Awesome Toys of the ’80s: Japanes Kinnikuman & M.U.S.C.L.E. Figures

The rare kinkeshi M.U.S.C.L.E. man Satan Cross actually had more legs in his Japanese variant, but he wasn’t actually listed as part of the U.S. line, so he’s considered a “non-poster” rare. It is worth about $50.

In my third-grade class, we had a Japanese exchange student named Kenta. He couldn’t speak much English, but he understood the universal language of toys well enough. Kenta had lots of really awesome 1980s toys that my friends and I had never seen before—it was long before the Internet exposed everybody in the world to everything.

Kenta would bring to school all of these exotic, mysterious robots, superheroes and monsters and we would ooh and ahh over them. But there’s one thing I remember Kenta the most for—he gave me all of his Kinnikuman figures and Japanese-language comics in exchange for some G.I. Joes.

I really had no idea what I was getting from him in this East-meets-West toy summit. All I knew is that I had to have this big box full of small, rubber figures in all different colors. They were sort of like pencil erasers. They were apparently wrestlers from some kind of intergalactic wrestling federation. I could sort of make out at least who the bad guys and good guys were in the comics, and that would be my first exposure to manga.

Come to find out these little wrestler figures were part of an extremely popular Japanese cultural institution called keshi—collectible erasers usually shaped like popular comics, T.V., film and video game characters. Specifically, these were kinkeshi that were from the Kinnikuman comic books. Kinnikuman (translated literally, Muscle Man) was sort of the Hulk Hogan-like good guy of the books—if Hulk Hogan were a weird-looking guy with a strange flesh Mohawk.

It broke my heart when Kenta came to school one day and asked to undo the trade we had made. His parents didn’t want him to trade his Japanese toys away because at the time, you couldn’t just hop online and order them again. So I gave him everything back.

Funny enough, searching online for Kinnikuman images produced one of the books I had as one of the first hits.

A whole gaggle of Japanese Kinnikuman kinkeshi.

And then, a year later, Bandai introduced a toy line called M.U.S.C.L.E. in the United States. The anagram was “Millions of Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere”, and they were nothing more than a Western-packaged version of the Kinnikuman kinkeshi. But there was a difference—they were all pink, and they were all made of PVC so you couldn’t use them as erasers. But I had my little wrestlers back, and I was happy enough to see these little guys again. I had BUCKETS of them. Not to mention the rather terrible Nintendo game and this little wrestling ring with joysticks where you could make the figures fight.

Eventually, M.U.S.C.L.E figures started to appear in other colors (like the semi-legendary purple “Claw” figure that was heavily coveted by my peer group) and the line was moderately successful, lasting from 1985 into 1988. But M.U.S.C.L.E.’s legacy is actually quite significant. It introduced the idea of small, low-cost collectible (and sometimes randomly distributed) figures to the U.S. Several toy lines imitated some aspects of M.U.S.C.L.E. such as Monster in my Pocket and Battle Beasts.

M.U.S.C.L.E. pieces these days aren’t very expensive. Figures can be had for a few cents to a dollar or two, and they can usually be found in large lots. The wrestling ring I’ve seen selling for as high as $250 mint in package, but I think that’s a ludicrously optimistic asking price.

In Japan, kinkeshi were often sold in vending machine capsules. In the U.S., the figures were available in large packs as well as both “trash can” packs and small blister packs containing four figures. Also pictured is the Hard Knockin’ Rockin’ Wrestling Arena so you could, you know, actually do something with the non-poseable figures.

However, there are M.U.S.C.L.E. and kinkeshi that are worth far more than you’d expect. Given that there are 418 different molds with color and sculpt variations—not to mention Japanese-only figures—there’s LOTS of these things to collect.

And some are quite valuable. There are figures considered by the M.U.S.C.L.E. collecting community to be “super rare” or “non-poster rares,” referring to a collector’s poster that supposedly showed every available figure in the line. In particular, there have been figures such as a salmon-colored “Shouting Geronimo” that have sold for—brace yourself—thousands of dollars. Some of these ultra-rares are the only known versions of figures, often with different coloration or molding. Some of the more common but still rare figures, like “Satan Cross,” fetch as much as $50. There are also, apparently, a lot of bootlegs and fakes in circulation.

A couple of rare M.U.S.C.L.E. figures: Spinning Head Ashurman (left) is exceptional because he’s made of two pieces—his head does exactly what it says in his name. Salmon Shouting Geronimo (right) is the only known figure of its kind. It sold for $3,000 in 2012. Wow.

And, with that, I’m off to the basement to see if I can find my M.U.S.C.L.E. bucket.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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