The Mike Toole Show
This Year's Model
by Mike Toole,
I was surrounded. On all sides, people from a disconcertingly wide variety of age groups crouched in their chairs, as if ready to leap into action. They gripped a variety of sharp tools in their hands, and concentrated intensely, waiting for the right moment to unleash their destructive power. Occasionally, there'd be an impatient murmur, or a creak of someone shifting in their seat. Suddenly, there was a loud, sharp click, a snipping noise, coming from directly behind me. My head whipped around, so I could get a better look at where the noise was coming from. I then paused a moment to regard the small child patiently removing one of the parts from a Gundam Bearguy model kit from its runner before I turned back around and got back to building my Gundam model kit.
It was Build Day at Gundam Pros, a new store about an hour south of Boston. The store is in one of those once-grand shopping malls that's lost a few too many anchor stores, and often seems weirdly quiet. Still, the movie theater does brisk business, and the arcade is one of those Round 1 deals that attracts dorks from far and wide looking to try the very latest in Japanese arcade games, sing the very latest in anime tunes in the private karaoke parlors, and drink the very latest in cheap Japanese lager from the beer taps at the bar. Gundam Pros occupies a plum spot just beyond the Round 1's entrance, and it's large enough to accommodate half a dozen long tables in the back of the store. Walk past shelf after shelf of distinctive “gunpla” model kits, have a seat, and get building. On this day, the tables were so jammed with occupants that the clerks hustled to add a couple of more.
I was lucky enough to get started early on model kits. First, there was the powerful experience, shared by millions of people around the world, of getting an airplane or battleship or car model at Christmas. For a skilled few of us, this was pure inspiration, the chance to recreate exciting artifacts in exacting miniature. But I never had those skills; I would messily tack the parts together with airplane glue, smear some Testor's paint on, and fume silently over the fact that there was no way I'd ever get the damn thing to look like the pictures on the box. Then, I stumbled on these.
It was at a salvage store, and this was sort of the perfect thing to stumble upon—just weeks after Robotech debuted, here were the Veritechs from the story, for just a couple of bucks apiece; I guess the boxes got damp, or something? It didn't matter. What mattered was that, while these Imai kits still required some glue and paint to look halfway decent, they were models of things that interested me. Also, even without the paint, they snapped together reasonably well and were actually fully transformable, which is kind of ridiculous since they were all hard plastic. It felt revolutionary to me, but little did I know, the revolution had already happened.
Japan's relationship with snap-together plastic models goes back to the 1950s. There's an older history beyond that, one involving British companies making nifty little wood-and-metal model airplanes, but those are a little too far removed from the here and now. After World War II, a million little Japanese companies like Masudaya, Kobe Yoko, and Bandai started turning out small toys for global sale. Some were celluloid plastic, some were made of tin, but a whole lot of them went to the US. Reciprocally, the US sent along elaborate plastic model kits from local outfits like Monogram and Revell—mostly miniature reproductions of tanks, planes, and boats. These models built a small but enthusiastic audience in Japan, so in 1958 a company called Marusan decided to market a conversion of one of their popular toys—a wind-up replica of a nuclear submarine—and remarket it as a build-your-own model kit, the SSN-571 Nautilus.
The box art is pretty natty, and the pieces inside should look familiar if you've built injection-molded plastic models before. In a way, every single increasingly elaborate robot model, including the ones molded in multiple colors, with internal skeletons and LEDs and stuff, comes right back to Marusan and their little submarine here. The sub didn't even snap together, either—you had to use glue, which the toymaker helpfully included. In conjunction with this exciting new product line, Marusan felt like they had to come up with a distinctive new moniker, one that could be trademarked and used to describe their entire line of hobbyist model kits, and maybe even the whole category! They went with PLAMODEL.
Well, it's better than PLAHOBBY, I guess. The Nautilus wasn't a success out of the gate, though. Sales sagged, because what Marusan was trying to sell wasn't widely understood outside of existing hobbyist circles. To deal with this, the company launched a nationwide promotional campaign, including the sponsorship of a new TV program. This weekly TV show, dubbed “Land, Sea, and Air” was an ideal little tandem that both showcased real-life military vehicles, plus the model kits that Marusan were basing on them. This was the catalyst— Marusan were particularly adept at demonstrating, through the TV series and other avenues like magazine ads, that it was fun to build their models—and that was the key.
Was this the event that made plastic model kits a reliable part of the Japanese nerd experience? Nope, not quite. The plastic model boom was still ahead, due to land in the late 60s courtesy of one of the greatest mechanical designers ever to draft up weird, fanciful vehicles, a figure who inspired everyone from Kunio Okawara to Hideaki Anno. That man was Derek Meddings, who created many of the vehicles for Gerry Anderson's “supermarionation” TV shows, most notably Thunderbirds.
