We’re back with the fifth interview for our Art of Figure Making series. This time we had the chance to interview Hiroki Kaneko, the founder, and creator of MegaHouse’s figure division and the amazing “ONE PIECE”’ figure brand, “Portrait.Of.Pirates” (P.O.P). Welcome to a special two-part interview where Hiroki shares his knowledge as a general manager and a creative driving force within MegaHouse.
―How long have you been working for MegaHouse?
Hiroki: I’ve been working at MegaHouse for 23 years now. Back when I joined, MegaHouse was actually known as B-AI, and at that time, they were handling the development and production for Bandai’s “Sailor Moon” toys. However, I was in charge of Bandai’s Candy Toys Operations Division.
―I heard the reason that the current figure division was even created was because of an essay you submitted. Could you tell me how this came about?
Hiroki: The Bandai Group was taking essay submissions on “New Ways and a New Business for the Bandai Group in the 21st Century”, and I wrote mine about “MegaHouse’s Relationship with Otakus in the 21st Century”. I took the chance to write as much as I could on the topic before turning it in. I even went as far as mentioning areas where the company could improve. As a result, I received an award from the president of Bandai at that time. It was like I had been granted my life’s calling to make figures. (laugh) I began with a lot of enthusiasm but quickly realized making figures is easier said than done. My first foray into the world of figure making was with a very small collection line called the “C-Model”.
―Were you the only one trying to find figure sculptors then?
Hiroki: Right…well you see, our company didn’t carry these kinds of figures in the first place. In fact, it was someone working at ALTER who taught me the process of making figures, and I consider them to be my teachers. I put in a lot of hard work and I even traveled to China to find a factory for us. Furthermore, our company had no connections within the industry, so if I didn’t try my hardest to find them, we couldn’t produce anything. I was doing all of this while working at Bandai’s Candy Toys, but I made sure to find extra time to tour factories, etc. when I was on business trips.
―While you were in school, I heard you were aiming to become a professional manga artist and that you wanted to work for a game company.
Hiroki: Up until high school I insisted, “I’m going to move to Tokyo and become a manga assistant after graduation,” so my parents enrolled me in a design and arts technical school. Three years of school passed and I wanted a job where I could continue using my skills as an artist.
During that time, I was interviewing at game companies, but sometimes B-AI would post job offers through our school. I applied, passed the interviews, and received an offer to enter B-AI. At the group orientation, they handed me a Pingu and Sailor Moon toy and told me I would be working with Bandai’s Candy Toy line. I was left feeling like, “Uh, sure…” (laugh)
―But from there, it’s all come full circle to your current job.
Hiroki: It has, hasn’t it? I think I’m so happy because I’ve always enjoyed writing, drawing, different authors, and creative people. So through making figures, I have the chance to work together with these creative people. Even though I didn’t become a professional manga artist, I’m still able to work together with them. (laugh)
―Who were some of the manga artists and creators you looked up at the time?
Hiroki: I like manga artists and creators that have a large core fan base like Mine Yoshizaki. He was the character designer for “Sgt. Frog” and more recently “Kemono Friends”. I also like Kenji Tsuruta and Jun Tsuka. When it became more likely that I would be making figures, I was determined that their characters would be the first I made. In fact, I believe they were some of my first figures.
A lot of manga artists and creators advise me on the prototype model because they understand how their characters should be represented, and they tell me down to the finest detail what areas should be better expressed.
―I’ve read past interviews where you said that hearing the response from fans at events is what makes the job satisfying. Is that still true?
Hiroki: Yes. Hobby fans have such an honest reaction the first they see a figure. Happiness is written all over their face, and you can hear just how much they love it when they’re talking with their friends. Sometimes they can be a little strict, but even so, I still feel my job is really satisfying. Now, many fans order online rather than at actual stores, and I don’t have the chance to see them when they make their purchase. So events are very important because I can see our fans’ reactions.
―Do you have the chance to hear opinions from fans overseas?
Hiroki: There’s a Facebook page for fans overseas as well as Twitter and Instagram, and we also use Weibo for our fans in China. We attend a lot of famous overseas events and try to use that time to listen to our fans.
―Do you also attend those events?
Hiroki: I go when I have the chance. I went to Beijing for the first time in January. Hobby fans around the world are so similar, even in Beijing their reactions were honest and enthusiastic.
