Kow Yokoyama’s SF3d Original

Kow Yokoyama’s Maschinen Krieger model kit series celebrates its 35th anniversary this month. Originally known as S.F.3.d Original, Yokoyama’s creation has inspired modelers and artists for nearly four decades.

SF3d Original has existed on the fringes of otaku fandom for years; whether on the shelf next to Gundam kits or images shared on message boards. Now called Maschinen Krieger due to legal issues, SF3d has long confused newcomers — Is it an anime? Is it manga? While Yokoyama’s designs are strong enough to speak on their own despite language barriers, much of the background and story behind the series has been difficult to uncover in English. Hopefully, this article will shed a little light on an imaginative series of model kits.

Wonderful Junk Kit

Yokoyama’s S.A.F.S. suit, successor to the AF.S.

SF3d began as a feature in the May 1982 issue of Hobby Japan under the name, “Wonderful Junk Kit.” Included in that early feature was a scratch-built kit built by Kow Yokoyama of a powersuit pieced together from a Microman action figure, ping pong balls and salvaged model kit parts.

For a bit of context, in the early 1980s, the Japanese model kit world was aflame with a sci-fi boom spurred on by Mobile Suit Gundam. Magazines like Hobby Japan featured custom mecha alongside more traditional kits like tanks and fighter planes. In these early days, mecha kits were rudimentary at best and dedicated modelers would repurpose off-the-shelf kits for their own creations, as was the case of Yokoyama’s “Advanced Fighting Suit” that appeared in Wonderful Junk Kit.

SF3d was by no means the first example of prolific scratch building, especially when you consider that studio models from films like Star Wars and TV shows like Star Trek reused parts of World War II kits. Star Wars would, of course, help ignite the sci-fi anime boom of the late 1970s, so sci-fi has long had scratch-built kits in its DNA. This influence looped back around a few years later during the production of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when models used in that series featured parts from anime kits like the VF-1 Valkyrie from Macross.

The response to Yokoyama’s design was huge — the era of “realistic” mecha was just taking off, after all — and so a regular feature in Hobby Japan was born. This new series, dubbed S.F.3.d Original, featured story and background details by Hiroshi Ichimura alongside kits created by Yokoyama. Yokoyama’s kits would later be joined by those of other scratch builders, like Makoto Kobayashi, as the workload increased under the demands of a regular column. S.F.3.d ran regularly in Hobby Japan through 1985.

S.F.3.d Original as featured in Hobby Japan, May 1982..

No, They’re Not Space Nazis

Given the lack of information about SF3d in English, it’s common to see it described as “World War II with power suits,” but that’s not quite right. It’s true that Yokoyama and his colleagues borrowed heavily from World War II model kits and German design language of the era, but the story of SF3d isn’t a simple alt-history yarn. Thankfully.

Scratchbuilding steps for the Schenkel.

SF3d takes place in the distant future, following a cataclysmic World War IV that all but wiped out life on Earth. Human settlers return to Earth, specifically Australia, and soon find themselves unhappy with their overlords in the Galactic Federation. Crime runs amok and the settlers are unable to restore order themselves, so the Galactic Federation tasks the Strahl Democratic Republic (SDR) with straightening things out down under. The SDR’s methods are heavy-handed and the settlers soon find themselves thrown under the boot of vaguely Germanic totalitarianism. In turn, the unhappy settlers hire mercenary forces to get rid of the SDR and war breaks out in post-apocalyptic Australia.

There’s no comprehensive storyline for SF3d, and no coherent canon to speak of. Instead, there’s lots of stories and background fragments spread out across magazine features, model kit boxes, and books. The focus has always been on the kits themselves, with what appears to be minimal effort to ensure it’s all cohesive and makes sense. Comics, short stories, and even a live-action short film round out the material created under the banner of SF3d, but if you’re looking for an exhaustively focused vision like Star Wars, or even Gundam, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Nitto Brings SF3d to the masses

Following the success of SF3d features in Hobby Japan, as well as a limited garage kit produced by Yokoyama and Ichimura, a small model company named Nitto suggested making official, mass-market kits based on the series.

