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2001 - The Year in Review

By Richard Cox & Bob Schneider

Many will remember 2001 as the first year of the true new millennium. Others will remember it for the belated victory of George W. Bush following the debacle at the Florida polls. Most of all, 2001 will be solemnly remembered as the year America fell victim to the worst terrorist attack in the nation's history. But for fans of Japanese monster movies and collectibles, it was also a year full of smaller surprises, a few disappointing, but most quite exciting.

Events

Though not as stunning as some of the reports on the evening news last year, several fandom events marked 2001 as a year kaiju fans won't soon forget.

The GMK Premiere

For most fans, the biggest news in the fandom last year was the production of a new Godzilla movie -- number 25, if anybody's still counting. Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack reunites Toho's three most famous monster superstars and even throws in the ever-popular Baragon for good measures. Aficionados were especially excited when Toho announced the film would be helmed by Shusuke Kaneko, director of the hugely successful Gamera Trilogy and arguably the most visionary talent in Japanese monster movies today. Unfortunately, many fans weren't so pleased by subsequent reports in which Kaneko revealed some of his controversial plans for the movie, such as the casting of King Ghidorah as a defending guardian, far removed from the monster's usual role as destructive villain. Early pictures of the monster maquettes and suits, particularly the new Godzilla with its huge saurian feet and pupil-less eyes, also drew mixed reactions.

Regardless, those fortunate enough to attend the premiere of the movie in Japan last month expressed nothing but praise for the film. Though it's still too early to determine how the general public will respond to the movie in Japan, let alone America, the reactions of crowds at the earliest screenings appear promising. The success of the film is of more than trivial interest to fans, since Toho has indicated that the future of the Godzilla series may very well depend on GMK's box office returns. Indeed, the film's performance may determine whether we finally see a United States video release of the previous movie in the series, Godzilla X Megagilas, which seemed to be all but forgotten by fans amidst all the excitement generated by the Kaneko project.

Festivals and Shows

Summer festivities began with a bang on June 15 through 17 when Club Daikaiju's Jim Cirronella launched the second annual Asian Fantasy Film Expo (AFFE) in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. Celebrity guests included Ultraman actress Hiroko Sakurai, monster designer Tomoo Haraguchi, kaiju suit maker Shinichi Wakasa, and Bandai representative Nobuhiro Arai.

Less than a month later, there was still more excitement to come. G Fest, the oldest and biggest Godzilla fan convention in America, had long been a fixture of the west coast. But fans didn't need to follow Horace Greeley's famous advice to enjoy the show in 2001. Instead, organizer J.D. Lees brought G Fest east to Chicago, where hundreds of fans converged on July 13 through 15 for a weekend of fellowship and fun. Guests and speakers included actor Robert Scott Field (who played the android M-11 in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah), Godzilla reference book authors David Kalat and Ed Godziszewski, and a second appearance by Shinichi Wakasa. The kaiju suit designer's presence wasn't the only thing AFFE and G Fest had in common. Both featured dealer showrooms, parties galore, and film screenings including the American theatrical debut of Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II at nearby cinemas.

AFFE 3 and another G Fest, to be held in Chicago again, are already being planned for next summer.

The Tsuburaya Centennial

No one in the Japanese fantasy film genre is more respected and adored by fans than the late great Eiji Tsuburaya. His special effects in the classic Godzilla movies literally brought the monsters to life and his pioneering work in scifi / fantasy television created an entire genre of distinctly Japanese superhero adventures. 2001 marked the 100th anniversary of his birth, and the industry and fandom enthusiastically joined together to celebrate. The Tsuburaya centennial became a running theme of countless fan festivals and events, including G Fest, AFFE, and Wonderfest, to name a few. Many of the shows featured exclusive commemorative products, such as the AFFE Exclusive Tsuburaya Ultraman and Gomess set, commissioned from Bandai by Club Daikaiju. Other manufacturers observed the centennial by producing Tsuburaya tribute products for general release. Even the likeness of the master himself was immortalized in vinyl by Yutaka and, not surprisingly, Tsuburaya Productions.

Products

As during the previous several years, the kaiju collectibles industry was again dominated in 2001 by the big three - no, not Chrysler, Ford, and GM, but Bandai, Marmit, and M1. While these three manufacturers produced the bulk of new product throughout the year, several other companies managed to make some impressive contributions to collector shelves as well.