Yep, here I am again, flogging my beloved Thunderbird 2. If the flying bus isn't big, green, and comes with a rad detachable cargo bay, I don't want to hear about it! Young fans in Japan seemed to love everything about Thunderbirds—the dashing and debonair heroes, the cool matching outfits, and especially the vehicles. Incremental gains in the manufacturing process also made these kits more attractive to burgeoning model builders—some of these kits snapped together more reliably, detail improved by leaps and bounds, and some manufacturers were including sheets of decals to heighten the realism even further. Imai created most of the Thunderbirds kits, but competitors like Aoshima and Bandai eagerly snapped up the rights to make kits based on Anderson's other shows, like Captain Scarlet and UFO. This was Japan's plastic model boom in full flower, and while Marusan doggedly hung on to the “plamodel” moniker, “plamo,” short for “plastic model,” also gained traction. Some companies even used it in their name!
There's an entire mini-soap opera behind these terms, but it was eventually rendered moot when the trademark for “plamodel” was transferred to the Japan Plastic Model Cooperative Association in the late 1970s, and is now generally freely used amongst the major manufacturers of model kits. Through this late 1960s boom, anime and manga model kits were definitely present as well, with players like Imai and Crown Model making kits based on the likes of Rainbow Sentai Robin and Ambassador Magma. Bandai started dabbling with Mazinger Z model kits in the 1970s, and let's not forget one of the most important Japanese fictional superheroes of that era, a wandering force for peace and justice.
Obviously, I'm talking about Tora-san! Not only did Tora-san, who always does the right thing even if he's unlucky in love, get his own model kit, the one above is actually a reproduction, because so many people bought the damn original as kids that they wanted a reissue decades later. It's tough to be a man, Tora-san, but I hope it's easier to be a plastic model kit!
Japan's second plastic model kit boom could only be about one thing, and that thing is Mobile Suit Gundam. I've touched on the chain of events before—the TV series was well-liked by kids and young SF fans, but main sponsor Clover wasn't happy with the number of toys it was selling, so they backed out, meaning the show had to end early. Bandai were also on board for sponsorship, with a revolutionary new line of plastic model kits ready to blow fans away, but there was just one problem: the kits didn't even make it to stores until after the show was canceled and had finished its run.
For some, that would be a deal-breaker—why ship out product for a dead brand? But Bandai weren't being stupid about this, nor were they throwing a Hail Mary pass—they could tell that people were watching Gundam in droves, they just didn't want Clover's admittedly weird toys. They also knew they had an exceptionally strong product—the parts were molded in exquisite detail, and another big step forward was that these Gundam kits would snap and hold together snugly, such that cement wouldn't really be necessary at all. Because of these steps, suddenly even small children could quickly become accomplished modelers.
Check out that masterpiece. These kits were only barely poseable, but the combination of low price (just 300 yen!), easy assembly, and dynamite design had people hooked. The term “Gunpla,” for “Gundam plastic model,” emerged almost instantly. And what emerged after that? Well, more models from Bandai, obviously, but the competitors knew a boom when they saw one, so they jumped on the bandwagon with a number of cheap, weird imitations.
Everyone remembers Solar System Sentai Guldan, right? Pictured above is the hero of the story, Don Hoffman, who pilots the heroic Strongest Suit DON, which probably has a tough time picking up loose change on the ground on account of those drill hands. That era also saw amusing me-toos like Mobile Force Gungal and Super Soldier Zakures. Many of these model kits were just reworkings of mid-1970s robot models, with hastily reworked details and colors, but I'm always a sucker for a charmingly weird knockoff. How come they never got a Guldan anime made?!
After the initial Gundam boom, it started to become commonplace to see model kits for all sorts of anime robots, be they realistic or super-robot types. Some of these models were fancy resin-cast affairs that required detailed painting and assembly, but the majority of robot models remained injection-molded plastic. Bandai continued to offer incremental improvements: first, they offered plastic parts molded in two or three colors instead of one, reducing the need for painting. Then, they introduced softer plastic poly-caps for the robot joints, making them dramatically more poseable. Later, we'd see better decals, and constant minor improvements, especially on favored Gundam designs, which would be reissued over and over. Bandai's big flagship model design is still the good old RX-78 Gundam; almost every time there's a major step forward in their design or manufacturing, they'll turn out a new-and-improved RX-78.
Eventually, the second model kit boom leveled off, and Bandai had to consider new worlds to conquer. They got a big ticket into North America when Gundam Wing was placed on Cartoon Network in 2000, but there was just one problem—toy stores were more than happy to carry the fun, poseable “Mobile Suit in Action” toys, but how would Bandai convince them to carry their flagship product, Gunpla? The first hint that the American public got of Bandai marketing plastic model kits was this wonderfully awkward commercial. I'm still trying to sort out my level of commitment, myself. The same summer that commercial aired, 2000, I found myself in conversation with one of Bandai's marketing folks at Otakon. “We're trying to get the word out about Gundam products,” he said, “what do you think of us sending a van or a truck around for public appearances?”