During the early ’80s, the robot model kit field was dominated by Bandai (Gundam) and Takara (Dougram, VOTOMS), and comparatively, Nitto was small time. In 1982 Nitto had been part of a confederation of model kit manufacturers, alongside Imai and Arii, that banded together to produce a largely complete line of model kits for the Studio Nue TV show, Super Dimension Fortress Macross. By splitting up scales and subjects, those three companies had been able to release a line of kits comparable to what Bandai or Takara was cranking out at the time for their headline shows.

Original box design for Nitto’s S.F.3.d Original kits. [source]

But while Nitto’s market share might have been small, they made up for it with a line of high-quality kits with features and accessories that kits based on TV anime would never include. Released in December of ’83, Nitto’s SF3d kits featured metal springs, etched metal accessories for detail, and decals that would have looked more at home on a Panzer IV than Zaku II. But attention to detail wasn’t the only thing that made them stand out— they were also a very unusual scale: 1/20.

This kept them in scale with Yokoyama’s original kits (the Microman figures used for those were roughly 1/18, while 1/20 scale Formula 1 pit crew figures were used for dioramas), but left them at odds with contemporary sci-fi, or even military kits. At the time, pretty much the only kits you’d find at that scale were automotive.

Decades later and things have changed considerably, no doubt due to the influenced of SF3d. 1/20 scale sci-fi figures are increasingly common, thanks to a large garage kit industry that sprung up surrounding SF3d and later Maschinen Krieger. By the late ’80s it wasn’t unusual to find 1/20 scale kits based on big properties, like Venus Wars (including a kit based on that film’s iconic monocycle, which was designed by Yokoyama) or Hayao Miyazaki’s 1984 film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind at 1/20 scale. Today that trend persists, with both mass market plastic kits available in 1/20 scale and a healthy 1/20 scale garage kit market.

If you’re looking for evidence of SF3d’s popularity among modelers, look no further than the power suit kits released for Special Armored Battalion Dorvack. Ostensibly a run-of-the-mill transforming vehicle TV series that later lent a couple of designs to Transformers, Dorvack featured supporting power suits that looked surprisingly similar to the Yokoyama’s SF3d designs. The show’s model kit sponsor, Gunze, doubled down on the similarity and tasked artist and modeler Makoto Kobayashi (who had also contributed to the original run of SF3d features in Hobby Japan) with creating gritty, more realistic dioramas and art that might appeal to SF3d fans. The result was the Dorvack Hyper Document, a packet of high-quality glossy prints distributed to hobby shops highlighting the realistic customizing potential of these Dorvack power suits to modelers.

Something else that set those Nitto kits apart was their distinctive brown drab boxes, designed by Kunitaka Imai. Robot kits of that era were brightly-colored and featured detailed paintings by talents like Yoshiyuki Takani. The SF3d kits were nothing like that, with Imai taking a much more subdued approach featuring brown cardstock, vintage military style typesetting, and actual photos of the kits instead of paintings. The result was a much grittier, realistic aesthetic that perfectly matched the spirit and style of the kits.

Original War Games

The close proximity of military modelers and tabletop wargamers meant that SF3d being pushed into gaming may not have been inevitable, but it made a lot of sense. Hobby Japan had already released a number of tabletop wargames based on World War II battles like Operation Market Garden and the Battle of Stalingrad, but many of these were localized versions of American games.

SF3d Original, and the follow-up game, SF3d II: Operation Faserei, were original games that looked a lot like historical wargames of the era — cardboard hex maps and hundreds of tiny little counters. This presentation wasn’t abnormal, as companies like Tsukuda Hobby had a thriving business of releasing similarly-formatted games based on anime properties, but it’s clear that these were targeted at hardcore fans.

Box art for the first S.F.3.d Original wargame published by Hobby Japan.

Model kit importer Twentieth Century Imports, USA, who were one of many companies taking advantage of the favorable exchange rate to import crateloads of Japanese model kits, also brought over both of the SF3d games in limited numbers. This release left a lot to be desired, though — the English-language manual was poorly done, often omitting or rewriting rules, and ignored the established SF3d setting. In fact, the setting information included with Twentieth Century Imports’ release is probably the source of the idea that SF3d is a future World War featuring space nazis.

Strategy games for PC hardware were also released, although it’s difficult to tell if they were different games, ports, or just expansions. In any case, SF3d Original: Operation V was released for the PC-8801 by Crossmedia Soft in 1985, with SF3d Original: Operation Thanksgiving released the following year on both the PC-8801 and the MSX. Both of these games are extremely rare.

