March 23rd, 2013

A word transformer

Crab Embodiment

Another example of the many toys which demonstrate the seemingly endless Japanese fascination with not exactly multi functionality, but the ability for one thing to also be another thing. The translation for this process is “transform”, as in Transformers. The word “transform”, to me, seemed somehow inadequate since it carries with it a spiritual connotation, the sense of leaving one state for another, usually better, other state. A worm transforming into a butterfly comes to mind. And something that moves between different states or forms is often viewed with suspicion, something dangerous because it is concealing its essential self which should only be singular. But these toys just move from one embodiment to another embodiment and back again. To me they just switch between two states. I thought there was something not being translated. So I looked up bakeru which appears on the toy’s box as a description or categorization. Bakeru means to assume the shape of in the way that a spirit may assume the shape of an animal. This definition makes the word transform seem a little too flat rather than a little too fanciful as I had assumed. So yes, one should imagine some secret ethereal essence moving between various physical states for different purposes. Maybe not in one direction like a butterfly, but in many directions like Proteus. The actual entity is never seen, but is in some way recognized in the forms it embodies. One looks at the form as well as through the form.

Kanji for Crab

This is more than a little like language, like words, like written words. So this language based transformer is particularly interesting. The physical written word, the kanji (Chinese character), transforms into the physical object that it refers to, the crab. The written word not only represents the thing, but also is the thing. And the reverse is also true, the physical object, the crab, can return to or become its symbolic representation, the word. In between these states, one can assume that there is a vagueness, a placeholder that can contain our many thoughts and understandings of what a crab is or can be. Alternatively, or also, one can assume that between these states, there is a hard and singular essence that these states describe, but we cannot really see. There is, in addition, the physical reality that in order to go from the kanji of crab, to the crab itself, you have to first disassemble the kanji giving you a between state that is a lot of confusing plastic bits. You absolutely need the instructions in order to learn how to create the different forms.

Transformer Instructions

This is not a special arts related toy only found in museum shops, but is widely available. We bought this one in an aisle at a local super market. They are made by the giant toy company Bandai. Unfortunately getting to the bottom of interesting questions like, what were they thinking when they came up with this and what specific precedents are there for this kind of thing are well beyond my capabilities. There are countless examples of toys that move between different forms or are reassembled to make different forms. But I don’t know how many there are of this kind of word transformer. Since many characters, the kanji for crab for instance, are made up of a number of components, they do tend to have a built in connotation of modularity. And some characters are simpler and look more or less like a drawing of what they represent – river looks like a picture of a river, for instance. So there is a general historical basis for this kind of thing. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a specific history of this particular thing – toys made of wood or paper that change shape from the object’s name to the object itself.

Dainippon Type Organization has done a lot of work in this area, making kanji represent something more than what it normally represents. And they have a toy which has components that can be assembled variously into the shape of the kanji, or the shape of the thing it represents, as well as for the word in English. All of these states are basically pictorial. But it is certainly a very similar production, albeit with a more arts and education focus. see here

The Bandai toy may have some educational aura. But it is more distinctly an exciting mainstream toy. And therefore more likely representative of common and shared habits of thinking. The toy helps develop and reinforce a view of objects as containing, if not myriad, at least one more possibility within itself. That is, you can make something new with the same object, the same set of materials, rather than needing an entirely new and separate object. In this case, with the added dimension of language and reading. What’s great is the physicality of it. You are not only looking through the word to conjure in your mind the thing it represents. You can look at the word to view it as a thing in and of itself. At once transformable, malleable and physically present.

Bandai Mojibakeru toy
Dainippon Type Organization

Williams Trent