Bandai

The Japanese conglomerate surprised everybody last year by announcing its plans to begin producing 8 inch vinyl figures again for the first time in six years. The first four models, 2002 versions of Godzilla, Baragon, Mothra, and King Ghidorah, began rolling off the assembly line last month, much to the delight of eager collectors. The company also reissued its most popular 6 inch models under the new "Movie Monsters" name and even introduced one new figure to the line: a Burning Godzilla, painted black over translucent orange vinyl.

These late developments came as a great relief to Bandai fans, since the company had released only one new vinyl figure, the Megagilas piece in the Toho Kaiju Special (or Godzilla X Megagilas) Set, earlier in the year. However, Bandai had been keeping busy producing what may be the all time best assortment of candy and capsule toys, including the Godzilla Directory Dioramas, a Godzilla History Boxed Set of Hyper Real figures, and no less than four kaiju related High Grade Sets, the Godzilla Series 7, the Tsuburaya Commemorative Set, and two different Soul of Bullmark sets.

The unsung heroes of Bandai's smaller divisions also made big impressions in 2001. Banpresto, previously known mostly for manufacturing crane machine prizes, released a magnificent DX Godzilla 2000 sculpt, while Yutaka, maker of low end figure sets, had fans bubbling over with a collection of 30 figural Bottle Caps, promotional items for a Japanese soft drink brand. Yet another Bandai division, B-Club, produced reissues of vintage Bullmark Giant Godzilla and Baragon figures.

Marmit

In the opinion of many collectors (including myself), Marmit easily takes the prize for most improved manufacturer in 2001. Many of the company's harshest critics were won over by the new Toho Para Babies, in spite of hefty prices in the 75 dollar range from most American dealers. Though only about two thirds the size of the manufacturer's previous Vinyl Paradise figures, the Para Babies are more realistically detailed and each comes packed with a miniature bonus piece, usually a small building. As in the VP series, Marmit appears to be featuring every single Toho kaiju in the series, representing often neglected favorites like Varan and Mogera from The Mysterians.

Marmit's Para Baby Lucky Bag, which featured an exclusive Mothra Adult sculpt not available elsewhere as well as some cool prerelease King Ghidorah variations, became an instant must-have item when it was released in late November at a show in Japan. On this side of the Pacific, Marmit also raised a few eyebrows at the San Diego Comic Con with a set of Vinyl Paradise reissues in bold new paint jobs, ranging from gorgeous to gaudy. The psychedelic Megalon in particular is guaranteed to scorch your retinas.

M1

M1 has always enjoyed a staunchly loyal following because of its retro vintage style and impeccable quality standards. But 2001 just may have been the year when the company outstripped all its competition as the kaiju collectible manufacturer of choice for American fans. Perhaps this turning point can be attributed to the uncompromising commitment to collectors the company displayed throughout the year. As one example, not only did M1 produce a new MechaGodzilla model with two interchangeable heads and a hidden interior brain, the manufacturer even thoughtfully marketed the second head and brain separately so that fans who had previously purchased a non-convertible MechaGodzilla model wouldn't miss out on the fun. When's the last time you heard of a vinyl figure manufacturer offering customers upgrades? Shades of Microsoft!

M1 succeeded in delivering some of the most heavily anticipated products of the year, including a new Frankenstein sculpt, a repaint of the popular Godzilla 2000 model, and the best vinyl rendering of Megagilas yet.

Other Manufacturers

Like M1, Marusan's hot ticket item last year was a novel take on the Showa era MechaGodzilla. Instead of equipping it with two heads, Marusan sculpted its figure in a never before rendered flying pose. The manufacturer also released a Lucky Bag of its own as well as a new Rodan sculpt and a Hyper Hobby Exclusive of the previous year's Guilala model. Meanwhile, the company launched its American division, Marusan USA, with a pair of limited edition Gamera figures sold exclusively over the internet.

Marusan USA wasn't the only manufacturer marketing Godzilla collectibles in America. X-Plus unveiled its new line of huge, highly detailed Godzilla sculpts, complete with display bases. The line currently includes sculpts of Angilas, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and several suit variations of Godzilla, with more models to follow. A Godzilla chess set is also reportedly coming soon from the manufacturer.

Bare Model captured the Big G in one of his most whimsical moments with its Dancing Godzilla figure. The manufacturer also produced a rendering of UltraQ monster Gomess just in time for the Tsuburaya celebration.

