If you were to try narrow down the model making, medium-jumping garage kit artist scene of the 1980s to two specific people, it would have to be Kow Yokoyama and Makoto Kobayashi. Both came up in the post-Gundam otaku groundswell of the early ’80s and both found their models, art, and manga prominently featured across hobby magazines, video game covers, and anime.
Yokoyama’s professional career began with the photo novel series SF3d in Hobby Japan but soon saw him creating artwork for video games, illustrating manga, creating scratch-built models for photo, doing design work for anime, and even working on the special effects for a Pocari Sweat commercial starring Cindy Crawford. He designed the distinctive Griffon supercar seen in the Bubblegum Crisis Revenge Road and the monobikes seen in Venus Wars. His artistic legacy across Japanese creative culture, be it model kits, sci-fi, video games, or probably just about anything else, is difficult to understate.
Makoto Kobayashi and Kow Yokoyama, 1988
Kobayashi rose to prominence working on the early OVA Birth, then Zeta Gundam, and later Double Zeta Gundam. His creative legacy of the ’80s spanned photo and manga stories like Dragon’s Heaven, AS Wars, and City in Labyrinth, published in magazines like Hobby Japan and B-Club. He was responsible for the photo series Hyper Dorvack, commissioned to promote Gunze’s model kit line for Special Armored Battalion Dorvack and borrowing just a bit from SF3d. He designed the Double Zeta Gundam and later worked on Yokoyama on Venus Wars designing the bulbous tanks.
Both men were featured in a collaborative artbook released in 1988 by Bandai called Two Factory. Double-sided with two different front covers, this book was split in half; one side dedicated to the work of Yokoyama, the other to Kobayashi, with an interview with both of them right in the middle. That interview is translated and presented below.
The breadth of both of these artist’s work is well-documented in Two Factory, although not always in exhaustive detail. More than anything, though, the book shows the staggering volume and variety of their creative work, almost all of which was produced in just the half-decade before this book was published. On Yokoyama’s side, it covers everything from his fantasy Spiral Zone photo novel series than ran in early issues of B-Club, his artwork and models created for the game Xanadu, the aforementioned Pocari Sweat commercial, and better-known work like SF3d and Robot Battle V. Kobayashi’s side similarly features everything from early design sketches for Double Zeta Gundam and Mach Vision, to his staggering array of customized Gundam kits and scratch builds, and of course, Dragon’s Heaven.
Interview with Kow Yokoyama & Makoto Kobayashi
Translated by Maud Duke
May I ask how you both made your debut in the modeling scene, and how you two met?
Yokoyama: When I was doing SF3d, Kobayashi released a fanzine… It had three issues. What was it called again?
Kobayashi: You mean Special Fantastic Unknown. The doujinshi I published.
Yokoyama: That was a pretty long time ago now.
Kobayashi: Definitely. Right around the time SF3d started.
Yokoyama: When SF3d was still being serialized, I was shown that doujinshi and went “this is incredible!” There was a phone number listed in it, so I dialed it right then and there. At that time, his… aunt?… picked up and said “Makoto isn’t here right now.” So I wasn’t able to get in touch.
Kobayashi: Then we met later at the modeling trade fair… My aunt never told me about the call.
Yokoyama: I heard Kobayashi would be coming to the model art booth at the exhibit hall there, so I went to see him in person… That was our first meeting.
At that point, you both had already made your debut and were doing professional work, correct?
Yokoyama: It’s difficult to pinpoint when we started out as pro modelers…
Kobayashi: We’ve used up everything from our doujinshi days. [laughs]
Yokoyama: Right, it was like, as soon as we realized it, we were both pros.
Mr. Yokoyama, you’ve been illustrating for S-F Magazine for a long, long time now.
Yokoyama: Indeed, I have been. [laughs] I certainly have.
When I saw Hyperweapon, I didn’t expect your name to come up, Kobayashi. I hadn’t heard about it one bit before then.
Kobayashi: Well, I threw around design documents willy-nilly then. Doujinshi, modeling stuff, and of course stuff with Bandai. [laughs]
Mr. Yokoyama, SF3d came quite out of the blue at the time. Can you give some details on how that got started?
Yokoyama: There was a one-shot feature in Hobby Japan called “Let’s Remodel Toys!” With that, I started modding Takara’s Microman figures, and that was the beginning.
SF3d was truly impressive.
Yokoyama: It simply came out of a desire for kits like that. Up until that point, model kits — sci-fi ones included — gave off a strong impression of being kids’ toys. I wanted more realistic scale models on the market. I’ve always been fond of Thunderbirds, etc. But the kits available for purchase felt so “kiddy”… These days you can find more sophisticated scale models, though. I wanted realism. Maybe that’s strange when talking about sci-fi though. Anyway, you can see that in Kobayashi’s work.