Nutrocker

Given the strength of SF3d’s designs, people have no doubt been saying “they should make an anime based on this” for years — but the closest we got was Nutrocker, and it’s not even an anime. Named for a type of hovertank in SF3d, Nutrocker was a short film that clocked in at about ten minutes long and blended live-action and miniature segments. Produced in conjunction with Tsuburaya Productions (the folks behind Ultraman) and released in 1985 on VHS and Beta for 9,800 yen, Nutrocker featured English and German dialogue with Japanese subtitles. It also came packaged with a very small kit based on the film’s namesake hovertank.

Actor Tristan Hickey had just arrived in Japan to teach English before getting the call from an agency that offered him the starring role in Nutrocker. It was a one-day, low-budget shoot hampered by communication issues, of which Hickey said “I did get the feeling that the model aspect was the important part and the live action was an afterthought.“

Live-action sci-fi promotional videos were by no means a rare thing in the ‘80s (I’ve documented some of them before), but Nutrocker’s length, obscure subject matter, and excessive English dialogue makes it all the more unusual.

The End of SF3d

Details on what happened next are hard to come by, but sometime in 1986 Hobby Japan issued an injunction against NITTO, forcing them to halt production of their kits. As typical with licensing disagreements in Japan, information on how or why this happened isn’t easy to track down, but a dispute over ownership of SF3d seems to be at the center of the breakdown. With SF3d material no longer appearing in Hobby Japan and merchandise disappearing from store shelves, the creators moved on.

Hobby Japan, May 1982.

After SF3d

Following the demise of SF3d, Yokoyama’s career took him to some interesting, albeit under-the-radar, places. Between designing the monocycle for Venus Wars (1989) and the concept for the Griffon in Bubblegum Crisis Revenge Road (1988), Yokoyama also created models for everything from promotional material for Bandai’s Spiral Zone toy series to the box art (and monster design) for the original Xanadu video game. No stranger to video game work, he did designs for Venus Fire, an obscure MSX strategy game, and model dioramas for Squaresoft’s Super Famicom game, Front Mission. Somewhere in there he also worked on a Pocari Sweat commercial featuring Cindy Crawford, too.

Ichimura went on to found Model Graphix, a model kit magazine that competed with Hobby Japan and is still in print.

S.F.3.d Today

In the early ‘90s, Nitto was able to rerelease SF3d kits under a new name — Maschinen Krieger ZbV 3000. That mouthful of a name came from two sources:

Two foreign fans suggested “ZbV 3000,” a reference to the German phrase “zur besonderen Verwendung,” which means something like “Special Purpose” or “For Special Employment.” The 3000 was a reference to both the timeline of the series, which takes place in the late 29th century, and the fact that the year 2000 was right around the corner.

Yokoyama himself came up with “Maschinen Krieger,” and then combined the two suggestions for the new name. He’d already used the name “Maschinen Krieger” years earlier for a comic published in Comic Noizy. Given that it’s quite a mouthful, fans typically just call it “Maschinen Krieger” or “Ma.K” for short.

Maschinen Kriger Blech Mann. Comic Noizy, December 1988.

Since rebranding, Ma.K has enjoyed success with both plastic kits from companies like Wave and Hasegawa and a healthy garage kit market that offers a range of models in all sorts of scales. For those who might not want to build a kit themselves, toys from threeA, Sentinel, and other companies have kept collectors covered. A lively Facebook community links fans from around the world in a variety of languages.

Death Krote by Kevin Derken. Check out his work on Instagram or Twitter.

Yokoyama continues to create new kits and new designs, but much of what seems to sustain the Ma.K community is a willingness to embrace individual creativity. Seriously, browse that Facebook community and you’ll see a huge range of builds varying in style and aesthetic. Whether you’re building regular plastic kits, sitting down with a resin garage kit, or piecing together old Star Wars and World War II kits necessary to recreate Yokoyama’s original scratchbuilds (seriously – that’s a thing!), the community embraces individuality and creativity.

While influence can be difficult to quantify, it seems safe to say that SF3d has had a profound impact on artists and designers worldwide. Yokoyama’s designs and the unique design language he uses has influenced an entire generation of creators, even if they may not recognize his name. Sometimes the influence is obvious, like Hawken, other times it may just be a sketch or battle-worn model kit shared on social media. Wonderful junk kit, indeed.


Further Reading