by Edward Holland

 All photos by Edward L. Holland

Wonder Festival blazed through Makuhari Messe in Chiba City on Feb. 9, 2020 marking the 35th anniversary of the biannual garage kit and art culture festival that sprang from a small Osaka model shop decades ago. The exposition continues to mature, encapsulating all types of Japanese popular culture from anime to live action as it lures more fanatics into its myriad web. 

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Wonder Festival (WonFes) over time has become an outpouring of character toys, with people flying in, booking hotels and lining up days in advance. A bevy of products greet you there with vendors applying for highly coveted one day licenses on limited items every winter and summer, approximately one hour north of Tokyo. The festival, which started in the mid-80s teamed up with Osaka’s Kaiyodo Company in 1992 and has since mushroomed into eight cavernous halls to the delight of otaku everywhere. Various products tied to trademarks from major studios, blend in nicely with one-person operations and niche companies’ offerings which all sell out in record time, usually within an hour or less after opening the crowded gates.

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Thousands of early morning campers carefully map out routes to their favorite booths and rush from one end to the other in hopes of being the first brave warriors to cherry pick extremely sought after singular day products from the likes of X-Plus, Medicom, M1GO, and other brands. 

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Godzilla figures from Max Toy Co.

From the overly cute to the grotesque, to thehentai a gambit of kits, figures, robots,doujinshi, and more can be purchased at modest and premium prices. Foreigners flock in to nab such exclusives with many reselling them in their home countries, or just to chat with fellow purveyors of Japanese culture. 

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However, this year due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19)gaijintraffic jams were significantly lighter and more relaxing to navigate through the masses usurping resin kits and soft plastic models. Some vendors brought items for display purposes only to gauge customer reactions to their product lines and test market concepts not expected to return to future shows.

 
Sculptor Yusuke Miki

Our crew was positively welcomed into the creative worlds of signature sculptors, designers, and illustrators including: Yuji Kaida (Kong Skull Island,Ready Player One), Matt Frank (Redman), Takashi Tsukada, Kurohige, Yoshi, Max Toy Company’s Pico Pico and Yo Miyamoto, who provided designs for Toho Studios and Tsuburaya Productions releases. Mark Nagata said, “Fans' positive responses to our products allow us to expand with more character offerings expected in the near future.” Relatively young sculptor and production assistant, Yusuke Miki (Ultraman Taiga,SSSS.Gridman) currently working in thetokusatsu industry spoke fondly of those who inspired him from the ground up including his mentor and friend, Hiroshi Sagae (Gamera,Ultraman Tiga,Ultraman Saga) who passed on October 2019 after a strident battle against colon cancer.

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Yasushi Shiroi with his Ultraseven Pointer

This winter show celebrated the first public memorial gathering of Sagae a trusted and humble sculptor, who worked with all the prime designers in Japan. Shuichi Miyawaki, Kaiyodo CEO and executive of WonFes presided over the ceremonies along with: his widow, Yumiko Sagae, actor, Ryuki Kitaoka, producer, Sojiro Uchino (Gotouchi Kaiju), director, Shinji Higuchi (Gamera,Shin Godzilla,Shin Ultraman), and an actual priest. In the past, Miyawaki explained Wonder Festival as, “A sculpture festival that has continued to make its way attracting wholehearted and determined craftsmen.” Sagae was one such top shelf pioneer, who contributed to products by Kaiyodo, to publications and countless film and TV productions. During the tribute, Uchino mentioned, “Sagae’s outstanding creative works further remind us that we shall remember him and his unique world for a long time to come.” 

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Shinji Higuchi at Sagae memorial

Despite the drastic dip in foot traffic, WonFes is still the event to brave twice a year with a high level of talent featured twice a year. The one-day show typically entices upwards of 50,000 patrons and no doubt expects to attract heavy crowds from Asia, Europe, North America, and the rest of the world at future outings. Already eyeing an installment planned for later this year after the Tokyo Summer Olympics, zealous fans are making final and contingent travel arrangements to swarm on Chiba and seize the untold spoils of the next wondrous WonFes, yet to behold.

 

Edward L. Holland is a photojournalist living and working in Japan. He has written for Stars and Stripes Japan, Famous Monsters of Filmland, and has received a community service award from the cabinet office of the Government of Japan. 



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