They almost feel like living things. They’re mechanical, yet feel organic.
Yokoyama: What about the big guy on the cover of Hyperweapon?
Kobayashi: Oh, Tycoon de Loga?
Yokoyama: It looks a lot like an organic creature. The face, for example.
Kobayashi: I got ahead of myself with that one. With the first volume, I was aiming to be a cut above current popular anime, and for the second I switched gears and decided to stick with organic-looking mecha, but it ended up just being confusing.
Yokoyama: You were too ahead of your time.
Kow Yokoyama, 1988
I want to ask about your history with sci-fi plastic models.
Kobayashi: A lot of the toys from the candy shop I went to as a kid were sci-fi related. A PVC toy of the Ultra Hawk No. 11, for example. That’s probably how it started. I couldn’t afford anything expensive.
Yokoyama: You could get those for 10 yen.
Kobayashi: 10 or 20. Battleships and vehicles were 50 yen. Also, I’d get an apricot candy for 20 yen. And a kaijin trading card2 or something.
Yokoyama: And those little straws filled with jelly.
So looking back, that was your sustenance.
Kobayashi: My favorites were Space Boy Soran, Thunderbirds, the 007 Sub-Tank and King Moguras.
Yokoyama: Midori’s SF series of kits! I loved the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Kobayashi: Yeah, stuff in that ballpark.
Yokoyama: Of course I bought tons of Thunderbirds stuff.
Kobayashi: I love Captain Scarlet. It was my favorite out of ITC’s serials.3
Yokoyama: The opening was awesome, right? The Angel squadron was cute.
How did you feel about kaiju-related stuff?
Yokoyama: I watched that too. Kaiju movies and Ultraman were the things I looked forward to most on the New Year’s holiday.
Kobayashi: I never got to watch them. I wasn’t allowed to see anything harmful for children. That stuff was at the height of its popularity in Tokyo then, but my folks said if I watched Osomatsu-kun I’d talk back to my elders, and if I watched kaiju movies I’d get obsessed with fighting. I was allowed to watch Thunderbirds because it was about saving people.
I see. [laughs] So Osomatsu-kun was too full of strong language.
Yokoyama: Kaiju movies sure were fun.
Makoto Kobayashi, 1988
Like Godzilla, et cetera?
Yokoyama: Everything from when Eiji Tsuburaya was directing. When I watched the ones made after his death, even as a little kid I thought “this isn’t right, the adults making this are stupid,” and was really sad. Eiji Tsuburaya’s impact is huge. I doubt I’d be here doing what I am now if not for people like him. If I saw one of the movies and couldn’t find a model kit from it right away, I’d try to make one of paper, or draw it to the best of my ability.
Kobayashi: Long ago, when I was living in an apartment complex, there was a man in the neighborhood who was into modeling and would toss out finished ones one after the other. I’d go pick up the discarded bits and try to piece them together.
Yokoyama: Some things never change.
Kobayashi: I’d get told “don’t pick up trash from outside!” but then I’d just put it out on the porch, and later… “oh, look what got left on the porch!” [laughs] That was my modus operandi.
Yokoyama: In the end, the things your parents told you not to do were the most fun back then.
When did you first start reading books that you recognized as “sci-fi”?
Kobayashi: I often read novels in fourth or fifth grade. Before that I didn’t do any reading at all… other than manga. Even if some were labeled “SF,” I didn’t know what it stood for English. I didn’t think it was “science fiction”. I didn’t know what Thunderbirds meant either, since that’s English. At the used bookstore, I saw books with pictures of rockets, read them, and thought the contents were really interesting. Then in middle school I got fully hooked. Before that I just played with tadpoles and paper airplanes.
What about you, Mr. Yokoyama?
Yokoyama: Yup, for me it was novels at the local library. I thought the illustrations were really cool. The drawings were certainly a lot different from [Japanese picture books such as] Anju to Zushio4. They had more punch.
Kobayashi: There sure were lots of different novels. Star Trek, for example.
Or When Worlds Collide, or The Voyage of the Space Beagle.
Yokoyama: Or The Deep Range. There was a lot of the kind of sci-fi that you could only find in young adult novels. I would usually choose a book to read based on the illustrations. I liked sci-fi after all — no Count of Monte Cristo for me.
Kobayashi: Some of the books had really realistic illustrations.
Yokoyama: War of the Worlds was really impressive, with the anachronistic spaceships flying through the smokestacks.
