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What the Heck Is Sofubi?! 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Soft Vinyl

Everybody loves sofubi that bring elaborate details and colorways to life. Sofubi (aka soft vinyl) figures come in many shapes from mascots to kaiju to horror and more. Its niche in the toy industry has blown up in popularity because of both vintage brand name collections and independent artists alike. Here are 10 facts you want to know about soft vinyl!

1. Sofubi, vs. sofvi, vs. soft vinyl

We’ll start with an easy one. Soft vinyl is a simple plastic made of polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Sofubi is a portmanteau of sofuto biniiru which itself is the Japanification of the words soft (sofuto) and vinyl (biniiru). Similarly, sofvi is the anglicized portmonteau of soft + vinyl.

sofubi collection on two shelves
From Vice Japan’s “Sofubi” Toy Makers interview with Mori Katsura of Realxhead.

It’s tempting to think these words are interchangeable, and indeed there seems to be no official delineation between the two, but true fans know when to use the right terms depending on the toy’s history and production process. In general it’s safe to say if it’s made in Japan via slush molding (more on that below), then it’s sofubi. Otherwise, call it soft vinyl.

2. How Sofubi started — Kaiju, Superheroes, Mechas, Oh My!

collector Kunaiba display of vintage kamen rider sofubi
Collector Kunaiba shows off their Kamen Rider collection from the 1970’s.

Replacing celluloid toys, sofubi toys began in Japan after World War II and were some of the nations first exports after the war. In the late 1960s, kaiju were the hot topic sweeping the world. The 1970s brought superheroes to the forefront, and giant robots called mechas took over toy designs in the 1980s. Up till the 1990s, it was mostly major brands that were producing vast lines of sofubi toys out of Japan.

3. Soft Vinyl Almost Died

In the 1990s, China entered the hard plastic industry and sofvi became antiquated for corporate mass production. Simultaneously, otaku and geek culture started to have spending money. The sales of garage kits gave independent artists the accessibility to custom variants for themselves. It carved out a niche for soft vinyl to avoid being swept away into the annals of toy history. What the retail brands didn’t expect was the cultural spark the DIY scene would create.

4. Garage Kits: The Start of Urban Vinyl and the Indie Toy Designer

Garage kits were a popular outlet that let nerds around the world build and paint copies of their favorite figures. These kits come with the disassembled parts needed to bring a kaiju to life — just add paint! Artists realized they could break the mold, and started creating their own figures from the provided parts. This was just the beginning of the urban vinyl craze of the 21st century.

5. What is Slush Molding?

slush molding for sofubi
From Japan Times’ Sofubi: Plastic Fantastic

Soft vinyl strikes a perfect balance between flexibility and durability. This is thanks to the process known as “slush molding,” which involves pouring vinyl into a cast and dumping out the excess. Seems too simple? While the core principle is used to make toys, rain boots, and car interior parts, the toy production process has evolved by experimenting with different materials and methods.

6. Concept to Product — How a Sofubi Figure is Made

Think of a character or figure you want to bring to life in 3D. Once you have a clear image in your mind or on paper, the next step is to create a clay sculpture. This is your save file in case any missteps happen along the way. The easiest method from here would be to send a painted prototype to a manufacturer who will cover the production process. Then voila, with time and money you’ll have a fully made line of toys ready to sell. Either a small workshop or a large manufacturer could bring your indie designs to life!

If you’re making figures in-house or want to be more hands-on, the process goes much deeper. You’ll cast a silicone mold of the clay sculpture to make a wax casting prototype. The wax prototype ends up making the final metal molding — this is an incredibly difficult process best left to professionals with industrial equipment. If your figure has multiple parts, you’ll need to create a mold for each arm, head, and leg too.

7. Why Metal Molds?

Your precious wax prototype melts away in the process of creating a copper mold that is intricately welded into a steel frame. Metal molds are arduous to acquire but will give you the means to continually produce a quality batch of figures with a low cost of materials. Soft vinyl is cast with chemicals so silicone molds won’t do here. These molds are a major cost in the process that will determine how many figures you make and how much you’ll need to sell them for to turn a profit.

Don _datadub_ Kratzer Art & Culture Video Presentation What is Sofub traditional japanese sofubi production
From Don Kratzer’s presentation “What is Sofubi?”

8. What is Rotocasting?

Rotocasting (rotational casting) is an advanced technique during slush molding. Not only does it save materials and lighten the figure, it also lets the figure be taller. Rotocasting uses centrifugal force to evenly spread the material across the mold’s creases giving us those trademark fine details. Check out the next few seconds of this video! The toy maker fills and spins the mold in the centrifuge, dumps out what doesn’t stick then dunks it in a chemical bath to harden the vinyl.

That said, rotocasting is a simple, accessible concept. You can use it for more DIY friendly materials like resin that only need a silicone mold. Rotocasting doesn’t actually need any fancy machines, though continuously turning by hand sounds tedious. Wisely, artists like Muffinman Sculpts have their own DIY set up that is mesmerizing to watch.

9. There’s a Soft Vinyl Wikipedia Known as Sofubiki

sofubiki logo

Started last month by London artist and collector, Brett Cloke, this wiki is cataloguing everything soft vinyl old and new.

The young Sofubiki already has resource lists for artists, conventions, shows, manufacturers, and even publications. We can’t wait to see how this wiki grows in it’s first year!

10. Upcoming Soft Vinyl Festivals

There are many different toy festivals around the world – there are even some that specialize in soft vinyl only, like Sofubi Art Base, Shanghai Sofubi Expo, The Indy Sofubi Rally, Dokioki Osaka Sofubi Expo, and Soft Vinyl Festival.

Covid-19 caused many to close including what would have been the debut for Creature Bazaar in spring of 2020. While we’re disappointed about the postponing, we are excited to see their online events and continual parade of wonderfully unique sofvi creations.

So there you have 10 facts about sofubi! We hope you learned something new about soft vinyl’s history, production, and current events. Leave us a comment – what are your favorite soft vinyl facts to share?

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j.lerouge
Jacques here and I, for one, can't wait for the solarpunk mecha future 🤖 I love comics, Pokémon, and collectibles!

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    2 Comments

    1. Thank you for this informative piece, i really really want to make toys and wasnt to sure what would be best resin or this, seems both are viable just have to make sure a good toy is made. Thank you

      1. Resin is much easier to start with, as you can make resin toys in your own home. Sofubi and soft vinyl require specialized factories, so that material is usually not for beginners.

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