VOLKS, a long time peddler of garage kits and military models, recently celebrated their 50th anniversary. most people that know the name, I suspect, will have likely heard of them from the success they continue to have with dollfie, a series of resin cast ball-jointed dolls that today branches out into two main sub-brands: super dollfie (SD) and dollfie dream (DD). super dollfie, introduced in the late 90s, were initially a move to capitalize on a burgeoning interest in the import of expensive french dolls by offering a greater flexibility that allowed for accessorizing and movement, making them more appealingly hobby grade to collectors. dollfie dream would later be introduced as their male-targeted PVC equivalent in the early aughts during the height of ongoing otaku media successes like rozen maiden and are perhaps most usefully a way to capture the demographic that is largely attracted to series like idolmaster and vocaloid that traffic in licensed character goods across every product category. to suggest that dollfie are not also wildly expensive would be disingenuous, though, as settling for either option will still set you back somewhere north of 500 USD in only their base configurations. VOLKS has always very clearly positioned the line as a luxury commodity, which is reflected in the clientele they’ve continued to attract through extremely restricted lottery releases and limited editions that can only be purchased at speciality stores. dollfie fans, against usual fan grievances, actually seem to enjoy this sort of self-selecting exclusivity that keeps prying eyes away, and even for some, classifying themselves as hobbyists can be seen as a limiting label. that mentality untangles some of how they have also come to self-select themselves into two different hardcore factions: “dry” fans (ドライ派), those interested solely in making their dolls look presentable, and “wet” fans (ウェット派), those that commit themselves to forming emotional bonds that fully personify them. while a dry fan may be satisfied taking only a perfectly exposed shot of their doll for social media, wet fans aim to treat their dolls more like partners, bringing them on dates or using them as sponges for conversation.
in practice, the dichotomy between wet and dry is not all that strictly defined, and most owners are likely to find themselves swimming in the gradient between both. for their part, VOLKS has very firmly planted themselves in the wet camp. while VOLKS initially maintained only showroom stores that covered their entire product catalog, the emerging popularity of SD saw the introduction of speciality stores exclusively focused on the line called tenshi no sumika (天使のすみか), or quite literally den of angels. examining promotional copy going back to SD’s start clarifies that VOLKS has pretty much always relied on this angelic framing for SD, imbuing them with an infallibly perfect purity that is gracing our otherwise mundane lives as “visitors from another dimension” (異次元からの訪問者). their main akihabara flagship store, beginning with its temporary relocation to a radio kaikan satellite building after the tohoku earthquake in 2011, has adorned the title hobby tengoku (ホビー天国), or hobby heaven, through three relocations, making it a strangely enduring ray of light on the chuodori of vacant buildings that appears about another decade away from complete extinction altogether. hobby tengoku, along with each sumika store, prominently offer a full choice service (FCS) where owners-to-be can request a fully customized doll alongside the assistance of special staff that guide and perform their build, painting each facial feature to an exacting detail and sanding down seam lines along every joint to achieve flawlessly smooth skin. owners can optionally request to have a free welcoming ceremony (お迎えの儀式) performed by staff when their doll is complete, an event involved enough that most stores limit the number of possible ceremonies they perform each day. when a transaction finally closes, the result similarly isn’t considered a purchase, but as “welcoming” the doll into the owner’s life (お迎えする). it is, of course, easy to envision the core customization of creating a doll like this being depersonalized through a web store1, or even through a traditional catalog, but visiting a physical store continues to be the only serious choice available if you want to have FCS performed for a SD. the other option is, otherwise, even more troublesomely pursued: sourcing and assembling the parts for your doll yourself, with little guarantee that you will be able to. unlike the PVC statues or the acryllic stands that now litter character goods sections, SD are inextricably linked to the physicality that comes from breathing life into them at carefully imagined store experiences. wet doll fanatics, exacting as they are, would not expect anything less.
