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What is sofubi and why is it special?


Sofubi (or sofvi - "soft vinyl") is a traditional and specific style of boutique production of soft, hollow vinyl toys and collectibles from Japan.

The "from Japan" part is both important and controversial: the traditional sources of sofubi toys are very small mom & pop shops in Japan, often attached to or behind residential houses. 

This boutique style manufacturing means that the quantities of toys that the shops can produce are very limited. The quality of the vinyl is very high, with these shops often capable of producing crystal clear sofvi, or translucent sofvi, or sofvi infused with sparkles or glow powders. 

Sofvi made in Japan is highly sought after due to the scarcity of each toy.

Collectors of real Japanese sofubi usually steer clear of sofvi made in China or other countries, preferring to collect only those toys made in Japan. 

Because of the popularity of Japanese sofubi, many Chinese factories create moulds in the same style, and pull their own soft vinyl and call it sofubi. This sofubi label for Chinese-made soft vinyl is contentious and can be sneered at by Japanese sofubi aficionados. 

The style of sofubi mould making and the specific limitations of the shapes of the toys often drive the most interesting design choices. Sofubi style pieces cannot have overhanging parts that may catch as the piece is pulled out of the mould. All shapes must be carefully considered, and concessions made in the overall design of each part so that the pieces can be pulled out of the mould.

The pieces of sofubi are initially very hot and flexible, and are pulled out of a small hole in the top of the metal mould. The size of that hole often dictates what can be pulled out of it, so the overall shape of the toy is driven by what is possible to pull out of the hole.

Many sofubi toy designers are very creative and overcome these limitations by sculpting toys in multiple parts (for instance: head, body, 2 legs and 2 arms). By designing their sofubi creations in this way, the result can be a very interesting and fun creature design, all made entirely with sofubi parts.

Sofubi toys and kaiju-style monster toys often have a traditional type of airbushed paint decoration with is highly favored by sofubi collectors. 

A sofubi factory can make sofvi in almost any color or level of translucency, so the toy designer is able to order a small number of pieces in various colors. They can then move on to airbrushing the toy in a way that showcases the base vinyl color - many times, only part of the toy is painted by airbrush or paint brush, and the rest is left unpainted. 

The economics of scale dictate the perceived value of true Japanese sofubi collectibles. Because there is only a small number of tiny shops producing sofubi in Japan, the projects are often small, and lined up waiting for production for extended periods of time.

Anyone with an airbrush can learn how to paint their sofubi figures in the traditional style... but if there is anything MORE niche than Japanese sofubi production, it would be the famous painters of sofubi like Goto-san, mentioned in the above video.

Some western toy makers know people on the ground in Japan which facilitate these projects for them. Some lucky toy makers like Rampage Toys (top video) live in Japan for a period of time and are more capable of producing sofubi because of that proximity and the connections they make. 

For many creators, it can seem daunting to "break in" to the Japanese sofubi space. You have to know someone!

Here at Tenacious Toys, we carry both Japanese sofubi and soft vinyl made in other countries.