It’s not uncommon for artists to continue creating doujin projects on the side after going pro, but Kenichi Sonoda has maintained a consistent professional and amateur output for most of his career. In recent years he’s contributed to a number of Girls & Panzer doujin, his latest contributions to the English-language blu-ray release of Gunsmith Cats are being described as “doujin,” and his adult doujin is er, well known, so perhaps being perpetually linked to fan publications has just become part of his persona.
Sonoda made his mark in the industry working with studios like ARTMIC and Gainax on titles like Gall Force, Bubblegum Crisis, and Otaku no Video. In the ‘90s he pivoted towards manga with work like Gunsmith Cats and Cannon God Exaxxion. The hallmarks of his work in either decade — distinctive character designs, cute girls, excessive mechanical detail, incredible action — can all be found in his early doujin work with a group called Comic Circle VTOL.
I know what you’re probably thinking: “Kenichi Sonoda is a horndog!” And indeed, Sonoda is also one of the most prominent artists known for putting his beloved characters into lurid situations in the pages of unofficial publications. His later doujin, like the long-running Chousen Ame series 1 and assorted other titles gave the man a certain reputation, although his early amateur work was a bit more straight-laced.
As a teenager, Sonoda was a member of Comic Circle VTOL, a group of amateur artists that published two series of books — VTOL and STOL. “VTOL” is technical parlance for “vertical takeoff and landing” while “STOL” stands for “short takeoff and landing,” but despite what the technically-inspired titles would suggest, the circle didn’t focus on hard-edged military comics or sci-fi, as fantasy, crime, and supernatural comics all appeared in the pages of both publications.
COMIC CIRCLE VTOL BY THE NUMBERS
10 issues (#1-#10)
5 issues (#0-3, Final)
In addition to drawing original stories for the pages of STOL and VTOL, Sonoda created a regular feature called “Mechanic Operation Room” (“Mecha-Ope” for short) wherein he detailed sci-fi hardware like aircraft, powered armor, handguns, and robots. While distinctively Sonoda-esque, these designs had a chunky, functional look, not unlike the early work of Studio Nue — albeit more Technopolice 21C than Super Dimension Fortress Macross. Technopolice was produced by ARTMIC, so perhaps it isn’t too surprising that Sonoda’s doujin caught the eye of an ARTMIC representative at a comic event in the early ‘80s.
Doujin of this era can be hard to track down, so my insight into the content of these books is admittedly limited. But let’s take a look at the few I have been able to get my hands on, starting with STOL Vol. 5. Published on April 30th, 1982, this issue of STOL featured a cover by Sonoda of a tough looking biker on a detailed motorcycle, holding an enormous revolver and wearing a headband that says “I LOVE LUM.” In other words, it’s exactly what you’d expect Sonoda to have been drawing in 1982.
Inside, along with a properly eclectic mix of other comics, Sonoda had three contributions. “Moonbase 2099” was a short sci-fi comic that looked to draw a bit of inspiration from Space: 1999 with Nue-style powered suits alongside a ship that looked an awful lot like the Eagle Transporter. The rest of Sonoda’s contributions include two recurring features — the aforementioned “Mecha Operation Room” (which I’ll talk more about later) and another column called “Manga Course.” The latter spends two pages detailing the design and operation of the Python 357 Magnum, an iconic revolver that later appeared in the Riding Bean and Gunsmith Cats OVAs. If you thought obsessive attention to detail for firearms was something Sonoda developed later in his career working on manga like Riding Bean and Gunsmith Cats, well, you’d be wrong.
What seems to have been the last publication released by Comic Circle VTOL, titled VTOL Final, was published on April 29th, 1985. Considering that by the time VTOL Final was being sold Sonoda would have already begun working in the industry, it’s understandable that his contributions to the enormous (nearly 500 pages!) book were limited to a single comic and a few illustrations. That his comic, “The Day of the Witchcraft Circle,” was the first comic in the book perhaps points to the guy’s importance within the group. Despite the subject not being quite what we’d expect of Sonoda today (it’s a story about magic and the occult in a contemporary high school setting), the art of “The Day of the Witchcraft Circle” is evidence of Sonoda’s talents even at such an early stage of his career. The comic’s crisp, kinetic action and heavy use of motion lines to convey movement looks on par with his later comic work in magazines like Comic Noizy (the home of the short-lived Riding Bean manga) and even early volumes of Gunsmith Cats.
Given that Sonoda seemed to be the driving force behind Comic Circle VTOL (staff positions are barely mentioned in most of the publications, but Sonoda is consistently listed as the group’s “representative”), it’s not surprising that their output seemed to slow down in 1984 before halting altogether in 1985. By ’84 Sonoda was already working in a professional capacity for garage kit manufacturers General Products, Mono Craft, and Musashiya. For General Products he was providing artwork, comics, and product illustrations for both the company’s catalogs and assorted original goods they sold. At Mono Craft, he worked on the Neko Mimi kit and an unproduced garage kit series called Combat Jyou. For Musashiya he was illustrating box art for kits based on Maison Ikkoku and designing a line of kits called Lumroid that bore a strong resemblance to a design he’d done in his Mecha-Ope feature called the “Lum Type Android.” While the Urusei Yatsura reference is obvious, Sonoda explained that the design combed “both lolicon and mecha fetishes.” But then, of course, it did.
While Comic Circle VTOL seemed to disband following the publication of VTOL Final, Sonoda’s work with the group reappeared in at least two other books that are far easier to track down. The first, Mecha-Ope Book (メカ•オペ•ブック), collected his Mecha Operations Room columns into a single self-published book and included a complete list of Sonoda’s amateur and professional work up until around the middle of 1985. While there’s no mention of Comic Circle VTOL outside of his work history, Mecha-Ope Book was very much a doujin publication, albeit one that’s not too hard to track down today. Inside you’ll find plenty of formative Sonoda mechanical design work and it’s not hard to see how much of the artwork included was built upon and revised for later projects like Gall Force and Bubblegum Crisis.
Another collection of Sonoda’s doujin work came in the form of Private Live, a professionally published collection of artwork and comics released in 1987 by Movic. Alongside more recent Gall Force comics, Private Live included cover artwork from assorted VTOL and STOL volumes and a few of his doujin comics. Given that it was professionally published, Private Live is easy to track down and usually sells for only a few hundred yen.
Sonoda’s involvement with Comic Circle VTOL included only a fraction of his total doujin output over the last few decades, but it represents foundational work by one of the most prominent artists of the anime industry in the 1980s and a man who helped shape what the early OVA boom looked like. Looking at Sonoda’s early work now, it seems inevitable; inevitable that he would get pulled into the industry, inevitable that he would create memorable anime and manga, inevitable that he’d be a celebrated creator nearly 30 years after he first began creating doujin in 1979. For a 17-year old Sonoda illustrating a comic called “Missile Hunter” in 1979 and self-publishing doujin throughout his college years, it may not have been quite so obvious.
- Lit. “Korean candy,” a variety of candy that Sonoda’s family candy shop — a shop over 400 years old and now run Kenichi Sonoda himself — reportedly made famous in Japan