Monday, February 14, 2011

The Japanese Garage Kit, General Products And The Road To Studio Gainax

The Gatchaman G-1 and Impulse compliments of the designers of Club-M. One of a number of splendid Club-M kits.
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I'm a big fan of models, well, sure supermodels are fine too, but I'm referring to garage kits or resin kits, yes the kind of kits literally built in Japanese homes and garages, at least originally.
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I grew up making models. These were normally plastic, pre-colored assembly kits that required model cement or were simple snap-together. I always preferred the glue kits. I always had a sense of pride that I was hand-building something using glue. You always felt like anyone could snap something together, but to connect using glue, well, you were clearly a big deal in the neighborhood. My God, you've handled glue.
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Dinosaur models and Star Trek models were some of my favorites. I remember one where the dinosaur was dying in a tar pit. Great stuff. The Galileo was a popular classic too. As a kid, if there was a plastic model I was on it. It's like a lost art today. Today, it's all about Legos and that's fine too. The Boy Wonder once built legos like an addiction. Personally, my heart has always been about building models. It was clearly my weapon of choice in the house growing up. Painstakingly, lovingly putting them together with tongue tucked to cheek side of mouth and adoring those creations as they materialized before my very eyes was always a great thrill.
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Like any big kid at heart, I rediscovered models some years ago, after being told by the world I had to grow up and be an adult and give all that up. That's right, you can't be a model enthusiast and be a professional. Well, I realized I could be both. Yes, I could have my cake and eat it too, at least in this case. Why not?
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Unfortunately, modelling as a collective past time in the USA is not exactly popular with the kid set at least as far as I can tell like it used to be. It certainly still exists, but by and large, it's a very small, niche market. Companies like Revell are still in business since 1945. Can you imagine? World War II! There are certainly still wonderful little model shops out there too, but they are certainly harder and harder to find. A store not far from my home used to carry the occasional Battlestar Galactica model or random science fiction craft recently closed its doors. It was there for many years. It's a different store now and selling baskets, fake plastic trees [to quote Radiohead] and other assorted lady goods. Gone is the old model shop that pridefully hung remote control aircraft from its ceiling. They were expensive, big purchases and you would take them to big fields and maintain their engines. Just make sure you knew how to land those birds or it was game over. You can still stroll into Michael's and grab a model nowadays. They still have a small section dedicated to fans of models and cars, paint and cement. I recently noted a Star Wars Y-Wing at my local Michael's.
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Well, some years ago as my education of anime, manga and all things Otaku expanded I explored and extended my horizons as I rediscovered more complex model-building. Of course, the Internet has certainly aided and abetted my quest to find the most intriguing items and taking the hobby to entirely new levels.
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Fortunately, for me, Japan is a hot spot for model-making, garage kits made of resin or epoxy and kit enthusiasts. There is just a vast reservoir of wonderful kits to be bought from Japan. It's by no means a cheap proposition, at times, but if purchased when available you can get a whole host of goodies from Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion to Gatchaman and Godzilla. The fruit is out there for the picking, but, like most garage kits, the items are generally ripe for a very limited time.
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I was inspired to write about the hobby a bit and that very popular Japanese past time while reading the book The Notenki Memoirs. Notenki, by the way, translates into carefree. It was author Yasuhiro Takeda's nickname. Funny that, because The Notenki Memoirs in its Japanese form sounds so much more clandestine and top secret doesn't it? Carefree doesn't quite spring to mind, but it's indeed fitting as I read about Takeda's character. Yasuhiro Takeda, co-founder of my favorite Japanese animation studio, Studio Gainax, reflected briefly on his discovery of that world and his own influence on the development of the garage kit. It's fascinating to me to hear someone talk about the undertaking from the ground up, but Takeda, along with friend Toshio Okada [aided in the co-founding of Gainax; president of Gainax for a period], partnered and opened their own store for a time known as General Products [opened in 1982] assembling those very garage kits I adore.
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One of the reasons I think Studio Gainax resonates so powerfully with me as an animating studio is because many, in fact most, of its employees began their journey inside the science fiction world attending and building upon science fiction conventions and designing said concepts through General Products pre-Gainax. Takeda and others literally travelled to America to study how a solid convention was assembled so that they could develop such Japanese counterparts as the now legendary Daicon 3. The Japanese are a profoundly brilliant people in many ways. I don't think their is a culture that can adapt and usurp an idea, build upon it and make it better, better than the Japanese. It's a studied observation, but I believe it to be a point of fact with plenty of supporting evidence.
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Thus General Products was born and hugely successful to the point of having its shelves empty when customers arrived upon its opening. Takeda and Okada were so industrious they even secured licensing rights from the late Eiji Tsuburaya's company as well as Toho. Toho first denied them the license rights to such properties as Godzilla until discovering, to their surprise, that Tsuburaya had granted a license to the then upstart company.
