To the casual observer, garage kits are all but dead. Outside of special events and low run, super niche subjects, the days of the “mainstream” garage kit are long gone. Consider that when Bandai wanted to target an increasingly sophisticated and older modeler demographic in the mid-’80s they created a garage kit and publishing label named B-Club, only to see that label effectively rendered obsolete by a stratified Gundam model kit system and advances in plastic model technology. The garage kit companies that survived the ‘80s and ‘90s – familiar names like Kaiyodo, Kotobukiya, and Max Factory – did so by adapting and creating new products that benefitted from years of experience producing low-run resin and vinyl kits.
Otaku culture is all about recycling and reinvention, and so in the year 2019, it seems perfectly appropriate that we have a major toy company releasing model kits based on an obscure novel and OVA series deeply rooted in ‘80s otaku taste. Its return as an accessible plastic kit speaks to advances in the toy/model industry and a reminder that many of the companies at the top of the game got their start with garage kits.
That’s right, thanks to all-new model kits from Good Smile Company, A.R.I.E.L.: All Round Intercept & Escort Lady is back!
A.R.I.E.L. and the Armored Lady Phenomenon
Originally conceived as a light novel series by Yuichi Sasamoto in 1986, A.R.I.E.L. made the jump to original video animation a few years later. Sasamoto’s novel series was told across 52 volumes, published between 1986 and 2004, replicating the format of a 52-episode giant robot TV series. Instead of a traditional “real robot,” A.R.I.E.L. was a distinctly feminine humanoid robot piloted by the daughters of the scientist that built it. That’s not the most original premise, but it is deeply rooted in the trends popular among diehard fans of 1980s.
The “robot lady” phenomenon has resurfaced a bit in recent years with Kotobukiya’s Frame Arms Girls and Super Fumina of Gundam Build Fighters Try, but it arguably peaked with Mika Akitaka’s M.S. Girls series that was seemingly everywhere in the ‘90s. Its origins go back even farther though, to early fan works and garage kits in the early ‘80s when artists and sculptors combined two proto-otaku passions–cute girls and robot. There was, for example, Mono Craft’s Nekomimi, Project-U’s Heavy Metal U-Gaim, and Musashiya’s Lumroid. Bandai even took the concept mainstream with a short-lived series of “Armored Lady” kits based on Zeta Gundam and Macross, but the concept was more pervasive in garage kit circles, where you could see robot girl kits based on everything from Heavy Metal L-Gaim to Galactic Drifter Vifam.
A.R.I.E.L. relied heavily on this aesthetic and fittingly, General Products released a number of garage kits based on the series. The connection to Gainax’s sister company is unique, because not only did General Product’s later publish an A.R.I.E.L. manga anthology, but the series itself bears plenty of similarities and connections to Gainax’s later Neon Genesis Evangelion. While a lack of experience and organization ultimately doomed the appropriately named A.R.I.E.L. Comic (much as it did General Product’s involvement in their Bandai-sponsored Cyber Comix manga anthology), that didn’t stop the company from promoting the series heavily in the bilingual 1989-1990 General Products catalog. For a series that existed entirely as Japanese language novels and a few untranslated OVAs, the prominent focus on A.R.I.E.L. in the catalog is utterly bizarre. Did General Products expect English-speaking fans to get hyped about A.R.I.E.L. in an era that favored Dirty Pair and Kimagure Orange Road?
Fast forward earlier this year when Good Smile Company began to solicit pre-orders for a new A.R.I.E.L. kit. While Good Smile Company is best known for high-end PVC figures and the Nendoroid toy line, their MODEROID kits are a toy-model hybrid in the vein of Bandai’s Gundam kits or Kotobukiya’s Frame Arms series, albeit using licensed designs from series like Mazinkaider, Godmars, Shinkalion, and Gurren Lagann (the Gainax connection never dies, apparently).
It’s hard not to feel that a new A.R.I.E.L. kit looks a bit out of place next to this assortment of fan-favorite or recent licenses, but her inclusion speaks an increasingly large number of toys and models based on “deep cuts” aimed at older otaku or retro-focused newer fans in an industry now lead by companies that were mostly small upstarts back when these classic shows were brand new. The fact that Good Smile recently teased an all-new MODEROID based on Cruise Chaser Blassty suggests the line is going for broke.
The Garage Kit Third Impact
An apocryphal story tells of Hideaki Anno purposely having the Evangelion suits designed in such a way that they’d be unproduceable as regular toys or models and that garage kits would be the only suitable product that could capture their unconventional style. In the mid-‘90s this wasn’t such an outrageous idea – toys of the era were rudimentary and few series but Gundam warranted top-tier plastic model treatment. Regardless of whether or not that story is true, history has proven it pointless because the last quarter-century has seen shelves littered with a seemingly never-ending deluge of plastic Evangelion detritus. It also didn’t really matter because, contrary to expectations, the giant robots of Evangelion were hardly a priority for garage kit modelers – Rei and Asuka were who fans wanted rendered in immaculate resin.
