Japanese Robot Invasion! 1980s Anime Mecha Models Arrive in the US, Part I

In the early 1980s, science fiction modeling in the West was at a crossroads. Since Star Wars burst onto the scene in 1977, model companies had been trying to cash in on science fiction modeling with varying degrees of success. By 1983, the market had stagnated. Attempts to translate SF action adventure to television with shows like Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century didn’t meet with much success out of the gate and their model kit tie-ins were short-lived. Movie tie-ins for model kits were attempted for Moonraker and The Black Hole with limited success and not even Entex, with their import of Bandai model kits from the movie Message From Space, could create a pop culture sensation. AMT’s once-lucrative Star Trek model kit license seemed to be in suspended animation with only three kits being offered in 1983 compared to the ten kits in their 1976 catalog. Increasing prices for petroleum led to increases in expenses for model kit production and less money to invest in new kit tooling. Thus, inquisitive eyes began looking at international markets for new opportunities.

At the time, Japan was in the midst of a mecha boom brought about by the surprise success of Bandai’s Mobile Suit Gundam model kits, pumping new life into what otherwise might have become another once-and-done series and kicking off an entirely new model kit boom in the early ’80s. What helped to make the Gundam kits popular was that the subjects were designed to be more than just built-it-yourself toys. Gone were the pull-back motors and rubber rolling tires of the previous sci-fi model kit offerings. Instead, this new generation of mecha models featured more accurate proportions and better articulation, especially when poly cap joints began appearing in 1983.

Bandai’s success with Gundam led to partnerships on other anime mecha projects and the market wasn’t exclusive to one kit manufacturer. Other model companies such as Imai, Arii, LS, Nitto, Nichimo, and Takara dove in to help finance the new robot series in the hopes of finding success with a new model kit line. Some examples of this new wave of anime included Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, Fang of the Sun Dougram, and Super Dimension Century Orguss. Even space opera anime was finding new life with movies based on Space Cruiser Yamato, Captain Harlock, and Crusher Joe.

Initially, demand was high for these kits. But over time interest in each property slowed with the shows leaving the airwaves, leaving unsold product taking up space in warehouses. When combined with other factors like a weak yen compared to a strong dollar on the international currency exchange, it made for a perfect situation to export these models overseas.

Revell’s Robotech kits. [Source]

Revell’s Robotech

The Revell model company was the first American firm to take notice. Not just one of the bigger players in the American model industry, Revell had a history going back to just before World War II. One of the first products they made was plastic makeup cases for firms like Revlon cosmetics (hence the inspiration for the name “Revell”). Based in Venice, California, Revell was at the forefront when plastic models gained popularity in the 1950s. By the 1960s, Revell had numerous international subsidiaries all over the world, including Revell of Germany, Revell Great Britain, Revell Lodela (Mexico), and even Revell Japan. But by 1979, Revell USA was experiencing a financial downturn brought about by higher production costs and it was sold to a French toy company known as Companie Generale du Jouet, (CEJI) to become CEJI Revell.

In 1983, Revell launched an SF toy action figure line called Power Lords, but it was not the sales success they were hoping for and they needed something different. The following year, CEJI looked to the Japanese model and toy industries with interest. They weren’t the only ones looking, as the toy companies Hasbro and Tonka were doing the same thing, later resulting in the Transformers and Go-Bots toy lines. Revell already had inroads into the Japanese hobby market as they had sold Revell Japan to the toy firm Takara a few years earlier and a few years later Takara had become one of the bigger players in the anime model kit and toy market.

In 1984, Revell entered into licensing agreements with both Takara and a smaller model kit manufacturer named Imai, allowing them to import various giant robot model kits into the American and European markets. The kits would be offered in Revell packaging and under a different international trademark from the original Japanese anime properties. But, acknowledgment of those properties was made in the fine print on Revell’s boxes and marketing literature.

These kits came from Dougram, Macross, and Orguss. Since these shows had no direct narrative connection, Revell needed a name to unify the kits under one banner. The name chosen was “Robotech.” A commercial marketing campaign was launched and literature was printed up for the line, including a two-sided, one-page full-color flyer that was put in each Robotech kit box. DC Comics published a short-lived Robotech Defenders comic book mini-series. Additional advertisements were printed in comic books, trade publications, and model magazines. There was even a live-action television commercial that aired during prime time.

Revell’s marketing advertised two Robotech kit lines. The largest was the “Robotech Defenders,” which featured Takara’s Dougram kits. The other was “Robotech Changers,” which featured Macross and Orguss kits from Imai.

