With the next Wonder Festival right around the corner this weekend and the event rapidly approaching its 40th anniversary, what better time to talk a bit about the long history of the world’s most famous garage kit convention?
When General Products first opened its doors in 1982 they broke new ground, not just on a shop dedicated to character goods and models, but with the concept of licensing garage kits. At that time, garage kits were almost entirely unlicensed, homemade kits without much consideration for legality or presentation; they were a D-I-Y solution to an underserved community that wanted models of big monsters and cute girls instead of giant robots and aircraft from World War II. General Products began working with the companies that owned properties like Ultraman and Godzilla to create licensed garage kits, taking the industry out of proverbial garages and into a more legitimate mercantile space.
With the collapse of the gunpla boom in the mid-’80s, manufacturers like Hobby Shop Lark, Max Factory, and Volks followed suit and offered licensed garage kits based on new series outside of TV anime (like Lark’s Five Star Stories kits) or continued on from where the plastic models left off (like Wave and Max Factory’s Armored Trooper VOTOMS kits). While that left the more established garage kit manufacturers—largely born out of hobby shops—in good standing, what about the small kit manufacturers that didn’t have those same resources? A solution was the “one-day license.”
When General Products organized the garage kit convention Wonder Festival they pioneered the concept of a one-day license. A unique arrangement allowed manufacturers to obtain a one-day license to produce officially licensed kits without the hassle or overhead of acquiring a full-blown license. It allowed enthusiasts to produce kits based on all sorts of series and franchises and have them be totally legit.
The First Japan Garage Kit Fair
While the first Wonder Festival event is recognized as having occurred on January 13, 1985, in Tokyo, General Products organized a smaller pre-event the month before at the General Products shop in Osaka. This pre-event brought about ten garage kit dealers and 700 attendees out to buy and sell garage kits, but the size of that test run would quickly be dwarfed by the turnout for the first “proper” event the following month. The first Wonder Festival attracted 39 dealers and around 2,000 attendees to the third floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Trade Center.
Kits sold at the initial Wonder Festival were roughly a 50/50 split between figures (which in this case, almost universally means figures of female characters) and monsters, with very little in the way of mecha. At the time, mecha heads were well served by shelves of plastic robot kits based on TV anime. Figure modeling was very much an underground passion, with notable exceptions being Bandai’s line of 1/20 scale Gundam figures and Tsukuda Hobby’s line of plastic figure models based on anime characters from shows like Urusei Yatsura or Megazone 23. Similarly, while monster and sci-fi models had been a big thing in the ‘60s and ‘70s, by the 1980s that genre had almost entirely disappeared from hobby store shelves.
These days the Wonder Festival convention guide is a phonebook-sized tome detailing every garage kit manufacturer selling at the event, along with guides on how to visit, articles about toys and models, and so forth. Back in 1985, things were much simpler. A pile of loose-leaf pages was stuffed into a full-color folder adorned with a mascot character created by Fujita Yukihisa (creator of Tamiya’s mascots Moko-chan and Rabi-kun). The loose-leaf pages inside were organized by the manufacturer (with a split between bigger shops like General Products, Volks, and Hobby Shop Lark, and so-called “amateur makers”). Each page included information on kits sold, typically with a black and white photo, short description, and price. A handful of illustrations by Kenichi Sonoda were included to fill out the pages.
Flipping through these pages you can quickly get a sense of the tastes of the time. General Products brought their wide assortment of kits based on Godzilla, Ultraman, and more obscure subjects like Dark Star and Land of the Giants. Kaiyodo brought an extensive line of 1/12 and 1/8 scale figures from anime like Minky Momo, Nausicaa, and Lupin the Third, plus plenty of tokusatsu monsters. Hobby Shop Lark came with their Neko Mimi figures, a kit based on the early OVA Birth, and a 1/6 scale Vifemina figure (a woman dressed up as the titular robot from Round Vernier Vifam). Hobby Plaza Red Baron brought kits based on ships from 2001: A Space Odyssey and some 1/72 German aircraft models. Volks sold a 30cm Devilman figure, some super deformed Godzilla models, and a 1/6 scale figure of a Xilien woman from the Godzilla films. A manufacturer called Adven reminded people that it wasn’t all about licensed models, with a series of 1/12 scale figures called “Drawing Girls,” featuring young women in outfits like schoolgirl uniforms, motorcycle leathers, pearl diving suits, and military uniforms. A second series of figures were based on popular anime characters, with knock-off versions of Lum, the Daicon Bunny Girl, and Nausicaa.
In total over 30 manufacturers were listed as attending in the guide with an additional five manufacturers being represented at a consignment table. True to General Products’ mercantile spirit, a range of goods featuring Yukihisa’s mascot character (including stickers, shopping bags, and t-shirts) was on sale.
