Sunday, July 26, 2009

Toy of the week, Monday, July 26, 2009

It is an unfortunate truth that one of the strongest drives in the world for innovation comes from military technology. In ancient Japanese culture, where anything less than perfection in a traditional craft was unacceptable, masters of metallurgy created one of the greatest advances in close quarters weaponry of all time. The samurai sword is so deadly, so simple and beautiful in it's form, that it has achieved legendary and almost spiritual status. As a fabricator and craftsman myself, the attention to detail and perfection in a samurai sword commands awe and respect.

At the age of 15 I began to test my metal as a budding fabricator by studying and replicating traditional sword mounting techniques in my fathers home workshop. Having no ability to make proper blades, I would cut and file steel bars from the local hardware store into blade shapes. I would make mountings for the makeshift blades from copper, brass, aluminum and tin. I would fabricate the tsuka or hilt for the swords from wood. I would wrap the tsuka in leather and flat cotton cord in the traditional braided technique. The examples I would create at this age were crude at best, but they contributed to my development as a fabricator.

I am currently continuing the craft. With decades of fabrication experience under my belt I am now creating uh... slightly more precise fittings and parts for a modern blade. In the second photo you can see the blade and the some of the tools and materials used in fabrication and maintenance of sword fittings.
The best Japanese blades are traditionally
made from a high carbon steel called Tamahagane. This steel was folded several times to create hundreds of layers. The layers are one of the qualities that
contribute to the beauty and subtle surface details of Japanese swords. The other prominent feature visible on Japanese blades is called the hamon. The hamon appears as a wavy line near the edge of the blade. It is created in the tempering process. The blade is first coated in a clay slurry. Tools are then used to remove the clay from the edge of the blade. After this is complete, the blade is heated to a bright orange and then quenched. The clay coated blade and the exposed edge cool at different rates creating a blade that is sharp like a razor blade and yet tough like armor. In modern terms a blade like this is called differently tempered.

To this day I have an emotional connection to Japanese swords because, at a young age, I began to push the limits of materials and methods that I had used while studying these masterpieces. My wife recognised this when we were recently at The Lords of the Samurai exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. She purchased this miniature Samurai sword for me from the museum gift shop.

It is easy to dismiss this small sword as a cheap toy or trinket until you examine it more closely so I recommend that you take a peek in the artifacts gallery of the Cabinet of Curious Frivolities and admire the metal mountings, the lacquered wood scabbard, the silk wrapped hilt and the authentic differently clay tempered steel blade on the Mini Katana. Thanks for looking.

Full steam ahead.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Toy of the week, Monday, July 20, 2009

"If Japanese toys are normally like pure unrefined coca leaves, then Gachapon are crack: a cheap addictive high bound to lead you to ruin", so says the book Cruising the Anime City, An Otaku Guide to Neo Tokyo. I couldn't have said it better myself actually. Gachapon are small toys that are dispensed in plastic capsules from vending machines. The sheer variety of Gachapon toys is overwhelming. I personally saw figurines ranging from the ubiquitous Hello Kitty, to tiny sushi replicas, and even to little models of... um... certain parts of the female anatomy.

In 2007 Jen and I finally made it to Tokyo, which is arguably the motherland of cool toys.  As part of our pilgrimage we decided to seek out the hallowed halls of Akihabara Gachapon Kaikan. This parlor of floor to ceiling vending machines is a sight to behold. When you are in this place it is easy to watch your time, and your yen, flitter away like cherry blossom petals in the spring.

For me, the best way to remember the experience was to bring home Gachapon toys of the machines that dispense Gachapon toys. These mini machines actually dispense little plastic capsules themselves.  So head on over to the Artifacts gallery of the Cabinet of Curious Frivolities get a better look at the Gachapon machine capsule toys.

