Art of Figure Making: BANPRESTO

Art of Figure Making: BANPRESTO

For our final interview in the Art of Figure Making series, we interviewed Norihiko Sakata, manager of BANPRESTO’s prize division and development team. Norihiko has created and produced multiple “ONE PIECE” figure series for amusement prizes found in game centers across Japan. We’ll learn about his “MASTER STARS PIECE” and “THE GRANDLINE MEN” series, what it means to make amusement prizes, this year's “BANPRESTO WORLD FIGURE COLOSSEUM”, and more!

―Could you tell us about yourself?

Norihiko: My name is Norihiko Sakata, and I’ve been developing amusement goods at Banpresto for the past 15 years.

―When you say amusement goods, you're referring to “prizes,” correct?

Norihiko: Yes, about 90% are crane game prizes and I work with “Dragon Ball”, “ONE PIECE”, “Lupin the Third”, “Disney”, and many other series. There’s a high chance I’m involved if it’s a series that people would be excited to see turned into figures.

―Thank you. Also, could you describe your job as a figure producer?

Norihiko: I deal with the publishers and rights’ holders, the sculptors, factory production, the illustrators, and all the other roles involved in creating the figure itself. I manage everything until the figure goes on sales. Personally, I’m not a fan of using the job title “producer,” but it makes explaining my job easier.

Norihiko speaks about his role as a producer.

―So you’re trying to find the right sculptor to help create the idea in your head?

Norihiko: Yes, and for the past few years I’ve enjoyed highlighting talented sculptors that haven’t had their time under the spotlight. I want them to gain more attention so people will understand how amazing their skills are, and I also hope it will inspire the next generation of sculptors.

―Where does your inspiration come from when you’re making figures?

Norihiko: I take inspiration from toys, figures, and other products outside the figure industry. There are many cases where I notice a great product or design element and use it. It's difficult going from 0 to 1 when you are developing a product. I feel confident going from 1 to 100 by finding different elements and incorporating them into my work. It’s a large part of my job.

I think MEDICOM TOY figures have made a huge impact on me, and I’ve loved their products ever since I was in university. I can’t replicate the art that MEDICOM TOY is able to make, but I think incorporating just a few elements from their products can make my own even cooler.
*Check out our interview with the president of MEDICOM TOY here!

Inspiration can be found all around you.

My interests and hobbies are easily influenced by others. I would label my range of hobbies as, “too broad and too shallow.” Even at my age, I’ve recently been influenced by others to start clubbing. I can’t even put the “d” in dance (laugh), but I don’t tell myself, “Shouldn’t you be embarrassed clubbing at this age?” Instead, I give it chance because trying different experiences might be a way to find inspiration. I don’t turn down invitations on principle. No matter how tired my body is, my curiosity for new experiences is stronger. My lifestyle isn’t determined by what I like or dislike, instead, I first try to see what experiences are worth a look.

―I heard that you find satisfaction with your job when you’re viewing comments from fans on social networking sites. Are you specifically referring to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram?

Norihiko: That’s right. In the past, it would have been 2-chan or Mixi. I’m glad when I read happy comments from fans, and I reflect on what I could have done better when I see criticism. I think social media sites are the one place you can get the most opinions within moments.

The stereotype is that prizes are second place to retail products or that they are inferior in comparison. However, if you deliver a good prize, fans will sometimes line up at the machines as if it were a retail product. There are even times when the prize receives more praise than the retail product, and that’s another moment I feel satisfied.

These prizes are some of the best prizes around.

―On the other hand, I heard you’re a little forgetful. You said you don’t recall any difficult or hard moments, but do you ever feel down after reading criticism from fans?

Norihiko: I think the sculptors are ones who feel the worst. Afterall, it’s not their fault. They were only trying to make the figure as close to my vision as possible. I feel like yelling in many of those cases, “I’m sorry. It’s my fault!” However, I don’t think it’s right for me to say that I feel even worse than the sculptors. I’m always trying to make each figure better than the last, so I think it’s better to move forward rather than be stay shocked by criticism.

