The Divide of Time, Space, and Imagination: A Look At the Concept of Nostalgic Merchandise

A few days ago, when I wrote about the direction giant robot designs have taken over the years, I received a comment pointing out to me the “Master Grade RX-78-2 Gundam 2.0,” which was a new model kit version of the iconic original Gundam, only designed to more closely resemble the mobile suit as it appeared in anime. When compared to previous RX-78-2 model kits, this means less details, different proportions, and a more “cartoonish” look overall.

Interested in how hobbyists took to this version of the classic Gundam, I looked at reviews of the kit. Any time its aesthetics were criticized, it was largely because the model was not as detailed as they liked. Being “anime accurate” was not a positive trait, and they would point out other kits, notably the “One Year War” version with a higher level of grittiness and detail, as a preferred alternative. In response to all this, I made my own comment, which was to point out that these fans appeared to be saying, “I don’t want the RX-78-2 to resemble the robot in the show, I want it to resemble the robot in my imagination!”

Then today, I saw the Toy Fair 2010 GI Joe toys. These action figures were designed based on the 80s version of GI Joe, the 3 inch figures instead of the giant doll-like ones. The only thing is, they are much more detailed and gritty than the 80s toys they were based on! It was also made clear that these toys are there partially for GI Joe collectors, adult men who look back fondly on their childhood toys, and I think it is all the more apparent that, like the One Year War RX-78-2, these GI Joes are trying to fill the gap between the actual toy and the collectors’ memories of what the toys were like as children, memories fueled by the power of childhood imagination. And there, in the attempts to make up for the loss of childhood creativity and thinking with skilled craftsmanship, lies the foundation of the nostalgic toy.

That is not to say of course that adults are incapable of having strong imaginations. Fiction as a whole would be incredibly boring if that were the case. Nor am I lumping everyone in as wanting more “realism” in their toys, as the original commenter I referred to above was all in favor of more toys like the MG RX-78-2 2.0. Instead, the issue is simply that the mind of an adult is simply different from the mind of a child. I am reminded of this fact whenever I look at drawings from my childhood and compare them to what I have done as an adult or even as a teenager.

When I previously touched on the subject of childhood imagination as it applies to animation, I talked about how children tend to ignore significant errors in animation and make up for these deficiencies through their imagination. But now when looking at a similar topic, that of toys and model kits, I realize that it’s not just a matter of childhood imagination “filling in the gaps,” but that childhood imagination, unlike adult imagination, cares little about “structure.”

If you look at the Soul of Chogokin series of toys, you will find everything I’ve been talking about, with its more solid and realistic redesigns of classic mecha targeted towards adult buyers, but if you want to really see what I mean by adults caring about structure, take a look not at the Soul of Chogokin line, but the original-style Chogokin toys, or rather, reviews of them by collectors. You will find that the way the reviewers talk about the features of the toy, about what is good and what is bad, is almost inevitably a very “adult-minded” way of looking at the toy, giving words to topics such as “points of articulation” and what-not. Even when referring to the nostalgia factor this happens, whether the topic is Chogokin, Jumbo Machinders, or Generation 1 Transformers.

It’s common knowledge among collectors, but the first generation of Mobile Suit Gundam toys, resembling the “neat gadgets”-style Chogokin toys that preceded it, were a marketing failure, as the toys did not really match up with what was on the screen. It really wasn’t until the concept of the giant robot “model kit” revolutionized giant robot figures that Gundam merchandise became the monster that it still is today, and people claim that this has to do with the fact that the audience for Gundam was skewing older than giant robot shows had in the past. I may be jumping the gun here, but what it looks like to me is that the older audience of younger and older teens were looking for more structure and accuracy in their toys, and that is what they got. As soon as Gundam hit that older demographic, I believe the Chogokin-style toys were dealt a serious blow, even putting aside the shoddy designs and inaccuracies of the original toyline. I think that the attitudes towards the 2.0 MG RX-78-2 are actually an extension of this over time and international waters.

Actually, more than even Chogokin reviews, if you really, really want to see the difference between child and adult mindsets and creativity, take a look at the webcomic Axe Cop. Promoted as being written by a 5 year old and drawn by his 29 year old brother, the artist admits to the story not being truly written by his significantly younger sibling, but that he asks the young child questions about the setting and events that occur, and then builds a story around it. The adult adds structure to the boundless imagination of the child, structure that is necessary to keep it all together, even if it doesn’t make sense entirely.

The child’s imagination says, “This is what happens.”

The adult’s imagination asks, “Why?”

But when it comes to reality, the child and adult’s responses reverse.

7 thoughts on “The Divide of Time, Space, and Imagination: A Look At the Concept of Nostalgic Merchandise

  1. I’m really torn on what to say about all this. I guess it’s because I’m just different from modern anime fans. I’ll try to say something meaningful here, but I’m not sure it’ll work out. I’ve been banned from making analogies in chat channels before.

