LEGO has a bit of an unwarranted reputation among the general public as a medium that doesn’t lend itself easily to organic shapes. Hobbyist LEGO builders have been disabusing others of this misperception for many years by sharing LEGO builds inspired by the natural world. LEGO’s in-house designers are certainly capable of creating official LEGO sets full of flora and fauna, as LEGO designer Nicolas Vás proves with the new 10281 Bonsai Tree from the new Botanical Collection. The set includes 878 pieces and will be available on January 1st, 2021 (US $49.99 | CAN $TBD | UK £44.99).
The LEGO Group provided The Brothers Brick with an early copy of this set for review. Providing TBB with products for review guarantees neither coverage nor positive reviews.
First, a quick, unsurprisingly pedantic note on pronunciation from a native speaker of Japanese (that’s me). Like many Japanese words that have become commonplace in English, “bonsai” is almost universally mispronounced. If you’re interested enough in Japanese bonsai trees to be considering a LEGO bonsai for yourself, perhaps you may be interested in this brief list of more-accurate (albeit inherently imperfect written in Roman letters) pronunciations:
- Bonsai: “Bone-sigh”, not “banzai.” “Banzai!!!” is what you shout when you’re excited.
- Futon: “Foo-tone”, not “foo-tawn”. That comfortable bedding in Japan that Americans have turned into an abomination in dorms and bachelor pads.
- Sake: “Saw-kay”, not “saw-kee”. I prefer the unfiltered variety.
- Karaoke: “Kah-rah-oh-kay”, not “Care-ee-oh-kee”. Just…don’t.
- Kobe beef: “Koh-bay”, not “koh-bee”. I’ll take the massages but not the jazz, followed by death and dismemberment.
- Tokyo: “Toh-kyo”, not “Tow-kee-yoh”. Where I was born.
Again, “bone-sigh” (with a short “O” rather than the English “oh” diphthong in “bone” if you can manage it), not “BANZAI!!!” You’re welcome. On to the LEGO…
The box & instructions
It’s no surprise anymore that LEGO is fully embracing its adult product strategy with every set that falls into a sort of “display piece” category. The front of the box prominently features the finished model on a black background, with a dark tan band at the bottom featuring the product details, leading first with the “18+” age recommendation. With this set, the product information band around the box incorporates a brick-built design. The back of the box showcases the alternate cherry blossom foliage and dimensions.
The fairly high part count doesn’t necessarily translate to a huge volume of ABS. Nevertheless, the instruction booklet comes in its own sleeve, with two brown “harness” pieces loose in the box.
New instruction booklets with the adult-oriented sets match the black branding of the boxes. The layout in the introductory pages emphasizes the model rather than walls of text full of marketing copy. A brief paragraph explains that designer Nick Vás first began creating LEGO bonsai as part of the Ninjago theme, presumably with the blossoming cherry tree integrated into the building in 70620 Ninjago City back in 2017.
The instruction booklet also notes that several of the pieces in the set are part of LEGO’s “Plants from Plants” program intended to replace ABS (which is made from fossil fuels) with more-sustainable plant-based materials. The specific pieces in this set are the large green leaves, smaller white leaves, and brown horn/root pieces. Finally, there’s a gallery at the end of the booklet, but we’ll return to that later in the review.
Each part of the overall bonsai tree is entirely discrete, with the parts provided in separate bags. The first bag provides the parts for the black bonsai pot, which has discreet black rubber feet for some extra grip on your display surface. A 4×4 white turntable ensures a secure connection with the tree we’ll build next.
The tree includes a new curved 2×2 “macaroni” piece, with Technic axle connections in each end. It first appeared in 43179 Mickey & Minnie Mouse Buildable Characters earlier this year, but this is only its second set and the first appearance in brown.
Even though the tree comes together rather quickly, it’s still an interesting build constructed from numerous slopes and wedges in reddish brown and dark brown, complemented by organic shapes like frogs, horns, and the two flexible “harness” pieces in reddish brown (which the instruction booklet reminds us with a note that it’s available in this color for the first time).
When complete, the tree trunk attaches to the white turntable within the black pot.
The third bag includes nothing but 1×1 round tiles in four different colors. My first mistake while building this set was to empty everything into my sorting tray rather than opening the bags as I follow the instructions. As a result, I missed the step in the instructions that have you emptying the small inner bags within bag #3 into the larger bag, and then pouring all of the contents into the area in the pot surrounding the tree’s base — that’s right, over a hundred parts in this LEGO set aren’t attached to anything! This meant I had to scoop out all those parts sliding around in a compartment in my sorting tray into the bonsai pot.
It is indeed unusual for parts in a LEGO set to be both unattached and uncontained (unlike the water in 21313 Ship in a Bottle) but I suppose the average adult for whom this set is intended won’t be swooshing their bonsai around the room making “Vroom!” noises and spilling all those 1×1 pieces on the floor.