Naturally, Tsuburaya Productions was especially eager to commemorate the centennial of its namesake's birth. The company released two limited edition boxed sets (A and B) of figures representing some of the film maker's most famous creations, such as Godzilla, Gomess, and Jirass. One of the sets even includes a sculpt of Tsuburaya himself, looking much like Elwood Blues in his shades, dark pants, and white shirt.

Until late last year, the words "Toy Pirates" meant nothing to most kaiju collectors except when generically describing bootleggers, but a set of Godzilla '89 and Rose Biollante figures sold exclusively at Japan's World Hobby Festival quickly put this new manufacturer in the spotlight. The sculpts were crafted by American artist and GodzillaC List member Wayne Ho, who proved you don't have to live in Japan to make a name for yourself in the kaiju collectibles industry.

Trends

With so many exciting products and activities generating a constant buzz, fans had plenty to talk about throughout the year. Yet again and again, discussion returned to a few key topics as several trends in the fandom and the industry slowly emerged.

Variations

One of the biggest and, to some collectors, most annoying trends in the hobby last year was "Variation Mania," the proliferation of differently tinted or painted versions of the same sculpt. What's wrong with manufacturers offering collectors plenty of choices? In the opinion of some fans, the companies are taking the easy way out by reusing the same molds over and over again instead of investing in new, original sculpts. And since the variations are usually produced in limited runs and sold at premium prices as show exclusives, critics claim the manufacturers are also generating an artificial demand for the products, tempting fans to purchase the variations for their limited availability, not their intrinsic quality or value.

Leading the variations trend was Marmit. Practically every Toho Para Baby model was initially released in two color schemes, but various models were then repeatedly reissued in new painted or unpainted variations on an almost weekly basis. There are already five versions of the popular Godzilla '62 Para Baby on the market, for example, even though the figure was initially released barely two months ago. Marmit even rushed out a few Lucky Bag variations of its new King Ghidorah sculpt before the standard edition hit the market. But the first Toho Para Baby release, the Godzilla '54, currently holds the record: nine different variations produced to date.

Marmit, however, is by no means the only offender. Bandai got its money's worth out of the Toho Kaiju Series G-16 Godzilla 2000 mold: it's been used for both the 1999 and 2000 Theater Exclusive models as well as the Super Crystal and Pearl Exclusive Editions. The same mold was even recycled for the Godzilla piece in the Toho Kaiju Special Figure (Godzilla X Megagilas) Set. The figure has recently been reissued in something very close to its original paint scheme along with many other popular Godzilla Island / Toho Kaiju models in the new "Movie Monsters" series.

Small Run "Boutique Shop" Releases

Considering Godzilla's diminished popularity in Japan and the country's inflated economy these days, it's no surprise that many manufacturers are cutting back on their kaiju product lines. Bandai, for example, radically reduced its output last year, producing only a handful of new products in support of the December, 2000 release of Godzilla X Megagilas. Fortunately for fans, the company seems to be making up for lost time this year, releasing its largest line of Godzilla products in years.

However, many manufacturers are discovering that large production runs of extensive product lines simply aren't profitable anymore. Instead, some of these companies are taking a more measured approach to meet the demands of collectors. Marmit has been producing its standard Para Baby figures in relatively limited quantities, for example, and selling them by mail preorder. Likewise, Marusan USA's premiere offering was a pair of Gamera figures limited to a run of 200 pieces each and marketed exclusively through the division's web site on an advance reservation basis. Both strategies enable the manufacturers to accurately estimate the demand for the products before investing excessive amounts in production; Marmit's preorder approach even brings in the cash up front when it's most needed.

This "boutique shop" approach (for lack of a better term) creates both positive and negative ramifications for collectors. The good news is that the manufacturer can afford to devote more attention to limited production runs, theoretically resulting in better quality products. And since the items are produced in much smaller quantities, their collectible value is likely to remain high. The bad news is that it costs more per piece to manufacture products in limited quantities, and naturally, the cost difference inevitably turns up in the price. This in part explains why Marmit's 6 inch Para Baby figures retail for higher prices than the 8 inch Vinyl Paradise models the manufacturer produced only a few years ago.

