One Brick At A Time: A Brief History of MediCom Toy
One Brick At A Time: A Brief History of MediCom Toy
- Words Gunner Park
- Date December 20, 2018
Endlessly fawning over clothes is exhausting. Eventually, every fashion-fanatic widens their scope. Food, home goods, cars are all common passions, but perhaps most common for the modern enthusiast is collectibles. The figurine holds a special place in the hypebeast’s heart. Similar to their beloved jawns, these models are inherently limited, have cultural significance and are a demarcation of taste and interests. Few companies incorporate all three as well as MediCom. Built on a singular premise—to create the coolest toys for themselves—the crafters and creators at MediCom merge the latest icons in popular culture and media with a bold “pop” aesthetic to build collectible figures accessible to the masses. The BE@RBRICK (a hybrid of a humanoid bipedal and adorable teddy bear) is a cultural icon spanning the world and a range of subcultures and niches. MediCom’s long list of collaborators includes everyone from The Beatles, KAWS, and BAPE, to Star Wars, Undercover, Disney, Futura, Porter, Comme des Garçons and countless others.
There is no genius marketing scheme behind this all-encompassing brand strategy. It’s quite simple. Combining a childhood obsession with toys and an adult fixation with collecting, MediCom CEO Tatsuhiko Akashi is able to construct a miniature world of marvel. While MediCom is now an industry figurehead, the global icon still remains true to its humble origins as a small-scale toy manufacturer. Still, despite being a relatively small player in the world of toys, through smart associations and impactful releases, MediCom has managed to forge a long-lasting relationship with the fashion community that dwarfs its stature.
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Before MediCom was established, Akashi worked a desk job in computer manufacturing. While the job paid well, Akashi grew bored of the mundane day-to-day tasks. During one of his days off, while walking around Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood, Akashi wandered into ZAAP!, a shop that sold American toys. Figures from blockbuster Hollywood movies such as Terminator and Batman immediately caught his eye and Akashi emptied his entire wallet——Akashi was in fact so inspired by the shop that he eventually hired ZAAP!’s founder as an executive at MediCom. Akashi was inspired to open his own toy shop, eventually settling on a location in Ebisu in 1996. The store—which he shared with a tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) spot—marked the launch of the MediCom Toy Corporation.
With a career in manufacturing, Akashi was no stranger to design and had already created a number of figures on his own prior to starting MediCom. His first efforts included a 12” “Lupin the Third” and “Tetsujin #28” figure, both based on a his love of anime. Akashi’s first interaction with street culture occured when he discovered Tokyo Tribe, a manga charting the fictional events after the Shibuya riots serialized in Boon fashion magazine from 1997 to 2005. After seeing an original print released by Takarajimasha, Inc. called “TOKYO TRIBE1,” Akashi was enamored, and eventually contacted autor Santa Inoue to collaborate. Although Akashi initially wanted to design figurines, the two eventually decided to develop clothing from protagonist Nagisa’s wardrobe.
Shortly after founding MediCom, Akashi found his first hit in the form of a small Lego man-like figure called the Kubrick. Named in honor of the psycho-thriller filmmaker—with even an accompanying logo modeled after A Clockwork Orange—“Kubrick” is additionally a hybridization of “Kyu,” Japanese kanji for the number nine, and the English “Brick.” While nine refers to the number of body parts used in a standard Kubrick figure (head, torso, hips, two arms, two hands, and two legs), brick is a reference to Kubrick’s similarity to Lego Minifigures.
The first Kubricks, a selection of characters from manga and anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, were designed by Akashi and a former LEGO employee. Since the initial release in 2000, Medicom has released thousands of Kubricks in a range of colors, styles, and collaborations. Everything from films like The Great Escape, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Amélie to Japanese manga such as Berserk and even American comics from Marvel and DC inspired Akashi’s earlier Kubricks. Other notable figures include the Blythe series—a figural toy with another figural toy as its subject—as well as a range of Kubricks bearing contemporary art from Eames, Andy Warhol, and Pantone. As the Kubrick series progressed, Akashi began incorporating popular icons to expand the reach of MediCom. Figures bearing likeness to characters from the Grand Theft Auto video game series and Kellogg’s cereal mascots offered unique variations on mainstream imagery.
