Why are plushies popular with anime fans?
When I got into anime, the internet was a very different place. While I was never part of the old Usenet groups (and in fact I never learned how to use them), I would talk with my fellow fans about whatever was hot at the time. Part of the fan experience was a kind of lighthearted role playing (no, not that kind, and no, not that kind), and one thing I notice was the virtual exchange of “plushies.” These dolls didn’t actually exist, but they were playful gestures to show friendship and support, or to present oneself as cute and fun and lovable. When I think of “anime fans and plushies,” I think of an era of the Anime Web Turnpike and Kisekae (KiSS) dolls, both relics of late 90s, early 2000s internet fandom.
However, that’s not really the case, is it? Plush dolls, whether specifically anime themed or otherwise, still hold the attention of many fans at conventions, online, and (I assume) with each other in other more personal settings. Also, the dolls have become more prominent, whether in artist alleys or through official channels. They might be a chibi Sasuke from Naruto or an alpaca, but they’re out there being sold and traded and loved. There’s something kind of timeless about the idea of owning a cute doll, and it’s not like this is limited to anime fans at all, but anime fans will embrace and hold onto them even after they’re supposed to have outgrown collecting dolls.
There can’t be only one reason that anime fans gravitate towards plushies. Even with the common interest of Japanese cartoons, people are too diverse for a singular cause. I could see some enjoying them because they just like dolls in general. Others might just want to collect their favorite characters. That being said, I do think that the trope of the chibi or super deformed character has no small influence on the popularity of dolls with anime fans. They appear in official parody spinoffs, in the middle of scenes, and in fanart since the earliest days. Anime fans embrace what is cute, Japanese culture has made an entire industry off of “kawaii,” and in certain ways it’s almost defiant of macho expectations given to both men and women. Frederik L. Schodt wrote in his seminal book on Japanese comics, Manga! Manga!, that part of the reason manga became so sophisticated is that the fans of manga in Japan grew up and refused to let go of their stories. Perhaps plushies are connected to this sentiment, maybe not directly but in terms of a similar mindset and desire to keep the joys of childhood.
Maybe the association between SD character renditions and plushies are why I consider plushies to be very much anchored in that 90s anime fandom. After all, the 90s were the peak of chibi character content. Though I don’t really see it anymore, super deformed characters were considered such a staple of anime fandom that they were viewed as a defining characteristic that helped to differentiate anime from other forms of animation, right along with big eyes and small mouths. While we’ve since been introduced to a much wider variety of styles, and the trends have changed over time, the anime plush doll still retains the features of a chibi character.
I personally don’t engage with anime or anime fans the way I did 15 to 20 years ago, so I don’t know to what extent the old ways of interaction still remain. Do fans still give each other imaginary plushies, or do they now take the form of digital renderings, emojis, or Line stickers? Does this further emphasize the physical aspect of actually owning plush dolls? For the anime fans who carry them through conventions and meetups and such, do they also display them in their everyday lives, or is there still a fear of being judged for being into dolls? This is a line of inquiry I’d be interested in finding out more about. If you have insights of your own, feel free to share them!
I know that, by mentioning dolls, I’m also bringing up associations with the ball-jointed (and often very expensive) kind. I think that fandom might share some qualities with the enthusiasts of plushies, but they’re quite a different group overall. Perhaps I’ll discuss that one while reminiscing about Rozen Maiden and its very passionate followers another time.
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