Interview: Manjuu

Five years ago, I once went to a famous pool to take pictures of the dolls, and I dressed them in swimsuits. I was wondering how to bring out the best of the swimsuits, so I used Photoshop to erase the joints and add more muscles to make the body look more like a human…

When and why did you start collecting dolls and taking photos of them? Can you tell us what your beginnings looked like? What kind of dolls do you focus on? Do you also collect scale figures or Nendoroids?

I first became interested in dolls around 2004. I was a student at the time, so I started saving up money to buy a 1/6 size doll. It was not as easy to buy cute anime dolls as it is now, so I bought a 1/6 head with hair implants and an EB-Beauty MIDI body at Volks Akihabara on a trip to Japan. Of course, I could not do any makeup at all back then, so I just made the eyes and eyebrows with a printer and glued them to the head. Later, in 2005, I bought a doll of the Ex☆Cute series by Azone, and I also bought a Little Moko-chan by Mama Chapp Toy.

I kept collecting 1/6 dolls for a while, and, in 2007, Volks released their Dollfie Dream (DD), and I entered the world of 1/3 size dolls. There are a lot of accessories available for 1/6 dolls, and I made backgrounds for photographing them myself. However, I focus on DD and Mini Dollfie Dream (MDD) photoshoots now. I have taken a lot of photos of 1/6 size dolls as well, though.

I like figures and Nendoroids; in fact, my current job is related to them. But after having collected them for a while, I realized something. Unfortunately, there is no space to put my figures on display in my apartment. However, regarding the dolls, I can change their clothes and poses in any way I want. That is why I am focusing on my doll hobby now. I enjoy going to various places with my dolls. For example, the photo below was taken at a game centre that no longer exists. The interior was made to resemble the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, so I tried to do a fighting game-like composition.

What kind of photos do you focus on? How do you plan the scenes and what kind of results are you trying to achieve?

The first and foremost thing I keep in mind when taking pictures is to make a doll not look like a doll. Of course, I know that they do look like dolls. But they are not collection items or decorations in a room, they resemble human beings more. I want to show that the doll is really there, alive.

To achieve this goal, I have to think about every single aspect of the photo. That includes choosing the right location, setting up the pose, flipping the hair and clothes, and retouching, which I will talk about later in detail. I also have to prepare the right composition or choose the right flowers so that the scale of it does not look off in comparison to the doll.

Since I do a lot of outdoor photography, I will use it as an example. First of all, I often find some inspiration or an illustration to give me an idea for the composition. It can be a simple idea such as “I want to shoot on a pedestrian bridge” or “I want to shoot on ice.” Then I use Google Maps Street View to get a feel of the scene, and then I think about posing and what accessories to use.

At the scene, the composition is likely to be slightly different from what you expected. Since I put the dolls on the ground, I usually place the camera close to the ground too. However, since the Street View is captured at the height of a standing person, it is different from the scenery seen from the ground. In addition, even if I take pictures of the dolls posing as I planned, they do not often go well with the background, so I have to adjust my ideas to some extent. Setting up takes a lot of time.

And then there is the wind that knocks over your dolls after you have spent a lot of time setting them up, or the sudden rain that makes them wet, or you want to take a sunset picture but the sun goes down too fast and you cannot keep up with the lighting set-up… Nature is both our ally and our enemy!

I often fail when I shoot outdoors. My success rate is about 60%. When I cannot get a good photo, I reflect on my shortcomings and try to use them in practice next time. I always think about the money wasted on transportation and the day lost (laughs), but I still love outdoor photography because you can make your work come alive with your ideas.

The last thing I do is retouch the photos on a computer so that I can get closer to my idea of how to make them look more like human beings.

How do you think your hobby of collecting and photographing dolls is perceived in Japan? I noticed there are no visible joints in most of your photos. How do you achieve that?

I think that the hobby of collecting and photographing dolls is in a bit of a difficult position in Japan. I am a regular adult male, but people think it is weird for an adult male to be carrying around a big “Barbie” doll. But in Japan, there are a lot of “otaku”, so if you explain that it is like playing with figures, people will understand. I often get comments like, “It is a doll, but it looks like a human being,” or “How come it does not have joints?” from those “otaku” people on Twitter, which makes me very happy.

The reason why I remove the joints is that I want to make them look more like humans. I use Photoshop to erase them. Of course, dolls are made with joints, and erasing them is like erasing the identity of the doll. However, DD and other beauties are originally made to be skinny in order to accommodate for the thickness of the fabric of the clothes, and the parts around the joints are slightly concave to increase the range of motion. Even so, I think the shape of the body is beautiful, of course.

Five years ago, I once went to a famous pool to take pictures of the dolls, and I dressed them in swimsuits. I was wondering how to bring out the best of the swimsuits, so I used Photoshop to erase the joints and add more muscles to make the body look more like a human. It took a lot of time and effort, but I was satisfied with the result, so I have been erasing the joints of most of the dolls since then.