―You try to go a little bit beyond what fans are imagining when creating the next best figure, could you explain what you mean?

Norihiko: For example, if someone were to ask you, “Imagine Luffy’s face, what does it look like?” I have a feeling that everyone’s impression of Luffy is over imagined and they believe he should have this or that, maybe this pose makes him look really cool, or maybe they expect him to have a cute face. So rather than just copying the anime as is, I try to make a product that achieves the ideal figure everyone is imagining, plus a little bit more.

Everyone has a different image of their favorite character.
It’s hard to exceed expectations but not impossible.

―I’d like to ask about your best work, Portgas. D. Ace. Do you feel Ace was the first figure to develop your mindset as a professional?

Norihiko: In 2010, Ace was the best figure I had made, and the release surrounding him was a perfect storm of coincidences. He debuted in game centers three days after the anime had broadcasted his death. Fans were lining up in droves at crane machines to get this figure. It was closest to the ideal of Ace fans had in their minds. I had never seen people line up like that before, and fans waiting in line were applauding winners as they left. After that, a lot of fans began paying attention to BANPRESTO’s “ONE PIECE” figures.

Norihiko’s masterpiece, Portgas. D. Ace.

―What would you say was its selling point?

Norihiko: I tried to keep in mind what it would be like if Ace really existed, the materials his clothes would be made of, and even how dirty he would look. Ace is a pirate traveling on his boat searching for adventure. I bet he rarely took a bath, and he definitely didn’t wash his clothes. I knew I wanted to include that kind of dirty, realistic feeling with this figure. There were a couple steps we took. First, we lowered the tone and color values. Then we gave him a double loop belt, which was a chore, but we were able to do it. This was the first Ace figure to look and feel like this. I knew I had to include these details regardless of the cost, even the bottom of his boots are dirtied as if he’d been walking through the mud. I think sticking to that kind of “realism” and how the details connected is what moved the hearts of fans. I’m really proud of this figure.

Norihiko spared no expense making Ace.
The double loop belt was worth the addition.
Down to the dirt on the bottom of his boots, Ace was a labor of love.

―I know this was made 7 years ago, but do you think the quality would increase if you were to remake it using today’s technology?

Norihiko: Honestly, I don’t feel like there have been any revolutionary changes within the past 7 years. Look at the video game industry, graphics have tremendously increased. However, if figure industry had a similar leap in technology, I don’t believe sales would grow exponentially. The Nintendo DS brought many fans back into gaming and smartphone apps changed how you played games. I think the figure industry needs a similar change, and I believe every figure shouldn’t just be an ordinary figure. That’s why over the past few years I’ve been wanting to include extra value or story with the figures I make.

―What are the current issues you believe the figure industry, or you yourself, are facing?

Norihiko: I believe the industry needs to come to terms with costs in every sense of the word. As for me, the number one problem I’m concentrating on is how to add charm and value to every product. There are truly a lot of figures on the market, and I want as many people as possible to receive the joy of owning a figure. I think in order for that to happen I have to give each product its own charm point that sets it apart, a purpose for collecting, or a story.

Every figure needs a unique element to define it.

I want others to understand how fascinating “Dragon Ball”, “ONE PIECE”, and other large series are through each figure they receive over the years. I also hope they’ll realize the source material is even more amazing.

―On our questionnaire, we asked if there were any companies within the industry that you respect and you wrote Hot Toys. Was there a specific product that left an impact on you?

Norihiko: It has to be the “Iron Man” figure followed by Jack Sparrow that left the most impact on me. I think Hot Toys has revolutionized technology for figures, and even now, I’m still wondering how they make their figures. They’re extraordinarily good and I have no plans to compete with them. (laugh) In fact, I think I’d rather try my hand at making every product Hot Toys is not making, but they are indeed a peculiar yet amazing manufacturer.

