Friday, January 8, 2010

Plastic Fantastic Licca-chan

Licca Kayama, better known as Licca-chan (リカちゃん), is the Japanese equivalent of Barbie – though these days far more popular here than her American predecessor.

She was introduced to Japan in 1967 (the same year that the only James Bond film set in Japan, You Only Live Twice, hit cinema screens) by a toy company over here called Takara. Founded in 1955, they've since merged with fellow Japanese toy company Tomy Co., Ltd. to make... well... Takaratomy Co.

You know Leiji Matsumoto, right? The creator of essential anime and manga titles like Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999, Space Battleship Yamato, Galaxy Railways, and several videos for Daft Punk?

Well, Licca-chan was created by Leiji Matsumoto's wife Miyako Maki – a former shojo manga artist herself before she got married and became a housewife. Since then the Licca-chan dolls, like Barbie, have had their figure and features as much as their wardrobe refined to suit the faddish preferences of youth cultures along the way, though in this case our vinyl chloride resin heroine tends to be oriented towards the Japanese sensibilities of height, looks, and definitely fashion trends. In some ways, she makes her American girls' doppelgänger look downright butch and fashion insensible.

You can check out some of the subtle changes here.

The Takara/Tomy conglomerate had sold over 53 million in 40 years as of 2007. She's insanely popular not only with young girls but their mothers and grandmas; it shouldn't be any surprise then that my wife Y digs Licca-chan almost as much as my 4-year-old daughter C, who has five or so members of the Kayama clan and their mates, plus the family house.

Takara has even provided an extensive bio including her age (11), blood type (O), which school she attends (Shirakaba Elementary School) and the names of her best friends (Isamu and Izumi), her ex-boyfriend Takeru and current flame Len-kun, her twin siblings (Miki and Maki), as well as several other relatives – including an older sister Rie (below), a flight attendant who was mysteriously removed from the toy family line-up in 1974.

Licca-chan herself was born on May 3, 1967, to Orie Kayama, a Japanese fashion designer, and Pierre Miramonde, a French musician. Her papa Pierre apparently liked his wife's family name (Kayama) so much that he adopted it as his own surname.

Licca's favourite books are Anne of Green Gables and A Little Princess – both extremely popular girls' titles in Japan and themselves made into anime series. As it turns out, Licca-chan not also loves dogs, eating Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream and reading the Doraemon manga series, but also likes cross-dressing and role-playing.

For instance there's Choro Q Licca, aka Race Queen Licca (who has her own racing car), a few Hinamatsuri (Doll's Festival) Licca-chans worth up to ¥289,000 ($3,100), bridal Licca, Chukyo Women's University High School Licca-chan, Mosburger Licca, the über-tanned Loco Neo Licca, Super Doll Knight Licca, and rollerskating Licca-chan; back in the '90s there was even Street Licca – who was a DJ in pink Converse runners carrying a très cool Rough Trade record bag – as well as a special ice-skating Licca for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. And in 2001 a pregnant adult version of Licca-chan was introduced to coincide with the birth of Aiko, the daughter of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako.

There's a specially-produced Licca doll clad in a tiara and a gown studded with 880-odd diamonds worth about ¥100 million; I've even seen over-the-top fan-made Goth-Lolita Licca-chan creations, but one of my personal faves is Spy Girl Neo Licca which passes our heroine off in clothing territory previously explored by Emma Peel in The Avengers.

For an exhibition at Seibu Department Store in Ikebukuro last year food artist Rika Fukuda created “Licca-chan’s candy house” while about 20 fashion brands that participated in the Kobe Collection 2008 autumn/winter show presented their latest works made in Licca-chan’s size; Issey Miyake even did a mad pleat design for our plastic fantastic femme two years back.

At one stage Licca-chan circulated in manga-form in Kodansha's monthly Nakayoshi, and she was granted her own 52-episode anime series Super Doll Licca-chan (produced by Geneon, animation production by Madhouse, and broadcast on TV Tokyo from 1998 to 1999) that was directed by Gisaburo Sugii – an animation director on Osamu Tezuka's original, iconic '60s TV series Astro Boy.

There was a weighty tome published in 1992 for Licca's 25th anniversary, a gorgeous book named simply Licca Book, another by a psychiatrist, and these days countless blogs, fansites and websites. For starters magazine Numéro ran with its hilarious Licca's Paris Collection Report last year, with happy snaps of our heroine at the fashion shows, and even better is the online photo-shoot that is Licca's World Tour.

Coincidentally, straight after I wrote up this piece, my mate Toshiyuki Yasuda - one of the coolest electronic musicians in Japan - e-mailed me with a link to a compilation he'd assembled to sound track precisely that and titled Various Artists - Licca World Tour.


On top of all this there's also even a theme park called Licca Castle. It's way too far from Tokyo for us to check out, though.

At the Yokohama Doll Museum in 2007, they sold out 1,000 specially made 40th anniversary Yokohama Motomachi Licca-chan dolls in three days.

She's even sometimes ventured overseas, though in disguise. A Licca-chan video game was released for the Nintendo DS platform in Japan in 2007, later released in the US and other English-speaking territories in 2008 as "Lovely Lisa".

Licca-chan images © Takaratomy Co.
Rie Kayama image thanks to Brentlovesblythe.
Licca-chan and busted toe piccy by me.

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