Maywa Denki is a unique group of Japanese musicians, artists and toy-makers. This bizarre collective of brilliant minds is led by Nobumichi Tosa. Maywa Denki produces an eclectic array of over-engineered electronics, mechanical instruments and musical devices, and they’ve created the Otamatone. This adorable cartoon-like electronic instrument resembles a musical note with eight-note flag and cheerful face. The Otamatone is available in two sizes, small and jumbo, and comes in a variety of popular colors, including white and basic black. The Otamatone produced a nasal tone from a simple electronic oscillator and is played by sliding one finger up and down the instrument’s neck to hit specific musical notes. The performer squeezes the ‘mouth’ of the musical note open and closed to control volume, pitch and tone, producing all types of quirky sounds. Instruments do not typically function in this manner, but by squeezing the ‘mouth’ of the Otamatone we are able to simulate the shapes commonly made by the human mouth and tongue. This creates a shift in the dimension of the sound, not unlike that produced while playing woodwind and brass instruments.
Each musical instrument Tosa designs is called a 'product’. These whimsical gadgets are formally presented by Maywa Denki as part of a company ‘product demonstration’; a live musical performance where the company president Nobumichi Tosa and his employees play the instrument while wearing pale blue, matching jumpsuits. These typical work uniforms from Japanese electric stores are designed to symbolize mid-level enterprise that once powered the economy during its growth period.
The Otamatone is currently mass-produced by the toy company Cube Works and sold as merchandise online. The Otamatone is a combination of art, invention and the always intriguing Japanese entertainment culture. Co-creator Nobumichi Tosa calls these elaborate creations
“…nonsense machines: mechanical objects that may or may not serve some useful purpose, but achieve that purpose in absurd and impractical ways.” - Nobumichi Tosa (weirdestband, September 11, 2012)
Maywa Denki likes to take quirky ideas and develop them into innovative contraptions. Since its founding in 1993, company policy is to create art first and commercial products with consumer appeal, second. Maywa Denki has also imagined an entire product line of musical instruments called Tsukuba. Tsukuba is a collection of absurdly elaborate inventions like a set of six guitars played via a pedal organ and a ‘rhythm-making machine’ best described as a series of on/off switches attached to a turntable worn as a keytar. It also includes an instrument designed to punch bubble wrap and a voice vibrator you attach to your throat. Tsukuba is inspired by non-traditional elements; objects one would not typically associate with music-making. Maywa Denki reimagines existing instruments and transform them into something completely new and insanely playful.
A high value of animism is placed on the design of Otamatone. It is meant to showcase a personality of its own; essentially awakening and ‘coming alive’ whilst being performed. This multi-media art project is undoubtedly Maywa Denki’s most famous creation. In Japan, the Otamatone is believed to have healing powers. By selling these types of ‘products’ Japanese culture is exposed to the artwork, bringing happiness and joy to their community, only adding to its wide-spread popularity and mass appeal. Nobumichi Tosa wanted to develop products for the everyday consumer, not just those who participate in the ‘high culture’ of art. The shape of the singing toy is inspired by that of the musical eighth note. It also resembles a ‘otama’ which means ‘ladle’ in Japanese. Otamatone evokes a desire within the consumer, a need to hold, interact and engage with the musical device.
“It started from thinking about the strangeness of the whole idea of ‘voice.’ The mechanism of phonation is extremely mysterious if you try to capture it as an instrument. Voice has the power to capture people’s hearts in an instant. If you hear someone crying it grabs you, physically, and when you hear someone singing your chest kind of shivers – that’s they mystery of voice. So I kind of spun those interests around in my head for a while, then I tried a few different things and ‘Otamatone’ was what I came up with.” Nobumichi Tosa (Ignition).
In 1978 toy-maker Mattel released the Magical, Musical Thing; a cross between a keyboard and electric guitar. Similar to the Otamatone it came with a color coded and numbered note charts so that musicians of any/all skill levels could perform a perfect melody. It featured a 4040 CMOS hex converter chip, 25-note scale sound circuit and 9v battery to power the portable device.
The Magical, Musical Thing was created by Franklin Eventoff, the inventor of the force-sensing resistor. This electronic musical instrument quickly became one of the most iconic toys from the 1980s. Not unlike the Otamatone, Magical, Musical Thing is played by moving one finger up and down the instrument’s neck to hit specific musical notes; however, the Otamatone offers additional performance controls for volume, pitch and tone, generating a unique sound by each individual musical performer.
Maywa Denki has also developed an Otamatone iPhone app. This enables audiences everywhere to interact with the company employees during their live performances/ ‘product demonstrations’. Nobumichi Tosa and his art collective perform and exhibit in Europe, the United States and Asia. Maywa Denki has a large collection of albums and DVDs, including Teikyo (1996), their debut album and Nonsense Musical Instruments of Maywa Denki, a DVD released in 2005. They have also published several books, including Naki Encyclopedia (1997) and Nonsense Brain and Sketch (2012).
Otamatone was part of the following product demonstrations (exhibitions):
Maywa Denki (Nobumichi Tosa, president)