Garage Kit Heroines: Gall Force Star Front

Despite coming to an ignominious end in the late ‘90s, design studio ARTMIC had a hand in some properly iconic anime in the previous decade. Genesis Climber MOSPEADA (1983) rode the real robot boom and helped bring anime to a worldwide audience as one-third of Robotech. Megazone 23 (1985) ushered in the era of the OVA as the format’s breakout hit and set sales records. Bubblegum Crisis (1987) and Gall Force Eternal Story (1986) exemplified the girls n’ guns genre that erupted in popularity during the latter half of the ‘80s.

With no less than 14 individual videos released between 1986 and 1997, Gall Force may have been ARTMIC’s biggest OVA success story. Original video animation sales figures are hard to come by and the economics of direct-to-video anime can be difficult to understand, but it seems safe to say that the series’ proliferation was indicative of some degree of success.

The first few years of the OVA format (which began with the release of Dallos in December of ’83, but really took off in ’85) was a strange time creatively. After the post-Gundam robot boom subsided and TV sponsorship money became harder to come by, many studios turned to the OVA. Megazone 23 was originally planned as a TV series before the TV anime situation forced producers to switch gears and turn it into direct-to-video animation. But while the format offered up a middle-ground between TV and film that some creators used to create some damn fine cartoons, the truth was that the bulk of OVA releases in the late ‘80s were decidedly uninspiring, average productions that did their best with low budgets but failed to have a lasting impact.

The strong design sensibilities of ARTMIC meant that, at the very least, their OVAs tended to be nice to look at. Not an animation studio per se, ARTMIC partnered with animation studios (typically AIC) to get their anime on screen, but their in-house design talent was second to none. Beloved ARTMIC OVAs like Megazone 23, Bubblegum Crisis, Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01, and Riding Bean oozed style and everything else just seemed to work. The Gall Force OVAs never achieved that same balance, but series stands out as a prime example of ARTMIC’s commitment to finding funding for original stories and its short-lived studio side-business — garage kits.

Star Front Gall Force

Serialized between March of ’85 and August of ’86, Star Front Gall Force was a 3D photo series that appeared in Model Graphix and later in its sister publication, Game Graphix. Consisting of photos of scratch built, 1/8 scale models, Star Front set up a story that should be familiar to anyone who’s seen the original Gall Force trilogy: Solnoid women fighting Paranoid aliens with an assortment of military-grade hardware. Unlike the OVAs, Star Front only featured three characters (Rabby, Rumi, and Patty) and focused on them defending the terraformed planet Chaos from Paranoid forces until the rest of the Solnoid fleet arrives. There’s not much to it, but then again, the focus was clearly on the kits.

The origins of the series seem to lie in never-produced kits Mono Craft (ARTMIC’s in-house garage kit company) had planned to release after their Neko Mimi kit. Designs for both Usa Mimi (lit. “rabbit ears”), a girl with robotic rabbit ears, and Combat Jyou, a series of G.I. Joe-like fightin’ women were both drawn up by Kenichi Sonoda but never realized as kits. Looking at the designs of both (which I’ve covered previously), it’s not hard to see where the designs and style of Gall Force come from. The connection becomes more obvious when you consider that Usa Mimi art was included in various Gall Force artbooks and some of the early Star Front artwork features the Gall Force girls in real-world military uniforms a la Combat Jyou. Usa Mimi’s robot rabbit ears are nearly identical to the antenna of Rabby’s power suit and her character models were reportedly built using Neko Mimi kits. Oh, and her name is Rabby for crying out loud. In a way, you could say that ARTMIC didn’t scrap their planned garage kits as much as they figured out how to rebrand them into a more otaku-friendly multimedia franchise.

3D photo stories weren’t uncommon in model magazines during the ‘80s, but at 29 pages Star Front must have been one of the longer ones. Magazine features like Kow Yokoyama’s SF3d in Hobby Japan had popularized kitbashing and, as a result, as much attention was lavished on the intricate kits as it was on Sonoda’s charming characters. Not that Star Front ignored the gallant fighting girls that gave the series its name — it may have been the only 3D photo series to include a full-page shower scene.

Mono Craft Branding, Hobby Shop LARK Casting

One of ARTMIC’s neighbors in Kichijoji was an up-and-coming store named Hobby Shop LARK. After some initial success selling garage kits produced by other manufacturers, LARK got into the casting business by working with Max Watanabe on a series of Armored Trooper VOTOMS kits, picking up where Takara’s official model kits had left off. The shop also took care of casting duties for Mono Craft.

Hard dates are hard to come by in garage kit history, but Mono Craft likely didn’t exist for more than a few years. In addition to producing the aforementioned Neko Mimi, Mono Craft also released a series of resin kits based on ARTMIC’s OVA Megazone 23. According to LARK manager Yoshihisa Abe, the proximity of the hobby shop to ARTMIC’s office had lead to the arrangement of LARK taking care of actual casting responsibilities for their kits. While the name “LARK” may not sound familiar to most modelers today, the garage kit wing of the shop later incorporated as Wave Corporation.

Oh yeah, did I mention it’s in English?

Hideki Kakinuma & Kenichi Sonoda

Hideki Kakinuma (above) and Kenichi Sonoda (below)

It’s safe to say that Shinji Aramaki and Kenichi Sonoda were the two best-known creatives to come out of ARTMIC, but the studio employed plenty of talented people. Hideki Kakinuma was one of those very talented, but lesser-known artists.

