Chicks On Anime
Ball-Jointed Dolls

by B. Dong, S. Pocock, Jun 23rd 2009

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

Our guest today is Aravist, who was swept into the ball-jointed doll scene in 2004. Since then, she's been on several panels about the dolls and their history, and she's recently gotten into custom sculpting. She joins us to shed some light on this phenomenon that's been seeping through anime fandom, and offers some insight into what it takes to make your own dolls.


Bamboo: I see these dolls at just about every single anime convention I go to. People are always carrying them around, and I have some friends who are really into buying these dolls, too. It seems like their popularity has really grown in the past few years. Can you explain briefly what these dolls are?
Aravist: These dolls generally come in two size ranges, 60 cm and 40 cm tall. So, the larger ones are roughly two feet tall, or a third of human scale. Their size allows for incredible detail—glass eyes, eyelashes, wigs, elaborate fashions, and very individualized and sophisticated face painting. They're named for their jointing. Based on a similar system of ball jointing as some antique European dolls, BJDs' points of articulation, range of movement, and ability to pose naturally improves with every new doll release.
Bamboo: I have always been really impressed by the level of detail that I see in the faces. I'm not really a doll person, since I've been pretty freaked out by all dolls ever since I was a kid, but I could see the appeal in these. They have kind of a mystical quality.
Sara: The eyes, especially, have an eerie, haunting quality to them. Like Bamboo, I was always scared of dolls as a wimpy little kid, but I've come to appreciate their aesthetics as an adult. I don't know very much about ball joint dolls, though. Are there specific stylistic traits that set them apart from other dolls, or is it just the way the joints are used? Is there a common look and feel?
Aravist: These dolls are often abbreviated "ABJD", short for "Asian Ball-Jointed Doll". That's because by and large they have a pretty, anime-ish look.
Sara: I see. So something like stikfas and action figures wouldn't count, correct?
Aravist: There's a page in Den of Angels that gives a good explanation of what would typically qualify as an ABJD.
Bamboo: There seems to be a rather rich history of these dolls. Would it be possible to get a pithy run-down of some of the milestones?
Aravist: There's actually a really fantastic FAQ on that same website. Basically, Super Dollfies are to BJDs, as Kleenex is to tissues. This guide is SD-centric, but it's still very useful and often generalizable to most BJDs. So between 1998 and 1999, the first modern BJDs were sculpted and sold as "Super Dollfie" by Volks, Japan.
Bamboo: Oh, that's quite a while ago. I didn't realize they'd been around for so long. I feel like I've only really noticed them in the US in the past few years.
Sara: I've noticed them over the past few years as well. I have friends who make things like hair and clothing for ball-jointed dolls, but I didn't realize the bodies were a part of this very specific community. I assumed it was just a continuation of doll-making in general.
Aravist: Well, in 2004, Den of Angels, a US-based online doll community, opened in its current form. This has been the most popular English BJD forum to date. Also, around this time, Korean doll manufacturers grew in number and popularity. Number, meaning the number of companies. Then in 2005, Volks opened its first US doll store. The company-sponsored doll conventions, called "dolls party" or "Dolpa," formerly only held in Japan, made their debut in the US. Also, somewhere between 2004 and 2009, the number of doll companies really increased. There are doll companies and artists based all over the world today: Japan, Korea, China, Singapore, the US, France, New Zealand, Australia, and probably more. The number of dolls and styles of dolls has grown exponentially since then. Some dolls are 70 cm tall. Some are itsy-bitsy. Some are elf-like, and some are really anthropomorphic.
Bamboo: I guess that explains the sudden boom in dolls. When did you first get into these dolls?
Aravist: 2004.
Bamboo: Do you have any favorites?
Aravist: My favorite commercial doll was, and is, Volks' Madoka (or Shizu—the US "reissue" of Madoka; different name but same mold).
Bamboo: Any reason?
Aravist: Well, she's… pretty.
Bamboo: *laugh* That is true, she is very pretty. I had to do some Googling about all the dolls before this conversation, and I'm quite taken with some of the older Volks. They're very elegant. I also couldn't help but notice that ABJDs tend to be fairly expensive. What is it about those dolls that drives up the price?
Aravist: These are luxury dolls. There is brand-name cachet, there is exclusivity cachet. They trade, or used to trade, like any kind of high end luxury fashion item.
Sara: You mentioned earlier in the conversation that these Asian ball-jointed dolls tend to have an anime-inspired feel. Have you seen the aesthetic shift at all since the movement has ventured outside of Japan?
Aravist: A bit. Volks, the company that basically launched the modern ball-joint doll concept, has evolved its offerings over time. In '98 and '99, its first dolls looked in the 10-year old range. Then they introduced a line where the dolls looked to be in the 13-year range. Since then, they've introduced dolls that look 16, and 17, and in my opinion with these new dolls the look has become more realistic and less stylized. But that's one company I've followed more closely than the others. I have not followed these dolls very closely since 2005. If you took an average of all of the dolls being made today, I think—and this is my impression—that they're still stylized in a similar way, but there is a lot more variation overall.
Bamboo: How has the reception been towards the more realistic dolls? Are they just as popular as the more anime-styled ones?
Aravist: Volks calls the "age 13" dolls "SD13," the "age 16" dolls "SD16,” and so on (up to SD17, to my knowledge). Based on the proportion of “younger look” dolls to “older look” dolls that Volks has released (the company stopped releasing SD16 boys, to my knowledge), the “younger” ones are more popular. That said... I plead being out of the loop too long. I haven't kept track of the new dolls' faces, and all of the older dolls were introduced after 2005, which is when I became much less involved.
Sara: I'm curious about the demographics of the collectors. I've been browsing pictures of some unique BJDs—they are all custom made, correct?
Aravist: I think they're made to order. There is one and only one company I've heard of to sculpt to order, though. Generally, the doll designers announce new dolls, take orders, and then ship on those orders. Things get complicated with limited editions and all, but generally, it follows the same steps. A new doll is unveiled to oohing and aahing, people pay up front, and then some time later, they get their dolls. It's a model that works wonderfully online.
Sara: Going back to demographics, have you noticed a trend in the gender of collectors?
Aravist: Mostly ladies. Teenage to middle age, skews to high school and college.
Bamboo: I guess I haven't paid enough attention around conventions to really see if that's still the case. I know that there are definitely male fans, because I have a vivid memory of a bearded man cradling a doll in front of a Starbucks, but he may have been in the minority.
Sara: It strikes me as a sort of "girly" hobby, because of the appreciation for beauty. I also think it's interesting that fetish has appeared to creep in. I wonder where that influence comes from.
Bamboo: Are you talking about some of the… more interesting dolls that are being sold nowadays?
Sara: Well, take the company Notdoll Lab Creation, that I stumbled upon from one of the Den of Angels pages. For a doll like this or this, is it the result of a client request or the artist's direction?
Aravist: I have absolutely no idea. I didn't know that doll existed until I scrolled to the bottom of that DoA thread I linked you to. That doll wasn't on offer in 2005. This is what I mean by "variety".
Bamboo: By the looks of this company's website, they have a lot of... unique dolls. I'm not sure if this child/girl/woman is supposed to be salacious or just hungering for some delicious ice cream. I can't even really tell how old she is. But I think in any fandom, you'll end up getting products that may deviate from the popular norm.

