The world has been taken over by monsters. You and your family are forced to live in the bowels of the Earth. Against all odds, you decide to fight the evil beings above you and save the human race. And you do it all in a tiny bikini and knee high tights.
This is the plight of Yoko, a 14-year-old red-head with a rifle, and one of Frances Delgado's favorite anime characters. "She's so resilient," Frances enthuses. "Her life is so tragic, but she manages to hold on to the small happiness she has."
Frances, 23, has dedicated her life to anime culture and figure collecting ever since her brother showed her her first Anime series when she was 14. She is a self-proclaimed Otaku, the Japanese word for people with obsessive interests (i.e., nerd), usually referring to anime. The label's origins are disparaging, but "we choose to embrace the word and make it positive," Frances explained.
Frances has amassed a collection of over 240 figures, thirty of whom are of Yoko. "I made it my goal to get every figure of her ever made ever," said Frances, "I'm only missing two." To walk into Frances's bedroom in her parents' Riverside home is to enter a new dimension guarded by armies of detailed, delicate figurines twirling, kicking and shooting their way to a life free from evil.
On her bed lie three daki makuras (body pillows that usually feature an anime character in a lurid poses on one side and naked on the other). "Mine aren't as bad," Frances assured me in our interview. "I found someone who custom-made the pillows and had my favorite male character, Kamina, done. He's only one-sided." Watch Frances give you a video tour of her room below.
When I asked her what she thought of the female characters' enormous breasts bulging from beneath their bikini tops, Frances maintained, "For me it's art. Most of my figures aren't in lewd poses. They're not real people so I wouldn't say anyone is being exploited."
In complete opposition to these sexual depictions, Frances has begun to add her own figures to the anime market. She crochets dolls of popular characters and sells them on Etsy in order to finance her own collection.
Frances is one of hundreds of thousands of American anime enthusiasts feeding this multi-million-dollar market. The comic culture retail website ICv2 estimated that the 2010 retail sales of anime products in North America were somewhere between $160-200 million.
But Frances, in particular, is an expert and educator in the field of collecting. "I've sold many figures and have pruned down my collection to the very best of the best," she assured me. "I believe in quality over quantity. I'd rather have five amazing figures than 50 poor quality figures."
Frances hosts a weekly web series called Toybox on AX Live, the Anime Expo website, and created the site HowAGirlFigures.com to share her collection, feature her Etsy dolls, and share advice with collectors on what to look for in the figure design and where to go to get the best ones.
Like their onscreen heroes, Frances attests that die-hard anime fans stick together. "I love the anime community," she told me. "When you're in need there are plenty of people who will be there to help you." Sometimes that "need" is obtaining a rare or expensive figure for one's collection.
For instance, when a special edition Yoko doll came on the market, Frances remembers, "My heart sank. She was $800. I didn't have the money to pay for her and promised myself I would never get into debt for my collection. So I put up on my site that I was saving up for her and I ended up raising 75 percent of the money from friends of the site. I've done the same for friends of mine when I had the money. We all really appreciate each other's passion."
Frances' family is supportive too. "My dad doesn't really get anime, but he understands the collection aspect," she says. "He collects model trains. We built one of those extended patio rooms so he could have his own train room. My mom tries to get into it. When my brother and I watch an anime show downstairs, she'll sit and watch and say, 'I like the guy with the long hair and the sword. He was cool! Bring me back something from that guy.'"
Frances is a first generation American. Her father, an electrician, is from France, via Spain, and her mother is from Mexico. When Frances and her brother were young, money was tight. Even so, the family squeezed their already frugal budget to send Frances's mother to college. She went on to get her masters and is now a teacher. With a double income the family is now able to support Frances comfortably while she goes to school for Photography.
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When asked where she sees herself going next, she says, "I love taking pictures of my figures so I'm thinking of going into photography for advertising. I look forward to promoting this media that means so much to me. I just want more people to be exposed to anime, even if it's not the same way I am. I want them to see that it isn't just silly little cartoons".
When thinking about the future, Frances returns to anime for inspiration. "Anime makes me appreciate the things that I have," she reflects. "It reminds me that even if every time you get close to your goal you're shot down, you have to keep going. If not for anime I wouldn't have the friends I do, I wouldn't have found my goal in life, I wouldn't have the wonderful boyfriend I do now. Yes I'd have a social life, but it would be so radically different and I have no idea what my life would be like but I know I wouldn't change what I have now for the world."
Visit Frances's website at HowaGirlFigures.com and give her a chance to introduce you to anime as she figures it.