    I have the MG RX-78-2 v2. I absolutely love it. I wasted little time in getting it, and even overpaid for it by a fair amount. I love it as a model kit, and I notice, especially after reading this article which made me think about it, that the things I love about it are much akin to why I love the original show Mobile Suit Gundam.

    On the outside, yes, the MG gundam v2 is simple. I in fact adore the simplicity to its curves. It’s very mazinger-like, and like shows in the old days in its smoothness. The outside has very simple and firm aesthetics. A child would be satisfied looking at it.

    At the same time… the insides, good god. It used precisely 8 polycaps total. it’s made of a lot of pieces, to intricate effects. when you move the elbows and knees, pistons move. and you had to build all those piston parts. It was an amazingly complicated build, which at the same time lead to heavy articulation, truly a great work of engineering. And as soon as you strip off the outer, white layer of armor, all that becomes apparent. When it comes to moving it and posing it, internal detail and building complexity, no other version of the Gundam yet can compare.

    (Digressing for a moment:
    The OYW version? Don’t make me laugh. It doesn’t look that much more detailed than the Ver 1.5, and in fact uses the same legs. You barely even build those legs, they’re built for you. It’s major advantage over the Ver 1.5 is poseability, and it even sacrificed the core block system to these ends.)

    Maybe the Gundam TV show wasn’t quite like that, but we wanted it to be like that, right? It looked like a kid’s show, with the enemies all being one-eyed monsters and everyone says yay for the gundam, but if you look below the surface it’s a lot more complicated, and pleasing to adults. I am amused by the similarities.

    But I guess, at the end of the day, what I find more important is how hard it is to build (why I build MGs and not 1/144ths), mechanical complexity, and articulation. Even if I didn’t like the surface for not being anime-accurate, which it isn’t, that’s not what drives me to get and build a model kit.
    I can completely see why other people might feel differently.

    But even if you don’t like the outer layer of armor, it’s a beautiful kit, and interacts very accurately (and intricately) with the MG G-Fighter.

    I guess I didn’t really address the article’s topic of anime-accuracy, but regarding the final paragraph or so, I think I’ve shown I feel the same way about child imagination and adult imagination as is posed, and like the MG Gundam v2 for both child reasons and adult reasons.

    I guess I’m just different from everyone else, though. Oh well.

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  2. Whoa, a real meaty post.

    I think this “let’s add a lot more detail to the mecha” business is also an effect of advancements in model kit engineering. 10 years ago, Bandai would probably never be able to make an extremely detailed kit like the Master Grade Gundam Unicorn (or it would be an expensive Perfect Grade instead). They make it because they can! I still prefer simple-looking kits with better articulation, though.

    Oh and the linked comic looks awesome. Thanks for bringing it up!

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  3. Overall, I think it’s OK to have revisionist history toys (as in, ones that are not source-material-accurate, and apply modern sensibility and engineering to franchises of the past), as long as everyone is honest with themselves and acknowledges that yeah, these toys are pretty different from what we used to watch/play with. I also think it’s OK to evaluate old toys through a modern lens, as long as – again – you acknowledge what you’re doing. Saying “Wow, this Wreck-Gar toy is crap” is not really telling the whole story; Wreck-Gar was one of the earliest motorcycle transformers, and it’s not surprising that’s it’s a little awkward (motorcycle transformers are STILL a little awkward; the best one I’ve seen is probably Animated Prowl). In fact, a lot of the stuff they did back in the day blows my mind, because they had to make up for lack of engineering experience and technology with sheer imagination (and balls of steel).

    Some of the concerns you attribute to adults, such as concern with the number of points of articulation, has always been a concern for me, when I was young. G.I. Joes were pretty close to the pinnacle of perfection for me because they were so flexible. Batman:TAS toys, on the other hand, only made it because they often had really awesome accessories (also, because it’s freakin’ Batman).

    All that being said, it’s definitely true that I approached toys differently when I was younger. In a way, back then the toys were just a physical vessel for my rich imagination – avatars, if you will, for beings that existed solely in my head. Now, I buy toys as objects in and of themselves; I admire the design, the engineering of transformation, etc etc, but the toys are just fancy lumps of plastic. They are never imbued with a soul, the way they were when I was ten. That’s kind of a depressing prospect.

    I think that there’s tremendous insight in the last three sentences of the post. It’s not something I thought about before, but it instantly makes sense to me.

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    • This post and comment are practically a year old at this point, but I was re-reading it and I wanted to address your point about GI Joes being a favorite childhood toy due to their flexibility.

      I think that while I had not taken into account that nerds are nerds, whether they’re 5 or 50, I think it’d be safe to say (as you pretty much say it yourself) that the fondness for the flexibility of GI Joes rested less in your desire for recreating what goes on in the show and more for creating what went on in your head. As a kid, I loved it when a toy could hold their own weapon. If not, you had to kind of like, hold it near them and hope for the best. Flexibility meant a range of motions, which meant greater freedom for expression through the toys.

      I mean, you could actually twist a GI Joe to look like it had been disfigured by a missile. A Ninja Turtle? You could only kind of knock it on its back and maybe put the arms at odd angles.

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