Thanks to the various interests that span across his staff, Akashi is able to touch upon a myriad of cultural media. In an interview with Tokyo Otaku Mode, when asked about his process for choosing what to design, Akashi said, “When [my staff] asks me, ‘Akashi-san, I want to make this.’ I respond with, ‘Well if you want to make it that badly, then please go ahead.’ Frankly, there are things I don’t know about within those media and if a staff member wants to seriously pursue it, then I think it’s my job to let them.” Akashi creates a breadth of diversity within MediCom by allocating and outsourcing certain designs to those who have more expertise in the subject. Doing so allows for the most meticulous and accurate depictions of current icons.
In addition to the immense variation of Kubrick figures, MediCom’s packaging also encourages avid collecting. The most common form of packaging is the “blind box,” where individual 100% scale (standard size) figures are obscurely packaged in small boxes, and customers have to purchase a box in order to know what is inside. Assortments are also available which include 12 figures, further segmented into a “master” case of four cases. Each figure is designated as either regular or hikomono (derived from the Japanese kanji for traditional Japanese woodwork, insinuating a higher-quality of craftsmanship). Occasionally, the ratio of figures in the assortment may change due to the presence of “chase” figures. Chase figures are produced in extremely limited quantities and are only available in assortments. They aren’t listed on the box nor announced alongside other new products. The chance of finding a chase figure is 1:48 and in certain cases 1:96. The name comes from the idea that collectors must “chase” after these evasive figurines. As a result, chase figures are some of the most sought-after Kubrick figures. By incentivizing collecting, blind box packaging promptly influences collectors to buy, sell, and trade figures in order to complete their collections.
With the popularity of the Kubrick skyrocketing, on May 27th, 2001, Akashi unveiled his latest project. As a gift for the attendees of the World Character Convention in Tokyo, Akashi designed a simple white anthropomorphized bear emblazoned with a new logo—a blue bear encircled with a red “@“. The new figure, named BE@RBRICK, was a variation of the Kubrick figure with bear-like features. The BE@RBRICK received instant recognition from existing MediCom customers while recruiting new consumers due to its undeniably cute design. While the decision seemed calculated, it was in fact out of necessity. Due to a time crunch imposed by several toy agencies, Akashi chose a design that wouldn’t involve an overhaul of his current bestseller. In fact, the only reason the BE@RBRICK is a bear is because the teddy bear was celebrating its 100th anniversary in the year 2000. The arbitrary decision is a perfect example of Akashi’s haphazard design approach.
Similar to the Kubrick, the BE@RBRICK comes in a variety of sizes and styles. The first BE@RBRICK, dubbed the 100%, established a system of sizing specifications for future releases. BE@RBRICKS range between 50% to 1000% (35mm to 700mm, respectively), in addition to the “OTHER” sub-category. The 50% is usually released in the form of a keychain, while the 70% is typically seen as a lucky charm with customizable tags. The most classic style of BE@RBRICK, the 100%, is usually released in blind boxes and is available in three iterations: classic detachable 9-piece, “unbreakable,” and the BB BE@RBRICK, a kid-friendly version which does not come apart. Then there is the 150% (flashlight keychain) and the 200% which is only released as part of the “Chogokin” Series, an array of figures in die-cast metal that each weigh 400g. The 400% is the second most common format and is typically favored by collectors. Lastly, the 1000% is the largest commercially available BE@RBRICK and usually sold as a collectible statue.
The endless variety of BE@RBRICKS doesn’t stop with size. In contrast to the Kubrick, all BE@RBRICK releases are organized into “SERIES” and “TYPES.” There are two major drops each year, during the summer and winter, where each new SERIES is unveiled. Each SERIES is consecutively numbered and features four different TYPES. Basic TYPES consist of nine different designs with each figure emblazoned with a letter that spells out “BE@RBRICK.” Standard TYPES feature BE@RBRICKS in various “THEMES.” Artist TYPES display works in collaboration with a different artist. Secret TYPES are elusive, unannounced products that either consist of a collaborative design or THEME.