While his name has been attached to seemingly every Gall Force project as writer or creator, Kakinuma also served as a mechanical designer on two of ARTMIC’s earliest projects: Genesis Climber MOSPEADA and Megazone 23. In both cases the transformable motorcycles of Aramaki tend to take center stage, but Kakinuma’s designs, particularly the crab-like Inbit of MOSPEADA are worthy of praise. The similarities between the Inbit and Gall Force’s Paranoid can be traced to Kakinuma’s involvement, as many of the Paranoid mecha looked as if they were pulled from the pages of a never-produced MOSPEADA sequel.

Sonoda, comparatively, is better known though his work on Gall Force is often relegated behind his designs for Bubblegum Crisis, Otaku no Video, and Gunsmith Cats. That said, Gall Force feels like it was perfectly crafted for Sonoda’s. It was, after all, a series about heavily armed yet cute women fighting inhuman aliens with few men in sight. Unlike Kakinuma, Sonoda’s involvement didn’t span the entirety of Gall Force; Gall Force: The Revolution (1997) featured character designs by manga artist Kyoko Tsuchiya.

The HitBit Gall Force “game robo” as seen in ARTMIC Design Works.

MSX & HitBit

Perhaps the most striking artifact of the early Gall Force era was a large scratch built kit created to promote Sony’s line of HitBit MSX computers with Gall Force characters. The MSX platform, a sort of PC/console hybrid developed by ASCII and Microsoft, saw computers using the technology released by companies like Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Sony, and Samsung. Different companies meant different brands and marketing and for a brief time, purchasing a Sony MSX2 HitBit HB-F1 meant you got a box with a Gall Force robot on the front.

This relationship might have sprung from ARTMIC’s involvement in a HitBit commercial, featuring designs by none other than Syd Mead (Blade Runner, Turn A Gundam), but partnering with smaller otaku companies wasn’t entirely uncommon for the MSX. As I covered in an earlier article about Pony Metal U-Gaim, ASCII had planned to release a game based on the doujin parody series and commissioned an animated teaser for it. If that sort of coordination between small otaku-focused companies and major electronics manufacturers seems strange, keep in mind that in the mid-‘80s personal computers in Japan were popular among hardcore otaku and there would have been crossover between doujin and PC fanatic demographics.

The HitBit Game Robo under construction.

In addition to appearing on actual MSX boxes, the Gall Force game robo appeared on sales pamphlets, magazine advertisements, and in-store marquee stands. The marketing relationship also resulted in two Gall Force games for the MSX: a top-down shooting game based on Star Front and a later, lesser-known adventure game based on Eternal Story.

Gall Force Store Front

Assorted Gall Force kits and figures from Mono Craft. The pre-painted vinyl figure is based on an earlier Mono Craft kit.

Something worth reiterating about Star Front was its creation as a sort of very early character goods project. In addition to a later artbook containing both Star Front and Eternal Story material published by Model Graphix, Mono Craft and LARK released a handful of products based on the photonovel series. Most prominent among these products were two different series of garage kits, one a 1/12 scale set of figures of Rabby, Rumi, and Patty, and another series of super-deformed keychain kits. LARK later released a series of kits based on Eternal Story.

Other LARK-produced products included a booklet of settei line art and foil stickers. Again, all merchandise that’s rudimentary by today’s standards but released in a time when nearly all of what we’d think of as “otaku products” were released in conjunction with TV or film projects. Many of those ‘80s era character goods (think Daicon III/IV, Combat Jyou, or Pony Metal U-Gaim) blurred the line between professional and doujin efforts that differentiated them from merchandise created by big companies like Bandai and Takara.

Most of the Star Front merch is hard to track down, though not particularly expensive (aside from the MSX games, but most decent MSX games have expensive price tags). The Star Front Mook typically sells for around 500 yen and is easy to find. The garage kits, while not expensive when they pop up, rarely show up on the second-hand market. I’ve included full scans of the rarer Star Front settei booklet at the end of this article.

The seiyuu of Gall Force Eternal Story and Rabby.

All The Rest

Star Front paved the way for Gall Force Eternal Story (1986), released a month before the photo novel’s serialization ended. The video version expanded the cast and changed the setting from the girls being marooned on an island to trying to survive on board a spaceship a la ALIEN. Eternal Story was quickly followed by two more OVAs, Destruction and Stardust War, creating a trilogy. Rhea Gall Force and Gall Force New Era took the series far into the future, while the parody videos Ten Little Gall Force and Scramble Wars took Gall Force characters (and other ARTMIC character in the case of the latter) into a more absurd direction.

Advertisement for the Gall Force shooting game from MSX Magazine.

None of the Gall Force OVAs are easy to recommend. While it might have been ARTMIC’s most prolific series, it was also one of their most disappointing, never quite living up to the pedigree of Sonoda and Kakinuma’s wonderful design work. If you were looking for stronger examples of the ARTMIC ideal OVA, I’d point you towards MADOX-01, Bubblegum Crisis, and Dangaioh, instead.

I’m more forgiving of Star Front, not just because of the low-stakes of the 3D photo novel format that feels like a manga by way of Gerry Anderson, but because it was representative of ARTMIC’s drive to fund original OVAs by any means necessary. A lot of direct-to-video anime titles in the ‘80s were based on existing properties, being sequels or adaptions of popular manga, but ARTMIC tried to carve out a niche of original sci-fi series paired with a strong design ethos.

Gall Force Star Front Settei Collection