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To be clear, here is the definition of a garage kit straight out of The Notenki Memoirs: "Limited-production model kits for hardcore fans. They are often produced in places like the designer's home or garage. Unlike mass-produced model kits, garage kits have the feel of a hand-crafted product. Another difference is that mass-produced model kits require advanced design skills and thousands of dollars for each metal mold, while resin kits can be made for a few hundred dollars. With resin, it's also possible to create complex and detailed surfaces that would be hard to duplicate with a metal mold. This is just another reason why garage kits have captured the hearts of hardcore modelers. The kits are pricey because of their small production runs, but as they are made by fans for fans (who have a great knowledge of and interest in the subject) they have remained popular. Finishing a garage kit model takes some fairly advanced assembling and painting skills."
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You don't need to read Japanese to analyze images and build.
Whew, and how. It does take a steady hand. This is a wonderful definition of the model kit and why they are so appealing to me. The kits are often superior to major company designs. I've always found their level of detail stunning. And, just as many readers who visit here know, there's nothing better than a fan building a kit for fans. They are meticulous in their grasp of the material on the subject whether its film, books, models, television. You name it and as the old adage goes, fans know their shit! The fan's knowledge base is generally unparalleled. This is precisely why it is such high quality and can be expensive. This is why blogs can be so endlessly engaging, entertaining and informative. The writers are often passionate and learned.
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Takeda shares his fond memories inside The Notenki Memoirs offering us a real glimpse of the small cottage industry and what it takes to make these kits. When General Products opened its doors the store received 200 customers eagerly waiting to purchase kits. One of those customers was Hiroki Sato. He would one day become manager of General Products in Tokyo and join Takeda on the road to Studio Gainax eventually working for Gainax producing His And Her Circumstances and more.
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Takeda remembers, "We were completely sold out soon after our doors opened for business. We'd prepared what seemed to be an adequate quantity of product, but the unexpected level of patronage quickly depleted our stores. Over half of the customers entered the store to be greeted by nothing but empty shelves." The concept of supply and demand was clearly at work through the roll out of garage kits. There is a great desire for them as Takeda quickly discovered. Takeda and company went back to work around the clock to churn out more garage kits even sleeping on cardboard. Takeda continued "planning and producing garage kits" for a time pouring epoxy and forming resin with college students as employees at all hours. It took years for some to graduate [the classic 5-6 year plan no doubt]. "I discovered the joy of manufacturing your own designs, and seeing that succeed in the marketplace." Takeda recalls, "Basically, it was a great time." The labor of love [literally] poured into these model productions shows and the products still shine today. The keepsakes last forever too. I can't vouch that all resin kits are built in garages anymore, but certainly Takeda was there at the ground level and typically they are still sold in small batches. Get them when you can.
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These aren't perfect and could use some touch-ups on the painting.
Most illuminating, looking at the big picture, is that through Takeda's affection for science fiction, garage kits and coffee houses, he was unwittingly aparty to forming what would inevitably be the "core of Gainax" in Hideakoi Anno, Hiroyuki Yamaga, Takami Akai, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and Toshio Okada. There was never this great master plan. Things coalesced naturally.
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So the images are a selection of resin collectibles. ... To the Fancave! Club M did some amazing stuff for Cowboy Bebop and Gatchaman. Metal Box is releasing some terrific Evangelion molds. Sega, too, has generated some considerably strong kits. My timing was fairly accurate at one point and despite missing a chance at the G-4 from Gatchaman I was able to acquire the rest. The images of the Impulse, the Phoenix and the G-1 are the kits I have glued and painted. There's nothing better than watching a football game and painting. I still need to assemble G-2 and G-3 [still in their respective boxes]. I have some Evangelion products to work on as well. I'm always busy with kids and family so my free time, like yours, is fairly limited. I've also taken up painting in watercolor. Sketching designs has always been a great joy for me, but I've never actually painted in watercolor. That's another challenge and a post for another day.

4 comments:

le0pard13 said...

Those are really beautiful kits! Takes me back to my youth and my days building models (the car and fighter array were what I concentrated on as a kid). I really wish I'd have kept it up given what you cover here so expertly. Your passion for these model replicas (the mass produced and hand-made varieties) and attention to detail really comes through in your post, SFF. It makes me envious. A thoroughly splendid examination, my friend. Thanks.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thank you L13.

Glad you enjoyed it. It's nice to write about things we enjoy in our free time now and again right?

Take care
SFF

Curtis said...

I actually have the good fortune to own one of those "General Products" figures. I found it at an anime convention some years ago in a miscellaneous box. It's that one of the girl in the captain's outfit with the arms held out at the sides.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Hi Curtis. Not sure which one that is, but that's cool. Anything like these General Products kids stand the test of time on quality alone.

Thanks for sharing that.