Is that part of what inspired you to create custom dolls? To be able to veer away from what's available on the market? Or is it just simply the joy of creating?

Aravist: Creating a doll, in my experience, is joyful in coming up with the idea, joyful when the thing finally starts to look the way you want it to, and very painful and patience-testing during every step in between. I created my custom sculpts because I had distinct ideas of what I wanted in a poseable, very articulated fashion doll—fashion in the truest sense of the word.
Bamboo: Like, haute coutre? From the base outwards?
Aravist: Bingo. Just like finding the right model for your fashion house. Except smaller, because, well, I was initially working from a dorm room.

My inspiration is partially an anime esthetic, and partially a mishmash of various other sources, including Hindu and Buddhist religious sculpture. I wasn't going to find the look I wanted commercially, so it was either forget about making the fashions real on a doll with the right look... or go through that process (did I mention painful process?) of creating from scratch.

Sara: Oh wow. Sculpting such delicate features sounds pretty arduous.
Bamboo: Yeah, that's pretty wild. I can't even really imagine sculpting something that wouldn't turn out as a blob. How does it work? Can you run through your creation process?
Aravist: Trial and error! I start with an idea of what I want the doll to look like, and then I make each part. It's a two-part challenge—getting the aesthetic part right, and getting the functional part right. The doll has to pose in a fluid, graceful way. I sculpt, check, sculpt, check, finish, build, finish, build, and that's only the process of sculpting the master sculpt, from which all the individual dolls are molded and cast. It's definitely a process that needs to be seen to be understood. I have an online photo set that shows how the head was sculpted and cast.
Sara: Oh, crazy! This is the same process you use to make vinyl figures and statues as well. I'm familiar with this process. It's very time-consuming!
Bamboo: Are all of the doll parts made by you? Or do you buy some of the accessories, like the wigs, clothes, and what not?
Aravist: The body sculpt is all original and the clothes are original. A team of friends has done the sewing, I do the doll sculpting. Some of the wigs are original, or are bought and styled. The eyes are bought.
Bamboo: What do you use to paint the faces?
Aravist: To my knowledge, there are two main ways to paint the faces: one is old-school, with paint and pastels and sealant. The pastels let you layer different shades subtly—think of semitransparent layers in Photoshop. The other way is the fancy gadget route—airbrush.
Bamboo: Which do you use?
Aravist: I do not have a fancy gadget and the one time I tried indicated clearly that I have a longer way to go than with regular paints and pastels, so I stick to those. And I only paint faces when I absolutely must. Two things to note: "face painting," or "makeup" in this context, is called a "faceup". That, and there's a whole side industry in face-upping. There are the experts, there are the not-experts. Those who aren't confident about getting the look they want often turn their dolls' heads over to the professionals.
Bamboo: That's kind of fascinating. I sure wouldn't want to risk painting a doll that I just paid a lot of money for. Some of the custom face-ups are really nice. I was looking for Madokas online earlier, and I ran into the website of someone who does breath-taking work.
Sara: There are some interesting parallels that could be made between this and custom painting PVC Japanese figures. The most hardcore collectors have always taken part in the creative process. I remember right after The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya came out, I saw some amazing photographs of the custom paint job a Japanese collector did for a Haruhi figure.
Bamboo: Oh yeah. I've always been blown away by the amount of detail that collectors are able to put into their figures and dolls. A lot of times, they look much better than the professional, official versions. Sheila, regarding your dolls, you sell them for charity, yes?
Aravist: Yes. My good friend and fellow doll fan has dealt with multiple sclerosis for the past several years, so working with the National MS Society has become a cause that is important to us. So, all proceeds from every single fashion doll sold to date have gone directly to the New York chapter of the National MS Society. Additionally, Asha for Education, another great organization that works to promote literacy for kids in India, is going to be the beneficiary of a new line of mythological dolls set for release this fall. Each of the Asha-benefit dolls will have four articulated arms, which hasn't been done before. I've also got a doll up for auction on eBay right now. As these take shape, photos will be posted on Flickr, so keep an eye out for them!

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