eatery in the place. Really nice owner with a very cute and friendly dog.

Anonymous said...

The book "Barbie in Japan" goes into quite a bit of detail regarding Barbie's Japanese roots and has photos of the original (including Japan-exclusive) fashions. I picked the book up on a whim a few years ago, and I'm so glad I did - it's really beautiful stuff! Also, they've got a couple Licca-chan dolls in one of the showcases at Nakano Antiques up on the second floor of cute :) Thank you for the Tamagotchi pointer today!

andy b said...

Thanks for the tip! Admittedly I know very little about the doll world. It's always good to know of another resource about vintage Japanese toys.

I hope you were able to find an alarm clock.

I looked through my toy shop list but it seems I haven't added the Shimokitazawa shop I mentioned. I'll have to sort that out. Send me an e-mail, and I'll send the shop's info to you once I track it down.

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