along with sumika stores that dot large population centers, VOLKS perhaps most famously operates tenshi no sato (天使の里), roughly angel’s homeland, in kyoto on an estate once owned by the painter takeuichi seihou. other than the requirement that VOLKS continue to maintain a museum dedicated to seihou, every other detail on the property is chosen with an exacting specificity that would not betray their thorough approach to dolls, from elaborate garden displays to carefully arranged tea rooms. registered VOLKS members that own a SD (a requirement for entry, unless you are a plus one guest) can make a weekend getaway to a four floor temple that houses an extensive SD museum, multiple photoshoot spots out over an atrium, an observation room that allows for 360 degree views over the scenery, and a beauty salon offering a menu of services to treat your doll. dollpa (ドルパ), or doll parties, are a mainstay across other VOLKS locations and event venues as an opportunity for fans to socialize, but there is nothing quite as self-proving as having the privilege of mingling among elite fans in the countryside far away from the concrete jungles that wreath locations like big sight and the sumika stores. with an even more elaborate welcoming ceremony at an even further reduced quota of one per day, owners have an opportunity to have their dolls blessed by the mother dollfie; more accurately, she is a statue of the virgin mary concealed behind a shroud that overlooks each doll posed before her. as one account describes the ceremony, capes and candles are trotted out in a perfect choreography that sounds more like a sermon of the occult. sato’s pageantry and performance is perhaps the most obvious appeal to the spiritual that SD lore leans into, to an extent that it has at some points attracted criticism even from japanese fans that object to its pseudo-religious worldbuilding and terminology borrowing from new religious sects like the mahikari. sato has nonetheless remained a mecca for SD owners the way a flagship store situated in the otaku sweat cloud of akiba could never hope to be. outside of that world of commodities, where tourists gawk over plastic pressed and molded at rapid pace into statues and sex toys, SD fanatics retreat in isolation to their oasis. from here, no one can encroach on their imagined world.
when I had first stumbled into enough money to consider dolls as a hobby some years back, I discovered VOLKS paid more than just lip service to their concept by offering owners the option of using a farewell service (お別れサービス) to say goodbye to a doll, should they for some reason ever feel the need to. for a small fee, VOLKS will send you a special blanket pouch and a return box coffin for you to send your doll back in at your leisure. once received, your doll is refurbished to a blank state before you are then presented with a memorial certificate and token commemorating their departure. at first blush, my gut instinct had me think this was an attempt to exert price pressure on the secondhand market — dollfie, even in their more fragile first gen releases, almost never lose their value — yet that is almost a hopelessly sinister reaction if you are to believe dollfie have a soul, as a wet fan undoubtedly would. the concept of a soul extending to inanimate objects is long established in shinto beliefs of animism, and even more specifically established in japanese folklore by concepts like tsukumogami (つくも神) that extend into a greater social fabric that respects the unseen. dolls have already traditionally been the subject of funeral services, most likely because they inherently carry more human likeness than any other object, but the practice of releasing souls from objects has also been exercised in funerals for tools and devices as exotic as defunct pagers and broken turntable cartridges. many of these examples exude a similarly tongue in cheek quality to their ceremonies, though I find others still demonstrate a more genuine affect that reflect on a deep companionship we can develop for what are ultimately objects, like those for the sony aibo. aibo, after being discontinued in their first iteration in 2006, can no longer be effectively repaired as their last remaining service center closed less than a decade later in 2014, leaving only a diminishing availability of spare parts and good willed technicians that will one day disappear entirely. the same could of course be said for a sony walkman, or a sony television, though it is difficult to imagine many examples so emotionally targeted as man’s robotic best friend being unable to wag their tail for an aging owner that continues to rely on it for conversation. while dollfie may not face such a grim prospect in their ongoing timeline, it is still easy to envision any number of scenarios that may damage one similarly into a state of disrepair where it may no longer be salvaged. owners, after developing lifelong bonds with their dolls, may instead find themselves incapacitated or unable to care for their doll and begin to face the churning prospect of believing it may be displayed in a shop window to gawk at, or offered at auction to be dismembered for parts, or worse, thrown away as garbage after they are gone. it is tempting to look at a doll funeral service as aggressively odd from a western perspective, or even cultish from a japanese one, yet trying to dissolve the inherent humanity of the process feels almost insulting when it is so deeply rooted in a doll that, as many would believe, retains the character of its owner, just as much as we may grieve an antique carved desk that has broken after being written on for generations, or a home recorded tape that no longer tracks properly after degrading over hundreds of playbacks. allowing for owners to mourn a doll they have found themselves bound to, even if the option may never be exercised, is only a basic recognition of respect for the craft that went into its creation as much as it is for the emotions of those who deeply embedded it with character. whether we find ourselves talking about dolls today, or android partners tomorrow, or a pager sending one final 3470 yesterday, those bonds, I find, are far more interesting to reflect on at their wettest.
the first and only sumika store in the US opened in 2005, but closed by 2014. while that storefront is no longer accessible for FCS or fan events, VOLKS USA continues to maintain the space as a warehouse and now uniquely offers FCS online. many familiar japanese hobby brands were eager to expand into international storefronts through this period of early otaku growth overseas, most notably broccoli and animate to the LA area as well (animate is now making a go of it again), yet it is interesting to consider that VOLKS was at least able to successfully weather the looming global recession that shuttered most other attempts. that probably says more about how high-margin their sales were and continue be, but there is likely also something to be said here about having fan loyalty baked into your purchase model. ↩