The First Five Years
With two events held per year (one in winter, one in summer), Wonder Festival continued to grow with each subsequent occasion. By the summer of 1987, organizers were beginning to enforce copyrights on kits (in other words, cracking down on unlicensed kits) and mecha kits were becoming increasingly popular as the gunpla boom subsided. In that post-gunpla era, Mamoru Nagano’s Five Star Stories kits proved to be exceptionally popular, with companies like Wave Co. Ltd (originally Hobby Shop Lark) and later Volks releasing kits based on the manga series then running in Newtype.
The anime superhero show Sonic Soldier Borgman premiered in the spring of 1988 and less than half a year later the show’s lead female character, Anice Farm, was making waves in the garage kit community. While largely forgotten today, the sudden popularity of Anice Farm saw manufacturers like Kayodo, Musashiya, and Appendix Club releasing multiple kits based on the character in a range of scales.1
While the Anice Farm boom may have been relatively short-lived, it proved that anime fans had truly arrived in the garage kit space. The boom also served as an early example of the strength of strong character designs and how much of an impact they could have on the garage kit industry. In the years to come, Sailor Moon, Tokimeki Memorial, and of course, Evangelion would prove this time and time again, but Borgman’s Anice Farm was the first.
Despite continued growth throughout the ‘80s, Wonder Festival got off to a rough start at the beginning of the next decade. Thanks in part to a so-called “Anti-WonFes Campaign” started by Bandai’s B-Club division. Wonder Festival would see attendance drop and Bandai stop approving one-day licenses for Gundam and other series it had the rights to. Reminiscences online describe events of this era as having a mix of licensed and unlicensed kits on sale, something unthinkable today. In retrospect, Bandai’s hardline approach wasn’t too surprising, Gundam was a major property for the company and by the late ‘80s, they’d already entered the garage kit market themselves. If they were going to grant licenses to small-time manufacturers, they probably wanted more control.
Flash forward to 1992 and Bandai’s intentions seem even more apparent because that year they partnered with Hobby Japan to organize JAF-CON (Japan Fantastic Convention). The first JAF-CON was held in July 1992 and served as the first real competition to Wonder Festival. JAF-CON later gave way to the C3xHobby event in 2004, which is currently the only hobby event that grants one-day licenses for Gundam kits.
The arrival of a Bandai-backed garage kit event couldn’t have come at a worse time for Wonder Festival, as its parent company General Products was on the brink of closure. At the Winter 1992 Wonder Festival event it was announced that General Products would no longer be organizing the event and instead was handing off responsibilities to another Osaka-based company, Kaiyodo. General Products was folded into sister company Gainax and disappeared as a separate entity. Around this time, attendance at Wonder Festival events began to drop.
Attendance began slowly climbing again thanks to the popularity of video game models, specifically the characters of Konami’s Tokimeki Memorial series and then exploded when Neon Genesis Evangelion took off in 1996. Bandai’s JAF-CON was still overshadowing Wonder Festival, but the momentum of Evangelion was unstoppable. After attendance had cratered at around 5,000 in the summer of 1992, five years later attendance surpassed 20,000 for the first time.
It’s challenging to describe just how popular Evangelion—well, the women of Evangelion—were with the garage kit community, but for a few years, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s characters dominated the industry. Magazines featured regularly featured models of Rei and Asuka on the cover, manufacturers of all sizes churned out an immense number of kits based on the characters and for a while, Evangelion was impossible to escape.
By the end of the decade, however, changes were coming to the industry that even Evangelion couldn’t stop. Thanks in part to the rise of high-end adult collectibles from overseas companies like McFarlane Toys, demand rose for completed figures and toys; collectibles that wouldn’t require the time or effort of a garage kit but still provide a high level of quality and display potential.
A Dichotomy of Plastic
The official Wonder Festival website describes the 2000 Winter event as representing a major shift in what people wanted, saying that the most popular item in the event hall that year was action figures. A year later at the 2001 Summer event, there was even a “McFarlane Toy Figure Show.” It wasn’t just overseas companies that were embracing this change, however, with lots of long-standing garage kit manufacturers jumping in.
Max Factory had been experimenting with pre-painted kits since 1988, initially starting with a RoboCop figure and later offering a range of pre-painted Guyver models. In 2004 they released a pre-painted figure from the video game series Dead or Alive, based on the character Kasumi. It sold 44,000 copies and proved to be a huge hit for the company. While that style of figure drew inspiration from a long line of figure garage kits, other garage kit manufacturers, like Fewture, took more direct inspiration from McFarlane toys and released figures in the American style. Regardless of the approach, the intention was the same; offer a high-quality figure to enthusiasts who didn’t want to spend the time to build a model.
According to Wonder Festival’s own website, as early as 2003 the value of the garage kit portion of the convention was coming into question. The popularity of finished goods certainly suggested that trends were moving in that direction and the days of the old-fashioned, build-it-yourself garage kit might be finished. Thankfully that didn’t happen, and today the event splits its space between big manufacturers showing off their latest toys and figures and the small-time garage kits manufacturers who are still able to get one-day licenses for their kits.