Yep, that's right, in order to get Gundam models (and the Gundam brand in general) on the map, Bandai launched a nationwide promotional campaign. Needless to say, I was dancing in the parking lot of the Toy R Us in Dedham, MA when the Gundam Truck rolled up. Here are a couple of old, low-res photos I took of the proceedings.
Godspeed you, Gundam Truck! What followed was a brief, heady time when hobby shops and toy stores actually carried Gundam model kits. It lasted about as long as Gundam lasted as a prime Cartoon Network offering, which is to say that it quietly went away in the mid-2000s. The next big inflection point is what strikes me as the most recent one, and the whole thing got started with the building of the good old' 1/1-scale Gundam in Odaiba, Tokyo in 2009. I'm sure you've all seen it – I certainly have. In the wake of that awesome curio's construction, Sunrise released a new short OVA series: Gunpla Builders Beginning G, which functioned as a weird sort of commercial for the new Gundam attractions in Odaiba. It also introduced the notion of regular folks who build Gundam kits for fun as heroes in their own right, which would make for some nice foreshadowing for their eventual hit series Gundam Build Fighters.
Gundam Build Fighters got a few things really right. First of all, it washed away the yucky aftertaste that Gundam AGE had left behind, yielding the first new Gundam TV series in a while that fans really got excited for. It also was a huge, obvious 'How to Buy Action-Figure Man!!' deal, but it cleverly camouflaged that by putting its heroes—earnest model builders and video game junkies—front n' center, complete with a hot mom and a goofy version of Ranba Ral as the self-insert character for old codgers (he's still several years younger than me…). The biggest innovations came on the plastic model side, where we didn't just get a neat new line of Gundam models designed for simple tweaks and customizations, but we also got Bearguys.
The above screenshot is from Gundam Build Fighters: Battlogue, which is, at the time of this writing, free to watch on YouTube. Do NOT sleep on it! Several times now, I've witnessed Bearguys serving as this amazing bridge to model-building, inspiring casuals with no interest in Gundam or model kits to sit down, on the spot, and put one together. I've assembled a few myself, because they're adorable and sometimes come with little whiteboard placards, so you can organize your own Gunpla picket line. What we're seeing now might not be a boom— we're far away from those days—but places like Gundam Pros seem to indicate an explosion in access and interest, and that's pretty cool.
Back in 2011, I got to sit down with Shin Sasaki, Gundam's global brand manager. That interview never made it to print, but in it, I asked him what the deal was with Gundam AGE, because it was new at the time and it seemed like a lot of territories were getting it, but not North America. Shin told me that they didn't want to enter the market without some complementary forces at play—why have streaming without home video, or with no toys and models on the shelves? At the time, I'd thought that Sasaki was pulling my leg; we all knew AGE was kinda bad and had failed to connect with audiences, so why belabor that point? But here we are, eight years later, with new Gundam easily accessible and model kits stinking up the shelves of Barnes and Noble, GameStop… and Gundam Pros. The level of quality and variety is frankly absurd, an absurdity reflected by an entire retail store that sells mostly Gundam model kits and has several hundred to choose from at any given time.
In the long view, what impresses me about Bandai and their model kits is the company's experimentation. Soon after the initial Gundam boom, the company introduced a line called MSV, model kits based on weird side-story mobile suits. Over the years, they've tried endless variants of models in a variety of scales. There wasn't much support for the G-Saviour movie, but it did get a model kit, which is absolutely awesome. More recently, the company's tried out EG (Entry Grade) Gundam models designed for emerging markets—simplified kits that cost under five bucks. That product line didn't last, simply because fans with less disposable income still preferred to save up for the good stuff. At the same time, Bandai tested out a different kind of EG—“Eco-Pla Gundam”, a line of kits created in blacks and greys by recycling the plastic from discarded runners. That drive to innovate really helps to keep these kits fresh and exciting.
The above screenshot is one of my favorite one-off gags from a show that has many, Polar Bear Café. Young Panda is bored on the job, until his attention is attracted by a distinctive snipping noise. His partner at the zoo, the middle-aged Full-time Panda, is busily assembling a plamo kit. The joke is simple: plastic modeling is a hobby for goofy old dudes! But that's not quite true, is it? What building at Gundam Pros showed me is that this is still a hobby for everyone, and a crucial way for anime fans to connect. As we bear witness to Gunpla building communities emerge on places like Twitch and YouTube and Bandai inexorably closes in on the half-billionth Gundam model kit sold, I'm hoping we keep on connecting-- and keep on building!
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