Full steam ahead.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Toy of the week, Monday, July 13, 2009

"Cheaper, faster and better" was the motto of NASA's Discovery program which was started in 1994.  Unlike traditional NASA missions this program had strict caps on budget and timeline.  In 1997 the world watched as Pathfinder, the second in the cheaper, faster and better NASA missions, landed on an alien world.

The mission captivated the worlds attention, sparking a renewed interest in space exploration and an Internet phenomenon.  NASA reported, a record setting, 109 million hits on it's Pathfinder website in the first 24 hours after the landing.  17 hours later, that figure doubled, as earthlings viewed images that the robotic astronaut sent back home.

Pathfinder represented many firsts for space exploration.  It was the first time that airbags had been used to mediate the landing of a space craft, as the lander bounced down onto the Martian surface like a giant beach ball.  It was also the first time that automatic obstacle avoidance was used and it was the first of a series of missions to land a robotic rover on the surface of another planet.  

The rover, known as Sojourner, was essentially a six wheel drive, robotic geologist, equipped with tools capable of examining and analyzing the makeup of Martian minerals.  The public interest in Pathfinder and Sojourner was the catalyst for the release of many toys and products that would capitalize on the renewed interest in space travel.  Mattel was no exception, and in 1997 they immortalized the Sojourner rover in their legendary line of toys, Hot Wheels.

The JPL Sojourner Mars Rover, Hot Wheels Action pack featured the lander spacecraft, the Pathfinder base station and the Sojourner rover.  They also released a boxed version of Sojourner that was entirely plated in 24k gold.  This version is a bit more rare and was aimed at adult collectors.

This toy captures many of the mechanical features of the spacecraft and vehicles used in this historic NASA mission so wheel on over to the Vehicles gallery of the Cabinet of Curious Frivolities and take a peek at the the Hot Wheels Mars Sojourner Rover.

Full steam ahead.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Toy of the week, Monday, July 6, 2009

"It's like Star Wars for Japanese people"-- At least that's how a friend once explained the Japanese anime series "Super Dimension Fortress Macross". The series originally aired in Japan starting in 1982. The story uses Earth's first battle with an alien species as a back drop for a love triangle between the main characters. I think when my friend equated the 36 episode series to Star Wars, he was describing the pop culture phenomenon that it started, more than the actual story. Indeed, Macross has a tremendous, almost cult-like, following in Japan, but what is more remarkable is what Macross did for American audiences.

In 1985 Harmony Gold launched a new series on American television called Robotech. Robotech was composed of three different anime series that had been compiled into one large story. The first installment, known as "The Macross Saga" to American audiences, was one of the first anime series on U.S. television and certainly the first to touch on more "adult" subject matter. Robotech not only described adult romantic relationships and the many issues that can accompany them, it ws also the first U.S. animated series to paint a vivid picture of the real cost of war. Robotech did not glamorize war. Instead we were able to see that soldiers can actually die in battle. In fact, in a tragic twist midway through the series, one of the main characters actually dies.

For mechanically minded folks, like myself, Robotech presented a feast of fantastic machines. Of course many of these wondrous designs were made into toys. Most of the best toys were Japanese imports. Robotech toys were actually one of the first series of toys that I ever collected. Starting around age eleven, I bought up most of the Japanese import toys that were released in the U.S. Most of those toys are still in boxes in my parents attic, so the vintage Robotech toys will have to be added to the Cabinet of Curious Frivolities in the future.

Today I present an incredibly sophisticated Japanese imported toy. This toy was produced in 2006 for collectors. It is an intricate and complicated model of the "veritech fighter" which was the standard fighter used in the Macross Saga. The veritech fighter (Valkyrie in Japan) transforms into a giant humanoid robot, convenient for fighting the aliens in the series, who happened to be a race of giants. This toy is intimidatingly complex and there are many details, movable parts, and opening hatches that I cannot fully discuss here. I advise you to tiptoe into the Robots Gallery of the Cabinet of Curious Frivolities and sneak a peek at the Macross Veritech Fighter.

Full steam ahead.