For the Defenders line, Revell marketed seven individual combat mecha and six diorama sets. In 1/48, the Dougram became “Zoltek,” the Soltech Round Facer became “Thoren,” the H-102 Bushman became “Condar,” Blockhead became Talos, and the H4X Ironfoot became Gartan. In 1/72 scale the HT-128 Bigfoot became “Zylon” and the Mackerel aquatic combat mech became “Aqualo.”

In the first diorama set, a 1/72 Round Facer was paired with a couple of vehicles to become the “Armored Combat Team.” The second diorama featured a 1/72 Ironfoot and a helicopter gunship to become “Strike Force.” The ‘Assault Squad” set featured the four-legged Blizzard Gunner and an eight-wheeled armored fighting vehicle. The “Robot Recovery Unit” was the Dougram transport trailer truck. “Airborne Attackers” paired a Bushman with a twin-rotor transport helicopter. The last diorama, named “Commando,” featured a 1/48 Tequila Gunner four-legged walking tank with soldiers and sandbag emplacements.

The “Robotech Changers” line featured four kits. Three of the kits were reboxed versions of Imai’s excellent 1/72 transforming VF-1 Valkyrie fighter. The VF-1D trainer became “Orbot,” Millia Jenius’s red VF-1J became “Axoid,” and Roy Fokker’s Skull One VF-1S became “Vexar.” The main transforming mecha from Orguss became “Nebo.” Also advertised was the “Robotech Factory” in 1/100 scale. This was an Imai kit of a Macross “Armored Factory” repair bay diorama featuring a Tomahawk Destroid and an Armored VF-1J Valkyrie.

The Robotech kits were sold in both big box retail stores such as Toys ‘R Us and smaller hobby shops all over the country. The new boxes and instruction sheets were printed by Revell, but the model kits and their decal sheets were identical to the Japanese offerings with no changes made to the parts. Most of these kits had only been available in Japan less than a year before and featured poly caps! The price points for the kits were reasonable and had excellent availability, with the exception of the Robotech Factory. Its large size commanded a relatively steep price tag and typically it could only be found at larger retail stores as opposed to independent vendors due to the inventory space it took up.

The Robotech TV Connection

Around this time, Carl Macek and the production company Harmony Gold were looking to bring English dubbed versions of Japanese anime programs such as Macross into the United States. But this wouldn’t be like Sandy Frank’s Battle of the Planets or Marvel’s Shogun Warriors. The intention was to keep the core stories intact with relatively minor changes. Harmony Gold entered into an import agreement with Tatsunoko Productions in Japan and had the first three episodes of Macross dubbed into English as a pilot movie and released it on home video as a 70-minute feature.

Beta version of Harmony Gold’s Macross pilot video.

To help improve their footing, Harmony Gold looked to secure import and sales rights for Macross toys and model kits. One problem though, the western merchandise rights of many of the model kits were already the property of (or optioned to) Revell. Hasbro also had toy rights to the series’ most notable toy, the Takatoku VF-1S Valkyrie (which was sold as the Transformers Autobot “Jetfire”). So, in the fall of 1984, as advanced praise of the Macross video was creating a public buzz among science fiction and anime fans, Harmony Gold and Revell entered into a co-licensing agreement to work together on marketing a Macross-based video property to English-speaking audiences.

But how exactly would the two firms accomplish this? Harmony Gold gave serious consideration to releasing all of Macross on home video while Revell wanted it to become a syndicated television show. Home video was still a relatively new thing though and would limit the audience only to buyers with money to spend. By comparison, television would give Revell’s products commercial exposure to potentially the widest possible audience and drive model kit sales. The only problem was that typically a syndicated cartoon show intended to air five times a week on American television needed a minimum of 65 episodes to fill thirteen weeks of programming. Any less than that and television stations weren’t likely to buy it. Macross was only made up of 36 episodes, a little over half of what was needed. Macek looked to other anime properties in the Tatsunoko arsenal. They decided to combine Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada together with Macross into an 85-episode television saga known as Robotech. Some creative editing and story tweaking were needed to merge the storylines into one cohesive whole and it set the stage for (hopefully) something grand.