The next two bags provide the two alternate crowns for your tiny tree. The instructions have you build nine identical sub-assemblies using the large leaf pieces, which in turn attach to three branch sub-assemblies that connect to the tree trunk. If I were building the set for myself, I would have looked at the actual structure I needed to achieve and used the detail pieces (1×1 green flowers and small three-lobe leaves) randomly to achieve a more organic look overall. But because part of writing a review is to follow the instructions as laid out, I spent a painstaking 30 minutes ensuring I hadn’t missed any flowers or leaves on the nine identical sub-assemblies, and I still had three small leaves leftover!
Pink is a new color for the frog, adding an 11th color for the amphibian. And the next bag is full of pink frogs — over a hundred of them, in fact. This is where we reveal a bit more about Nick.
Two of my greatest passions are useless trivia and the LEGO frog. Today I combined those passions by compiling a Bricklist of #LEGO sets designed by me that contain frogs! https://t.co/PbImtyNJcQ pic.twitter.com/Wi9ce9HZTp
— Nick Vas (@PrinceGalidor) October 22, 2020
The LEGO frog has indeed appeared in many sets that Nick has helped design, from the standard green frog on a lily pad in Ninjago City to subtle details like a tan frog in Dragon Dance. The instruction booklet proudly declares that this is the greatest number of frogs ever included in any LEGO set. Slow clap for Nick.
Like the green foliage, the cherry blossom foliage repeats a nine-part pattern (plus the tenth bit for the top of the tree), attached to brown branches that fit onto the trunk. Again, if I were building this for myself, I would have very consciously chosen a random, organic approach rather than repeating the sub-assembly nine times.
The final bag includes the parts for the wooden stand that the bonsai pot sits on. A wooden stand doesn’t sound particularly interesting, but the slats are attached via jumper plates for a half-stud-offset effect that looks much nicer than a flat base. On real bonsai, these slats help ensure the bottom of the pot can drain properly after a rainstorm or a thorough watering.
With all the pieces complete, we’re ready to assemble the two variants for the finished model.
The finished model
Though I’ve never cared for a living bonsai tree myself, I’ve spent much of my life appreciating them, from my time growing up in Japan to frequent visits to the Pacific Bonsai Museum near Seattle after we moved to the States. Bonsai trees encapsulate so much of what I still love about Japanese culture — the layering of old and new, the celebration of imperfection, the veneration of nature, even in manicured, artificial form. Nick’s LEGO bonsai perfectly captures the aesthetic of an asymmetrical, weeping style of bonsai.
A thick trunk curves upward, and the crown of the tree continues that curve back in the original direction, with the leaves bending downward.
The version depicting a blossoming cherry tree is no less gorgeous, with a bit more of an upward angle to the foliage thanks to the frogs and the smaller white leaves.
If you came into a room with the cherry blossom version on a desk, you’d probably never notice that all the blossoms are an army of pink frogs. The frog piece lends a soft, organic shape that imitates the shape of light pink buds, with darker pink flowers on each branch for open blossoms.
The contrast in the overall shape of the crown between the green and pink versions is most evident in this short animation, which shows them one on top of the other.
Conclusions & recommendation
Many of us here at The Brothers Brick are friends or at least acquaintances with a fair number of LEGO designers, whether we were friends with them before they “turned pro” or first met them afterward. I first met Nick Vás when we spent a week in Japan together last summer, along with fellow designer Niek van Slagmaat (who I’d met previously in Stockholm), one of my favorite LEGO builders “Red Spacecat“, and TBB’s own rocket scientist Ralph Savelsberg. After spending the weekend attending Japan Brickfest, I played tour guide in Kyoto, where we walked around Buddhist temples and relaxed for hours in the world’s best Zen gardens.
As I built this set, I kept thinking back to the wonderful time we had in Kyoto 18 months ago, before international travel became essentially impossible (or at least unsafe and unwise). Whether you have a personal connection to the sources of inspiration or not, a build like this brings a few moments of tranquility in the midst of some particularly challenging times.
One of the things I find most inspiring about this set is the explicit encouragement to modify it even further, beyond the two variants that are provided with parts and instructions. The back of the instruction booklet includes a gallery of ideas, ranging from simple color replacements with different leaves to entirely new settings.
With the notable exception of Creator 3-in-1 sets, LEGO packaging over the past couple of decades has eliminated the “alt builds” depicted on the back of the boxes, which explicitly encouraged kids to tear down the model they’d just finished building and create something different. In talking with parents, it’s often the parents who fundamentally misunderstand what a LEGO set is (a bunch of parts as well as the model on the box) and bemoan their children “breaking” the models they’d just finished building from the instructions and “mixing up” the parts. Any LEGO set — even one like this that’s designed for those kids’ parents — that encourages creative expression rather than only following instructions is a win for creativity over conformity.
I never talk with a designer while I’m writing a review of their set, but feeling nostalgic about our time in Kobe and Kyoto last year, I reached out to Nick yesterday. As we chatted about the possibility of another visit centered on Japan Brickfest in the future (maybe in 2022?), Nick shared a perspective that I’ll leave as the last words in this review.
A real bonsai is an evolving art piece, and I hope people will be inspired to something similar through the fact that this is made from LEGO bricks.