10 Years of General Products

Opened on Valentine’s Day, 1982, General Products was a pioneering company in what we’d now call “character goods.” Founded by Toshio Okada, Yasuhiro Takeda, and other veterans of the 20th Japan Sci-Fi Convention, better known as Daicon III, the company carved out a market for enthusiast products like garage kits and doujinshi. Inspired in part by the success of the Daicon III dealer’s room, the store sold everything from officially licensed Godzilla and Ultraman merchandise to original products based on the Daicon III Opening Animation or designs commissioned from the likes of the Hideo Azuma (Nanako SOS, Disappearance Diary) and Kazutaka Miyatake (Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Starship Troopers).

While General Products sold plenty of t-shirts, coffee mugs, and posters, they were most famous for their garage kits — fan-made model kits with low production runs typically sold in specialty shops or at dedicated events. Garage kits were a relatively new concept in 1982, but General Products was the first shop that turned them legit by securing licensing from Tsuburaya (the Ultraman people) and Toho (the Godzilla people). In the coming years, the detail and sophistication of garage kits would rapidly improve, and General Products’ close relationship with the anime studio Gainax saw them release a range of kits based on Royal Space Force Honneamise and Aim for the Top! Gunbuster

Early garage kits were rough. Resin has been the material preferred by garage kit companies for the past few decades, but until General Products’ cross-town rival Kaiyodo figured out how to cast resin using silicon rubber molds, the dominant material was vacuum-formed plastic or metal.

Some of General Products’ all-metal Five Star Stories kits.

Vacuum formed kits were created by heating a plastic sheet and then pulling it over a mold using the suction from a vacuum. The resulting kits were thin and brittle without much detail, requiring considerable work on the part of the builder (including, sometimes, cutting out additional parts on their own using a pattern provided in the kit). But metal kits weren’t much better, as early efforts were low on detail, required lots of clean up, and by virtue of their material they were very, very heavy. As garage kit companies moved to resin and soft vinyl in subsequent years, kit quality and the build experience improved dramatically. 

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General Products shut down in 1992, due in part to poor management, an inability to stay competitive with other manufacturers, and the dire position of the anime studio that they’d long relied on for their best licenses. 

Not that they hadn’t some serious successes before shutting down. In 1985 General Products created Wonder Festival, a twice-yearly garage kit event that’s still held today. They also sponsored AnimeCon ’91, the first large-scale anime convention in North America and the predecessor to one of the largest fan conventions in the world, Anime Expo.

Gamera explains the in’s and out’s of adding detail to your metal garage kits.

There were some serious missteps, too. An attempt to diversify, like Gainax had done with Takami Akai’s successful foray into video games, had resulted in an editorial department and Cyber Comix. Pitched as a high-quality manga anthology to Bandai, poor leadership and missed deadlines later prompted Bandai to pull General Products off Cyber Comix. Similarly, a misguided attempt to cater to U.S. fans with a dedicated U.S. branch resulted in disappointment, AnimeCon ’91 notwithstanding.

Had General Products held on for a couple more years, it’s easy to imagine that the company could have ridden the success of Neon Genesis Evangelion back into the black. The popularity of Evangelion –more specifically Rei and Asuka–brought otaku into the mainstream and invigorated the garage kit market in a way never before seen. Instead, companies like Kotobukiya, Kaiyodo, Hobby Base, and others released a seemingly never-ending barrage of Evangelion garage kits that continues to this day.

General Products Catalog, 1985

The 1985 catalog shows the range of what General Products offered to fans in just a few years after opening their doors; everything from Daicon IV pillows to H.R. Giger posters. It also included three comics, two by Kenichi Sonoda and one by Hideaki Anno. Sonoda’s first comic served as an introduction to the General Products store in Osaka’s Momodani area and the second was a guide to building metal kits. A sticker sheet, with illustrations by Sonoda, Akai, and Anno, doubled as a cover.

General Products Catalog, 1988

The 1988 catalog was a bit more polished, with a proper cover by Masahisa Suzuki (A.R.I.E.L., Blassty). It also included some of the most popular items General Products offered, like lifesize Kamen Rider masks, soft vinyl kits based on iconic designs like Kaneda’s bike from AKIRA and the Powered Suit, and Roto’s sword from Dragon Quest. Despite being five years old, Daicon III and IV merchandise received an entire page, matching the products offered for the just-released Royal Space Force.