I also respect two figure sculptors I met seven years ago. They both changed my outlook on “ONE PIECE” figures. KENGO is a sculptor around my age and he was the main sculptor for the “ONE PIECE” “MASTER STARS PIECE” series. The first time I met him was at an exhibition, and I remember him leaving a rather strange impression on me. The figure he made was unusually high quality, he loved “ONE PIECE”, so I asked without any hesitations for him to be the sculptor for Ace.

Thank you, KENGO and TK.

The other sculptor’s name is TK, and at the time, he worked on THE GRANDLINE MEN series. Our goal was to create “ONE PIECE” figures as if they were from a live-action movie. We took the same approach we did with Ace and lowered the tone to set it apart from the anime’s coloring style. Luffy and Ace were very well received by fans after they debuted.

I owe my thanks to the both of them for changing the way I thought about figure making and for also changing the history of “ONE PIECE” figures.

The people we surround ourselves with can influence us in many ways.

ーYou created the “MASTER STARS PIECE”, “THE GRANDLINE MEN”, and other series. I’m curious about the reasons behind establishing these series. Could you explain?

Norihiko: I have a slightly different reasoning for beginning each of these series, and part of it is due to the sculptors I was working with at the time.

Take the “World Collectable Figure” series as an example. Ten years ago, crane game figure prizes only offered five figures per series, and that was a problem for me. At the same time, the number of sculptors I was working with had drastically increased. I needed to figure out how to distribute the work amongst them. So I solved both problems by creating the “World Collectable Figure” series which would offer 8 figures per series.

Luffy from “World Collectable Figure”.
Marco from “World Collectable Figure”.

At the time, our sales department had doubts and was saying, “We’re taking a risk for half a year. While we’ve already made the trial run for this series, what happens if they don’t sell?” (laugh) But at the very least, even if they didn’t sell, I knew the figure sculptors could at least make a living from it. They had always been there for me and taken care of me, so this was the least I could do to help them. That’s how “World Collectable Figure” began. Of course, I also wanted to fans to also be overjoyed. All in all, it was hard work.

“MASTER STARS PIECE” started as a way to show off all-star characters to the world, but my other reasoning was to make fans realize, “Hey! Check out the person who made this!” I love figures, but at the same time, I also love the designers, sculptors, factory workers, etc. and everyone I work. I develop figures with those emotions in my heart.

Norihiko is passionate about figures and his coworkers.

―It’s humbling that you look after the people around you.

Norihiko: I think it’s a waste if fans find the products my staff and I make unacceptable. These are huge series with so many characters and they’re expected to become popular before we even release them. If it were my own original series or designed product, of course, I’d have no faith in it. These series are enormous, but I’m not wrapped in fear because I know I work with the best co-workers and factories. Even if we have some products that are unpopular, I have no regrets.

―I was very shocked when I saw the photographers were featured on the outside of the “CREATOR x CREATOR - (Sculptor x Photographer)” boxes.

Norihiko: I’ve recently heard the same thing from some Americans, which made me happy. Sculptors have been featured a lot and I wondered what it would be like if I tried to feature the photographers. I first got the idea when I was asked by a find of mine who’s a photographer, and as I thought, even featuring just one picture on the box had the power to make an impact. I was also hoping the name “CREATOR x CREATOR”, the stylish photography, and the fashionable packaging would all come back to me and maybe people would think “Norihiko is so stylish.” If so, maybe I’d become popular with the ladies. (laugh)
*Want to browse some of the CREATOR x CREATOR figures? Check them out on the TOM SHOP!

Stylish, right?

Featuring the sculptors on the box wasn’t common at first.

I think it’s important to be diverse. There aren’t only bulky muscle figures out in the world, there are also artistic figures. Working with people who have strengths in areas I don’t has allowed me to bring a whole new world of ideas that I didn’t know existed into new products. The only words that I can express to them are, “Thank you.”