THEMES make-up the various offerings within the Standard SERIES. The most common themes include: Jellybean, a candy-colored translucent figure; Pattern, a figure boasting a pattern; Flag, a figure painted as a nation’s flag; Horror, a figure bearing likeness to a character or concept from the horror film genre; SF (Science Fiction), a figure featuring a science fiction theme or character; Cute, figures that are objectively “cute”; Animal, a figure made to look like another animal; Hero, a new THEME introduced in SERIES 21 consisting of superheroes and villains from DC Comics.
Just as blind boxes increase the demand for MediCom’s products through raffle and chance, each BE@RBRICK TYPE and THEME is accompanied by a numerical rarity. Basic BE@RBRICKS have a 14.58% rarity, Standard BE@RBRICKS vary based on THEME (Jellybean is 11.45%, Pattern is 11.45%, Flag is 9.37%, Horror is 9.37%, SF is 10.41%, Cute is 13.54%, Animal is 8.33%, and Hero is 7.29%), Artist BE@RBRICKS have either a 4.16% or 1.04% rarity, and Secret BE@RBRICKS have a 0.52% rarity.
The rarest BE@RBRICKS, however, were either never intended for public sale or exclusive collaborations. Contemporary artists from around the world make up some of the most sought-after BE@RBRICKS. Collaborators include visual artists H.R. Giger, Jackson Pollock and KAWS, graffiti artists Stash and Pushhead, as well as fashion designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Vivienne Westwood, Coco Chanel and Ivana Helsinki. Lifestyle brands such as Casio and Nike have produced limited product alongside the BE@RBRICK such as variations of the G-Shock DW-6900MT-7JR watch and special colorways for the Nike Lunar Force, Air Force 1 and SB Dunk, respectively. Meanwhile, oddities such as a promotional Kill Bill figure, a figure made to look like Andy Warhol and a collaboration with Chiaki Kuriyama (a Japanese actress and model known for her role in Battle Royale) called MY FIRST BE@RBRICK B@BY, emphasize BE@BRICK’S ability to seamlessly navigate the vast landscape of popular culture while remaining an iconic symbol all on its own.
While BE@RBRICK is MediCom’s bread and butter, there are numerous sub-labels and side projects under the MediCom umbrella. Solamalchi goods feature contemporary iterations of the traditional Solamalchi cat which supposedly is a harbinger of wealth and good luck. VAG offers high-end variations of old-school miniature toys that could be purchased from street vending machines. On the fashion front, MediCom’s seasonal releases with Undercover such as the Gilapple, Hamburger Lamp, and Bear Floor Lamp are some of the toy company’s most prized figures.
In the realm of streetwear, MediCom’s most notable contribution is its now defunct clothing line OriginalFake. Founded in collaboration with Brian Donnelly, AKA KAWS, in 2006, OriginalFake launched during the midst of the streetwear boom, when logoflips and edgy graphics seemed inescapable and labels like BAPE, Stüssy, FUCT and aNYthing were at peak popularity. OriginalFake saw MediCom’s “pop” style fused with KAWS’ iconic imagery to create bold graphic-plastered garments that called back to Akashi’s original work with Tokyo Tribe. Cut-and-sew pieces featuring familiar icons from both artists also proved to be a hit, alongside the expectedly popular OriginalFake BE@RBRICKS produced each season. However, as the fad for loud, graphic pieces began to dissipate in favor of more minimalistic streetwear, OriginalFake found itself in the middle of an identity crisis. Donnelly eventually shut down the label in 2013, but MediCom continues to dabble in apparel through an ever-expanding range of collaborations.
If MediCom didn’t create the market for high-end collectible toys, it definitely streamlined it. Since its inception, MediCom essentially documented the cultural zeitgeist through miniature figures. By avoiding market research altogether, Akashi creates designs that aren’t bound or limited by trends. Everything is designed because an employee wanted to design it. That is the beauty of MediCom Toy. Neither the Kubrick nor BE@RBRICK would exist if it weren’t for Akashi’s simple, seemingly flippant approach to design. It’s the reason for the thousand upon thousand of figures in MediCom’s arsenal. With no subject off-limits, MediCom will continue to produce an endless array of desirable toys. Considering Akashi’s attitude, you would be hard-pressed to stop him.