Revell expanded their Robotech kit line in 1985 with closer ties to the show. While the kit line included additional model kits from Takara’s Dougram and Imai’s Orguss lines, the majority of the kits released during the second wave were from Macross. Revell added manufacturer Arii’s model kit line to the mix 1. New for 1985, Imai and Arii’s kits in 1/5000 scale of the SDF-1 battleship in cruiser and storm attacker versions were brought in. Several of Arii’s transforming VF-1 Valkyrie kits in 1/100 were also reboxed. The rarest kit of the bunch was Arii’s 1/72 Zentraedi Glaug which was reboxed as “Khyron’s Battle Pod.” This kit apparently wasn’t sold in great numbers in the US and seemed to be more common in Europe. The Macross kits kept their original kit names for the most part, but the new Dougram and Orguss kits had many of their names changed.

Revell also began to add miniature model kits to the line thanks to a series of 1/170 Macross kits done by Arii. Featured were the various modes of the VF-1 Valkyrie and Destroids, either as model kit twin packs or in combination with multiple segment repair bay dioramas that could be combined with one another as part of an expanded “Robotech Factory” series. These are some of the more common Robotech kits that can be found today on the secondary market, given they weren’t very expensive when they were first issued.

Even with the expanded product line, Revell didn’t seem to enjoy the same sales success for Robotech in the second year as it had when the product line was first launched. Harmony Gold also ran into money troubles partly due to a strengthening of the Japanese Yen to the US Dollar. This monetary shift had an adverse effect on subsequent Robotech television projects, with an original Robotech sequel series canceled after just a few episodes were produced. A dedicated Robotech toy line released by Matchbox turned out to be an even bigger financial loss for Harmony Gold.

Ultimately, in 1986, Revell’s ownership changed hands from CEJI to the Odyssey partnership group. Odyssey opted to focus on Revell’s more traditional model kit properties. At the time, Odyssey had also acquired Monogram Models, and after purchasing Revell took steps to begin merging the two companies into one. The Venice, California location was shut down and everything was moved to Monogram’s location in Morton Grove, IL, but the Revell name was kept as it had greater international recognition. The Robotech trademark itself was eventually sold to Harmony Gold outright in 1988.

Other Model Kit Players

Revell wasn’t the only company that tapped into the Japanese model robot kit craze. In 1984, Monogram Models imported two Genesis Climber Mospeada model kits from Imai, releasing them in the states under Tonka’s Go-Bots license. They were the AF-01Z transforming Legioss fighter in 1/48 scale, marketed as “Leader One” and Yellow Belmont’s “Blowsuperior” transforming motorcycle and ride armor which was sold as “Cy-Kill”. Monogram may have optioned other Mospeada kits–meaning the property wouldn’t have been available for Revell to use in the Robotech line–but these two subjects were the only Mospeada kits to make it to the states. It’s a pity because had the Robotech line continued into 1986 when Odyssey acquired both Revell and Monogram, perhaps that could have been the “genesis” of a third year of Robotech model kits. One side note about the “Leader One” kit is that the first batch released in the States was molded entirely in off-white plastic for Monogram’s exclusive use. But later on, they were molded in the original red and white plastic of the AF-01Z, likely coming from unsold Japanese stock.

Monogram’s Cy-Kill model kit, a reboxed Imai Blowsuperior model. [Source]
MPC/Fundimensions was also looking to diversify its kit lineup from the model car kits, reboxed Airfix kits, and the  Star Wars models they were primarily known for at the time. So in 1984, they created a line known as the Laser Warriors and to populate it, they used six kits from Imai’s Megaro Zamac kit line.

Megaro Zamac was not associated with any known anime but was intended to cash in on the robot model kit boom. Working with design studio ARTMIC, Imai created a model kit series without an anime, though there was reportedly an animated commercial or demo reel that went around. The robots were clearly inspired by Gundam and Dougram, but two of the kits, the “Gerwalk Phantom” and the “Gerwalk Harrier” were obviously inspired by Macross, switching from aircraft to hybrid gerwalk modes. For the Laser Warriors series, MPC employed a generic good guy versus bad guy narrative to promote the line and their own box art. The model kits themselves weren’t the greatest, and being designed before the poly-cap revolution, they showed their age. Despite their low cost, the Laser Warriors line didn’t prove to be a success and disappeared from store shelves within a year.

One would think that is where the story ends, but it wasn’t.

Check back next week for Part II!

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  1. Unlike most shows which featured a single model manufacturer as a sponsor, Macross had three; Imai, Arii, and Nichimo. Toy manufacturer Takatoku produced a few small scale models as well. Each of these companies was smaller than Bandai or Takara, but by combining their resources and covering different scales and subjects they were able to offer a model kit lineup that rivaled the big names.
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