―Looking ahead, do you have a dream or goal you’d like to achieve?

Norihiko: I’m currently in charge of a sculpting event called, “BANPRESTO WORLD FIGURE COLOSSEUM”. There are many types of sculptors in the world. Some make props for movies and there are even some in Okinawa who make Schiesser, right? I think both are considered sculptors.
*Schiesser: an Okinawan lion statue found outside temples and houses to ward away evil spirits.

There are some master carvers of Chinese dragons out there, and wouldn’t you be curious what their version of Shenron from “Dragon Ball” would look like? I think we’ve opened this tournament to gather sculptors from around the world, increase their connections, showcase them to fans, and bring more interest to series like “Dragon Ball”, “ONE PIECE”, etc. I hope to get fans around the world excited about what those sculptors are making, as well as stimulate the figure industry.

The possibilities for what they may make are endless and exciting.

―How were the sculptors from overseas chosen?

Norihiko: First, I asked those I was connected to on Facebook. Then I also messaged people registered on “ArtStation”, a site for designers, creators, and sculptors. The only prerequisite was that they were fans of the art and story from “Dragon Ball” and “ONE PIECE”.

―This time the themes are “Dragon Ball” and “ONE PIECE”, correct?

Norihiko: Right. For now, we’re only doing “Dragon Ball” and “ONE PIECE”, but I think I’d be good to continue increasing the number of series so that more people can learn more about Japanese characters. The event is still in its first year and it’s a work in progress. However, I’m looking forward to 5 or 10 years from now when it becomes something like Anime Expo in America. I hope we’re able to showcase a large variety of Japanese characters and bring different fans together.


―Do you have any other goals? Are there any dream projects you have in the works that you could tell us about?

Norihiko: Well...I can’t go into details, but there’s a project I have in mind that would take years and years to get going. My idea would take a new approach to “ONE PIECE” and “Dragon Ball” that would surprise and excite fans of those characters around the world. I’ve recently had the chance to participate in more events overseas, and it’s been making me think more and more about how I want this dream to become a reality. These are all characters Japan should be proud of, and I would like to continue surprising everyone with our products. That’s the chance I would like to create. Being able to undertake a project of this scale, as a simple guy, I think I’ll definitely become more popular with the ladies, right? I’d be so cool.

―That last reason might not be the point.

Norihiko: I know. (laugh) However, I think it’s pretty cool to work with what you love while not burdening others. As a person who takes pride in their work and contributes to society, I’d like to continue this job for as long as I can. I’ll keep trying my best until I become popular. (laugh)

We believe you’ll become popular Norihiko!

―Finally, do you have a message for fans overseas?

Norihiko: While BANPRESTO may not be as well known abroad, I am very grateful to our fans overseas that know our products and purchase them, even if they’ve bought it in Japan. I would like to humbly say “thank you”. You can find my personal contact information on the web, and I like talking to others about a variety of topics. I can’t speak English well (laugh), but I want to communicate and understand what fans are looking for bad enough to learn. I think it would be great if one day we could meet at an overseas event and talk about figures, characters, and goals over a meal. It’s amazing to me how one character, one product can connect people around the world.

One person, one figure, one world.

Thank you very much to Norihiko and BANPRESTO! We’ve learned a lot from each of the figure makers within this series, and I think it’s good to close on Norihiko’s passionate perspective that figures can bring us together. He produces figures for fans, to support his co-workers, and for himself.

If you want to create an awesome product, seek to understand yourself, explore new experiences, be passionate, never give up, understand your fans, and don’t be afraid to try. Each of the wonderful people featured in this interview series embodies one or more of these characteristics. The art of figure making is just one path, and we hope you’ve been inspired to create music, art, figures, games, etc. to share with people around you and across the globe.

© Eiichiro Oda / Shueisha, Toei Animation

This is a Tokyo Otaku Mode original article.
Interview by Adrian Morris, Hiwatashi
Photography by Hara

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