I also think Chinese and Japanese fans share the same sensitivity when it comes to how characters are handled. They’re very vocal and aren’t afraid to let you know. (laugh) I mean this in a good way because I appreciate their frankness. I think I’d like to revisit Beijing…but not in the winter. (laugh)
―Have there been any fans who were especially excited when they met you?
Hiroki: There have been some fans who’ve even asked me to sign their figures. Even though I say, “That’s not a good idea because it’ll only lessen the value,” they still respond, “I don’t mind, just sign it, please.” I wonder why? Even though I’m not Eiichiro Oda, they’re so happy after I sign their One Piece figure (laugh).
―Next, I’d like to talk to you about the Bounce Man Luffy figure. I hear pre-orders are going amazingly well.
Hiroki: I never thought about holding back, instead, I produced the Bounce Man I knew I wanted to make. For example, while the first paint job was nicely done, I felt it didn’t leave a lasting impression. I had it repainted and it really became unlike any figure you’ve seen. During production, I tried to understand and keep in mind what fans were asking for with this figure. Personally, since I can’t sculpt or paint, conveying the image in my head is what it means for me to properly create figures.
― I only read ”One Piece”, so this is the first time I’ve seen Busoshoku in color. It looks amazing.
Hiroki: Thank you. The smoke and other effects probably aren’t this colorful, but I think it’s important to create illusions on purpose. I tried slightly bringing out the white in Luffy’s teeth, and I had the sunflowers on his clothes hand-painted because I really wanted to make the sunflowers golden.
Hiroki: When we brought the first prototype to JUMP FESTA, Eiichiro Oda told me, “I’m really looking forward to how it looks in color.” So for me, trying to meet his expectations became a huge hurdle to overcome. That’s why after we finished painting Bounce Man the first time, I looked at it as if I were Eiichiro Oda and knew it wasn’t enough to surprise him. So I had it repainted, but this time I decided we should push the envelope more. Even when the painter said, “We won’t be able to replicate this paint job on the actual figure if we continue,” I told them not to worry because the factory had assured me that they could replicate it.
―Could you tell me about the other areas which make your job difficult?
Hiroki: As far as the management part of my job goes, it’s really tough when the numbers are in the red. However, it’s far worse knowing that I was given the chance to work on a series I truly love but then that series is labeled as, “Figures from this series don’t sell well”. It makes me feel like I betrayed the series. Actually, P.O.P was born from those feelings.
A long time ago, I was given the chance to work with “ONE PIECE” twice, but both times the figures didn’t sell well. Maybe my skills were lacking, but because of that, there was a time where “ONE PIECE” Candy Toys weren’t thought to sell well by buyers, fans, or those within our company. That’s why after I had gained enough experience making figures, I was hoping for the chance to work on “ONE PIECE” again. I knew if I had another chance, without a doubt, it would sell. Around that time someone from BANDAI approached me and asked, “Would you like to make figures?” I replied very enthusiastically with my hand raised “Yes,” and so that’s how P.O.P began. That was 13 years ago, and the P.O.P you know today exists because of the regret I had back then.
―I’m sure the company underwent tough times as well, right?
Hiroki: Right, things weren’t always smooth sailing. Not everyone understood what I was trying to accomplish, and it was rough until they did. On top of that, I tried my best to convince our company this was worthwhile through the sales numbers. While fans don’t need to acknowledge them, I’m a professional, and results within a company are best proven with numbers. If I only want to make figures because I love it, I could do it myself as a hobby.
However, I love my company. It was just me at first working on P.O.P, but now they’re 20 members in the division, and if you add the overseas team then we have a total of 40 plus members. I’m glad to have worked on this for so long and to have seen how it’s grown.
―I heard that making figures you want to buy and hoping your figures make people smile are two important points you try to stick to when making a figure. Do these principles hold true for P.O.P figures, too?
Hiroki: Actually, I’ve changed over the years. I dislike the word “stick to” when it comes to figure making. For example, “What did you try to stick to with this figure?”. I don’t focus on one specific area, instead, I’m only thinking about what needs to be done and I’m always aiming for people to “smile”. You’re not looking at a figure like it’s a piece of classic art, but you’re looking at it because it’s “interesting”, and as humans, interesting things make us smile, right? It’s ok to smile when we choose an odd time to release certain characters as figures, or when you see a figure and say, “It’s amazing this time” or “ahh, this is how it turned out.” Those are the “smiles” I think I’m pursuing, and that’s why I’m happy when people can look at my figures, smile, and say, “Look at how cool this is!”