1. Here is a quick introduction on how to do joint retouching. This is the original photo.

2. First, erase the joints with the spot healing brush tool.

3. Create a separate layer for the area you want to transform and use the Transform tool to create the shape of the muscle.

4. Create the desired shape, add highlights and shadows, and you are done.

One thing to keep in mind is that if you make it look too much like a real person, it will actually look creepier. To prevent this from happening, I make sure not to make it too perfect. The basic DD face has an anime look, so you can arrange it into any anime girl body shape you like. You know, like breasts, for example.

What is the favourite doll photo you have ever taken and which one was the most challenging one?

I do not know if it is just me, but my favorites usually are not the photos that I am praised for the most from others. My dearest picture is the one that I took on Ikeshima in Nagasaki Prefecture. I have a fondness for abandoned buildings. Ikeshima is an island that used to prosper from coal mining, but after the mining operations had stopped, the population decreased. Now, only the mining facilities and abandoned apartment complexes remain on the island. There are still a few people left and the facilities are taken care of, but it is mostly deserted now. You can visit the island if you follow the required procedures, and my preferred photo is the one I took during my stay.

As for the most challenging one, this question is pretty difficult to answer. There can be many practical difficulties when photo shooting, such as taking photos in the middle of winter or summer, strong wind or thick fog. Another complication may be travel fatigue leaving you in a bad shape, or just the chosen places being hard to access, but let’s put that aside for now.

On the technical side of things, this is something I have not perfected yet, but I find it challenging to make dolls look life-sized by using forced perspective when photographing. This technique opens up a new scope of possibilities, but only if a doll blends in with the scenery and does not look out of place.

What cameras and lenses do you use to capture the dolls?

I am using an entry-level camera Sony α 7 II now. I use a Sony FE 28mm f/2 lens along with a Sony SEL057FEC fish-eye converter lens, both of which provide an average image quality. I chose them because they are light and easy to carry around without straining your body.

Of course, having just a wide-angle lens would not cut it, so I use the Sony SEL50F14Z as my standard lens. I also have a Canon EF70-200mm F4L IS USM lens, which I use with an adapter.

What would you recommend to someone who is considering to start collecting dolls and taking photos of them? What camera and equipment would you advise us to start with?

The approach to doll photography differs from person to person, and there are several ways to take beautiful pictures. Of course, getting an SLR camera is one way to do it. There are a variety of SLR cameras available, but you should get a full-size one. Also, when shooting outdoors with your doll posing on the ground, it is difficult to look through the viewfinder because the camera is often placed near the ground as well. The Canon’s R series has a rotating screen that you can see even when crouching, which helps a lot. Alternatively, you can use wi-fi to connect it to your tablet and use the tablet to operate the camera, making the whole process much more comfortable.

As for the lens, both a zoom lens and a single focal length lens are fine. In general, the former lenses are considered to have better image quality, but if you just upload to Twitter or sites like that, the difference is not very noticeable. It is a good idea to start with something that fits your budget, get the hang of things and then switch to a higher-end lens later.

As for other equipment, you will need a strobe and a trigger. In my case, I always carry two strobes with me. One is used to illuminate the side or back of the doll to create a stereoscopic effect, while the other one is used to illuminate the face and other front parts of the doll from diagonally above. My trigger has a shutter button that can be used to wirelessly trigger the camera shutter from a distance. If you connect a strobe light to it too, you can trigger the shutter from the strobe side. That way, once the doll is set up, you can let go of the camera and move around with the strobe to find the right angle. Just take a few pictures while shining the light from various angles, go back to the camera and check the results.

What do you consider the most important doll photography achievement you have ever accomplished?

I do not think I have had many accomplishments, but recently many people have been supportive of my use of retouching to remove joints, and it turns out that other people also remove joints and create muscles on dolls in this way. It makes me happy to know that my ideas are getting recognition to some extent.

Is there any upcoming doll project you are going to surprise us with?

I am working on a 1/3 scale background to use with my dolls. It should be ready by next year, and I hope to take many pictures with it. Of course, taking pictures outside is fun, but being able to take them at home is the easiest way. One of my near-term goals is to have a friend make accessories for my 1/3 scale doll based on Tom Clancy’s The Division, so I am looking forward to my doll becoming an agent.

What other hobbies do you have besides doll photography?

As for indoor hobbies, I am into games, such as The Division that I mentioned in the previous answer. I like retro games too, I still play on the PS2 and the Dreamcast!. I also like railways, so I collect N scale train models. There are more than enough resources to enjoy them here in Japan, so it is a real fun.

Outside, I enjoy exploring abandoned buildings – only the safe ones though. If possible, I want to use this as an opportunity to take doll pictures, too, so I try to pick nice and accessible places. I also love abandoned factories.

What is your favourite anime and anime character?

My favorite anime is Kin-iro Mosaic which aired in 2013. It is an anime adaptation of a manga about the everyday lives of beautiful girls, with no action at all, but I like it because it is relaxing to watch. It aired when I was studying abroad in Japan, and the main character, Alice Carteret, is an exchange student in Japan too, so I like her a lot. I love her so much that I made a doll that looks just like her.

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