This year, a book was published in Japan about a thousand and one ways to make toys with your own hands. Its author? Yasui Tomohiro, an imaginative figurine and paper robot artist who even sold his creations to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. We met him at his studio in Kyoto.
Among the 100 most respected Japanese people in the world
In 2022, a rather unusual book has appeared to learn how to make DIY figurines using familiar entertaining items such as rubber duckies, plastic hammers, mini tires and more. They come together and intertwine in unexpected ways to finally take shape. Hidden behind this book is Yasui Tomohiro, the figurine maker. He’s already made a name for himself with the armor he made from traffic sign studs as well, especially the 7 second video showing him wearing the armor in question. And the post worked: over 170,000 likes on Twitter, 2.5 million views in September 2022.
Looking at his creations, one might think that Yasui is a simple artist who only makes figurines to amuse people. But that would be too simplistic. His name was featured in an article in Newsweek Japan titled “The 100 Most Admired Japanese in the World” and his work was even sold to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
But who is this person? Let’s first focus on his flagship creations: the paper robots needed to understand his personality.
Create paper robots
“Paper robots” Yasui Tomohiro are figurines with a height of 15 to 20 centimeters. The artist created the first of them when he was only nine years old. The articulation, designed by the artist himself and named yasuijime, allows them to have very flexible joints. The paper robots he created were much more flexible than regular figurines, Yasui dressed them up as wrestlers, going so far as to organize fights between them. And he created more than 600 paper robots! Throughout the production process, as if coming to life, each robot developed its own story.
Some may envy Yasui for his worldwide fame, but the artist himself remains ambiguous.
“Initially, I started making paper robots to play with. I really didn’t want others to see them,” he says.
Yasui explains that these feelings date back to elementary school when he saw the joy in the eyes of his friends playing with the plastic Gundam models he made when they showed no interest in his plastic paper robots.
“My friends laughed at my robots and I was in a lot of pain. They asked me to build commercial models for them, but never to make paper robots out of them… This made me understand that these are two completely different styles of creativity. »
Yasui stopped making robots before entering high school. Instead, in an effort to be “in the spotlight,” he joined the high school football team.
But after entering high school, the more he tried to get rid of this banal hobby, the more he felt that everything was wrong in his life. He no longer knew who he was. In high school, he felt an overwhelming desire to make robots again. Having taken out the collection forgotten for so many years, he again and again began to replenish it. The robots he has made in the past have inspired him to create new ones.
“Old and new robots were separated by a clear hierarchy and a real continuity in time. Each robot had its own world. When I realized this, I started to dig deeper into the history of each robot,” he explains.
World famous creations
After graduating from college, Yasui Tomohiro worked for a company that made costumes for action heroes and later joined a company that made masks for wrestlers. Eventually, he decided to become a model maker and continue making his paper robots. His imaginary world of robot battles, where his paper creatures fight each other, is getting more and more complex.
Then, just before the age of thirty, his life took a turn: he gave his robots to the famous creator Aoki Katsunori, whom he met during his professional career. Seduced by the concept of a paper robot, he invited her to present them at exhibitions.
Only if Yasui was happy to be finally recognized, he still wasn’t sure of himself. But he decided without hesitation to start by presenting his robots at exhibitions in Japan as well as abroad. He even staged a live “paper robot battle” where the protagonists were none other than his own creations.
But if there was one thing that Yasui Tomohiro didn’t expect, it was the reaction of the public: his robots were recognized abroad, and his small characters became interested in a variety of fields. MoMA, Newsweek magazine… and they even appeared in high school art books. A video of a robot fight has been circulating on the net for many years. In 2013, a Japanese designer staged a final “fight for justice” with paper robots, which was his way of losing in the field.
Learn to manage embarrassment
It’s been ten years since the curtain came down. Yasui has since left his robots in the closet. But if he put forward less of them, the world of robots he created continued to develop. For example, the artist began to use other materials or even other objects. Thus was born his robots from everyday knick-knacks, to which he dedicated his latest book.
“A tweet in which I show a rubber duck figure got 250,000 likes. Didn’t expect at all! But that’s how I wanted to create more when I saw that these figures can restore the heart, especially during periods of health crisis, ”he admits.
Yasui makes his figurines from everyday items. He says he feels like he’s exposing his own world, going so far as to feel an element of unease, the same thing he felt with his paper robots. For him, his figurines, born from objects gleaned here and there in our daily lives, are somewhere between Gundam characters and paper robots.
“I also know how to be rational, like an adult. For me, this is a way to share the imaginary world of paper robots that I created in my world. Despite the fact that even now I am always ashamed to share a part of myself, recently I have learned to more or less cope with this feeling of embarrassment,” says Yasui Tomohiro with a laugh.
Every robot has a personality and a past
Although the artist often calls the fantasy world he created “embarrassing,” the more you listen to him talk about paper robots, the more he gets excited, especially when he tells his story about a bird-man, to put it mildly, with an atypical physique. and the one on Madronek, the hero of the shadows.
One day a journalist asked me to take a picture of the “red robot and yellow robot”, Birdman and Madronek. But it seemed wrong to me. I replied that I couldn’t do that… Every robot has a personality and a past. Madronek, not being a social robot, would have had no interest in combat and would have refused the challenge. That’s when I realized I couldn’t make them fight,” he explains.
Yasui told this story so emotionally and in one breath, as if possessed by Madronek. Therefore, it is easy to be surprised by such remarks and be moved by such passion. Then he laughed, as if he was himself again. Yasui is an artist who is able to immerse himself in his inner world, while possessing the necessary objectivity to observe himself from the side. That is why the emotions of Madronek, conveyed by the artist, seem real.
At the end of our two-hour interview, I realized that I too, in spite of myself, was swept away into the imaginary world of Yasui Tomohiro. I sincerely invite readers to read his book on building robots to get an idea of this unique universe. It will certainly make you want to know more about the artist’s overflowing imagination.
(Top photo: Yasui Tomohiro and his favorite robots © Kondo Yuuki. Paper Robots © 2003–22 Tomohiro Yasui/Butterfly-Stroke Inc.)