Until Japan's economic conditions and public tastes start to change, we're likely to see many more limited run products cropping up in the future. And while some collectors may object to the higher prices, we all may have reason to be grateful for this trend eventually: it could well prove to be the only feasible way for manufacturers to cater to a special interest market like our own.

Bootlegs

Unlicensed reproductions, knock offs, or "bootlegs," as they are most widely called, have long been a part of the collecting hobby. But in 2001, these illegal products pumped out of Asian sweatshops seemed to be everywhere. Knock offs of the popular Bandai Megalon and Little Godzilla models were two of the earliest to appear. Then some Toho Kaiju series G-16 Godzilla 2000 figures, either reproductions or customized originals, were palmed off to unsuspecting fans as Theater Exclusive production sample pieces in a variety of wild tints. Curiously, two of the year's most notorious boots seemed to mix up their sculpts and paint jobs: a Bronze Great Monsters Series Godzilla clone sports bronze paint similar to the original but was apparently cast from a different mold, while a copy of the Burning Godzilla sculpt surfaced without the famous burning paint job!

Many fans continue to consider these illegal copies a conveniently easy to find and low priced alternative to more elusive and expensive originals, though collectors who reported finding insects and other debris embedded in the vinyl of their bootleg purchases might disagree. Regardless, there's no denying that unlicensed knock offs deprive both studios and legitimate manufacturers of profit and, as always, the customer ultimately pays the bill in the form of higher prices. Of course, when a bootleg is deceptively sold as the Real McCoy at a correspondingly high price, the cheated customer pays for the crime more directly. Caveat emptor.

Custom Dye and Paint Jobs

The appearance of the so called "sample" Bandai Theater Exclusives brings up one last trend worthy of mention. Last year, a number of collectors began experimenting with their own custom dye, bleach, and paint jobs on some of the figures they purchased. The first wave of dying experiments were essentially tests to determine how difficult it would be for shifty individuals to fool buyers with faked exclusive variations. But when the initial tests produced satisfactory results, some collectors began cooking up their own custom tinted and painted figures for the sheer joy of creativity.

In the case of dyed or bleached figures, clear or transparent tinted originals were naturally the candidates of choice. But for anyone with a steady hand and a set of enamel paints, any figure is fair game for an impromptu customization. Experimenters say there's a special pride in creating and displaying your own unique variation and a few hobbyists have gone to considerable lengths dreaming up new combinations of tints, paints, and even glitter to set their masterpieces apart. It's anyone's guess what effect this practice may have on the future availability of rare items should the trend continue to spread. One mad scientist in particular, Sean McGuinness, has already single handedly whittled down the population of clear Godzilla Advance Ticket figures with Frankensteinian glee. Chronicles of his experiments and some handy tips for would-be customizers appear on his web site, Neo-Monster Island.

Looking Ahead

So what can fans and collectors expect in 2002? That's especially difficult to say this year, with no new Godzilla film currently scheduled for production. The variety of kaiju collectibles available by the end of the year may well depend on the success of GMK at the box offices right now. If the film does prove to be the end of the Godzilla series as Toho has suggested, we'll probably be seeing relatively few new products and a lot more reissues. This could be a minor consolation for some collectors - could this be the year that Bandai finally reissues its sought after Godzilla High Grade Series 2 Set, for example (remember, you heard it here first)? However, if Toho is satisfied with GMK's box office returns, a 50th anniversary Godzilla film in 2004 seems virtually guaranteed. The movie would presumably go into production by next year and the industry would likely respond with a host of new products to commemorate the occasion. That's a lot to look forward to. Meanwhile, we can all enjoy the current crop of new products, look forward to the next G Fest and AFFE this summer, and be thankful for how much the hobby has grown since Marusan produced that first vinyl Godzilla figure 35 years ago.

The Survey

Since so much happened in the world of Godzilla fandom throughout 2001, the folks at Club Tokyo thought it would be interesting to find out what fans would pick as their favorite events, trends, and, above all, products of the year. During the last weeks of December, visitors to the site were asked to participate in an extensive survey which attempted to cover just about everything that happened in the hobby from roughly early December 2000 to the same time in 2001. By the time the polls closed, a total of over one hundred fans submitted their opinions on all the best and worst of the year in a variety of different categories, ranging from vinyl figures and candy toys to posters and dealers. You can see the results of the survey, along with some comments and statistical analyses, here, as well as take a look at my own picks for the top ten toys of the year.

-Bob
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