Honestly, figures aren’t necessities and I think it doesn’t matter if this industry exists or not. Although the economic conditions aren’t well, I think fans put a great deal of thought into buying products that can cost over $100 dollars. I make these figures thinking they’ll say how interesting it is, rather than, “whoever made this must not have enjoyed it very much.” Laughter and smiles make people happy, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say this is my philosophy, it’s part of who I am and a part of me I won’t give up.
I was in charge of making so many characters at the height of P.O.P’s popularity. One day, we were shooting a box photo and no matter what angle we tried it wasn’t lining up with the image I had. I suddenly realized, “Why am I frowning?” After reflecting, I knew that wasn’t the way to work on a product, there’s no way would succeed.
―Seems like you’ve come back to your philosophy of laughter, haven’t you?
Hiroki: Indeed, I have. I really owe my thanks to “Sengoku” (laugh). It was a rough time for me then, so I was so happy that he sold well. Of course, it’s wasn’t his fault that I was having a rough time. I had pushed myself beyond my own work capacity and I wasn’t able to enjoy the work I was doing. It felt to me like Sengoku, with his smug expression, was upset with me.
―He was a symbol of discipline, wasn’t he?
Hiroki: As expected of Sengoku.
―How do you decide the balance between what characteristics fans want in a figure and what the sculptor is aiming to create?
Hiroki: With figures, especially “ONE PIECE”, the art is at such a high level that you have to decide whether to make the figure a reflection of the original art or to allow the sculptor’s personality to shine. These may seem like the only two options, but I think it’s different.
Art is creating the illusion of a 3D object, right? What I do is take the design from the art, internalize it as a 3D object, and change the position numerous times. I’m looking for which areas I want to emphasize, plus what I believe fans think about the character― their characteristics, are they good or evil, if they look handsome with their current expression, etc, and I think about how to amplify those elements. So the biggest difference between MegaHouse and other companies is how we choose to amplify characteristics in our figures.
An easy example to understand is Ace. He becomes cooler every time he appears, right? Well, the very first P.O.P “Ace” was based on his first appearance in the manga. We copied his face exactly as it was, but we took a beating from fans saying it was completely different. Maybe because it was made with older technology, but there was a gap between the product’s image and what fans’ were imagining. In the case of “Marco the Phoenix”, I took one glance at his prototype and his face reminded me of a Jizo (laugh).
*Jizo: A statue commonly found in cemeteries or travel routes to help guide those to the right path in life or in the afterlife.
While Marco’s face certainly looked like one, I didn’t believe this was the image fans would want. So, I purposely told the sculptor to make his face handsome and reworked the figure’s overall balance. We were told by a lot of people, “Marco looks so cool,” and I started to understand what it really meant. It’s really difficult to make a product that pleases everyone because there were still fans complaining that it didn’t look like Marco, so I learned to first think about what image I want to amplify and then make the figure.
―I thought P.O.P figures were originally based on the anime’s character references, so could you describe the differences between the anime and manga?
Hiroki: I keep it in mind, but I don’t say, “Let’s pull out the anime reference sheets” when we’re making a figure. There are times when the anime has great facial expressions, but there are other times it’s completely different from the manga. Then are even times in the manga where Luffy’s face looks amazing, but if you look at the work overall you can see the differences between his faces. I try to pick from one and say, “This time I want to make Luffy’s face similar to this one’s.” So more than choosing from the anime or manga, I’m picking “this” specific Luffy.
I can say this now because it’s already happened, but the first P.O.P Nami was based off an illustration on a plastic writing board that “ANIMATE” was selling. It was such a great illustration that we decided to use it as a reference (laugh). She was different from any Nami in the manga or anime.
I make sure to hand over the anime references to make sure there are no mistakes with any details. They’re typically used for headshots and reference for how characters are positioned. So for example, with this headshot, with this pose, maybe the hand should be more in this direction, or maybe let’s try making the arms longer, etc.
If you can’t tell by the Boa Hancock tease, stay tuned for part two of this exciting interview where we’ll ask Hiroki about his favorite “ONE PIECE” characters, the state of the industry, and also some questions from our TOM Fan Club members!
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Portrait.of.Pirates One Piece Luffy Gear Fourth Available For Pre-Order Now!
This is a Tokyo Otaku Mode original article.
Interview by Adrian Morris, Yabusaki
Photography by Hara