It’s difficult to emphasize how huge of an impact Rei and Asuka had on the garage kit industry, but in the years following the show’s TV debut, they were everywhere. While Evangelion gained mainstream notoriety and pushed otaku subculture in front of the masses, Rei and Asuka may have rescued the garage kit industry from what was beginning to look like a dire decade. Though in retrospect, it was less of a rescue from the brink of death and more a delay of the inevitable.
Two of the largest garage kit companies that benefited from the Evangelion boom were Kaiyodo and Kotobukiya, now both major manufacturers of toys, figures, and model kits. That success helped them weather an otherwise volatile decade and outlast companies like B-Club and, in a particularly cruel twist of fate, General Products. Gainax’s sister company closed its doors and folded its assets into the animation studio just a couple years before Evangelion hit the air.
Kaiyodo, Kotobukiya, and other garage kit companies like Max Factory (a long-time Good Smile Company collaborator) and Volks, embraced the reality of a shrinking post-Evangelion garage kit industry by branching out into new merchandise and putting their experience to work on mass-market collectibles. In 2000, Kaiyodo found enormous success by producing the tiny toys inside of Furuta Seika’s Choco Eggs. A few years before Max Factory partnered with Good Smile Company they released a ridiculously successful pre-painted figure based on of Kasumi from Dead or Alive that sold over 40,000 units and all but kicked off the modern figure industry. Kotobukiya moved into plastic kits and high-end pre-painted figures with a big focus on western properties like Marvel and Star Wars. Even Volks, long known for their intricately detailed and wispy Five Star Stories kits, changed things up by creating high-end collectible dolls.
By the end of the decade, one thing was increasingly clear: garage kits weren’t the future, but the companies that made them still had a chance.
The New Plastic
Companies like Kaiyodo, Kotobukiya, Max Factory, and Volks got their start much earlier than the Evangelion boom of the ‘90s. Kaiyodo started off as a hobby store in Osaka in 1964 and, much like Volks (which spun off from Hobby Shop LARK in Kichijoji), got into the garage kit game in the era when hobby shops began spooling up their own production facilities. Max Factory, named for its founder, the legendary modeler Max Watanabe, arose after Watanabe got into garage kit production with LARK via his scratch-built Armored Trooper VOTOMS kits.
Volks may have been the first major garage kit company to experiment with going plastic, a decision prompted by the popularity of their Five Star Stories kits. Silicon molds used to cast resin deteriorates after repeated use and so keeping up with the demand for a popular kit can require extra expense as new molds are constantly needed. To circumvent that, Volks moved into plastic kits because the steel molds needed were far more resilient. Despite that pioneering move, most garage kit companies kept focusing on resin and vinyl through the ‘90s.
Things change, though. In recent years a number of the aforementioned companies followed Volks’ lead into plastic kits. Max Factory hit the nostalgic angle with a long series of kits based on Fang of the Sun Dougram and Macross. Kotobukiya’s Frame Arms series has offered perhaps the most unexpected competition to the Bandai juggernaut, with a line of original mecha designs and an Armored Lady-esque line called Frame Arms Girls with what is no doubt the worst Engrish acronym in recent memory.
With that context, an A.R.I.E.L. kit doesn’t feel out of place although it is a bit unexpected. Nostalgic toys and models aimed at adults who grew up with cartoon robots have been around for decades and exemplified by the likes of Bandai’s Soul of Chogokin and Arcadia’s never-ending cavalcade of Macross variable fighters. With price points aimed squarely at adults, these toy lines rely extensively on nostalgia, a strategy that even Gundam model kits have begun to emulate with an increasingly stratified and increasingly expensive high-end options. There’s a good chance most of the modelers buying Max Factory’s modern Dougram kits grew up with the series, or at least the model kits, and so this kind of approach pops up all over the place.
That said, companies have spent the better part of the last decade mining every ounce of nostalgia out of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with seemingly every obscure robot cartoon or movie being offered up in plastic in some form or another. I can’t fathom why we’re getting new plastic kits based on A.R.I.E.L. and Blassty in 2019–perhaps the nostalgia well has been plunged deep enough we’re finally getting into early garage kit culture, or perhaps the designs are just so good they manage to both evoke a bit of nostalgia for older builders while remaining timeless enough to entice new modelers completely unfamiliar with the series.
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