Kobayashi: I wonder who drew the illustrations for that.
Yokoyama: Well, the art on the box of the model kits was (Shigeru) Komatsuzaki. It was probably someone with similar taste. Surely, they must be our comrade. [laughs]
So, Mr. Yokoyama, you do illustrations for magazines, but you also enjoyed novels?
Yokoyama: You bet. Of course, I envied the people doing the illustrations. By the way, people were talking about the sci-fi boom hitting Japan. What happened to that? [laughs]
Kobayashi: Picked off by natural selection, I guess.
It came and went in a flash.
Kobayashi: Yeah, where did it go…
When did you get involved with the “royal road of plastic models” — by which I mean AFV?
Kobayashi: At the time, AFV5 kits came out left and right, to the point where almost all the new kits were AFV. [laughs] We all bought pretty much everything that was released. Then suddenly, the prices shot up… Which only meant I had to get choosier, of course. At first, everything was around the same price as the Panzer II for 300 yen, but then from the M-60A2 on, they were in the 1000 yen tier! It was like, “how could they do such a thing!?” I also went on a buying spree with the 480 yen Bandai Panzer Division series, to the point where my parents had to cut me off. Actually, all of it came out of my parents’ wallet.
Yokoyama: Yikes! Well, my dad was really into airplanes, and the Yamato battleship too. He’d buy them for me even if I didn’t ask. “You want this, right?” “I want a kaiju.” “No, this is the one you want, right? This one’s better. You’ll like this one.” [laughs] That’s how it usually went.
Kobayashi: I definitely went way beyond the reasonable limit. I think even my parents sensed danger approaching.
Yokoyama: They probably thought you were going to turn delinquent, right?
Kobayashi: Back then I was getting into fights with my teacher a lot and then…
Yokoyama: You gave it up.
Kobayashi: I did. In my third year of middle school, I stopped in my tracks. Didn’t touch models until my third year of high school when I got into scratch building. I was a diligent high school student and only did art. I did read Hobby Japan and stuff though. Books and magazines were fine. My parents believed that as long as I was reading words I’d get smarter. [laughs] But no models, they said. They’d demand to look at the manual first, and if it used thinner, then it was off-limits.
Yokoyama: People were saying it makes you lose brain cells.
Kobayashi: Yeah, so any thinner-type solvent became a no-no.
Yokoyama: Right. I guess the toy stores were no match for the PTA.
Kobayashi: But nonetheless, I couldn’t forget about modeling.
Then the Star Wars boom hit.
Yokoyama: It was right in the heyday of sci-fi films. Star Trek, Close Encounters of the Third Kind… I put together tons of Star Wars kits.
Kobayashi: I didn’t do many kits.
Yokoyama: Really? Why’s that?
Kobayashi: Before that I was doing scratch building.
Yokoyama: Oh, that’s right. You did that first.
You hadn’t made a debut in modeling magazines yet, had you?
Yokoyama: No, not yet. Still, I’m amazed when I see my models from back then. They’re so much rougher than I could ever imagine now.
But you had a lot of power.
Kobayashi: I suppose so. Back then, I built like a madman. Even though I had no reason to, I just built and built.
Yokoyama: Mm-hmm. [laughs]
Kobayashi: I had no reason, but I shelled out tons of my own cash. I’d build them while cowering in fear and getting whupped by my folks.
Yokoyama: Yeah. [laughs]
Kobayashi: Because the next day, it’d be in pieces. My finished kits lived on borrowed time ’til their inevitable end once my father would find them. He’d say “You’re making them again!?” I’d cleverly hide them in hard-to-find spots like my dresser drawers, but I’d always get busted. The smell of thinner was a dead giveaway. [laughs]
Yokoyama: That’s true. [laughs]
It sounds like building kits was a fierce battle. So, Mr. Kobayashi, as to how you ended up working on Zeta Gundam…
Kobayashi: Before that, I was working on the anime Birth6. I got the Gundam job through those connections. [Akihiro] Nagao-san, the Head of Kaname Production (the maker of Birth) kindly introduced me to [Kenji] Uchida-san7. He said, “I know a kid who’s really good with transformations.”
Meaning robot transformations.
Kobayashi: Back then I only did spaceships and military vehicles. I did some transforming mecha vehicle designs, such as the one in Birth — a motorcycle that turns into a heliplane-type thing — and made three-dimensional test pieces. There were a lot of transforming mecha in the first half of Zeta Gundam. So at first, I made a lot of designs that transformed, but apparently Bandai wasn’t happy and went “maybe it’s best to not have the mecha transform,” and I started designing suits like the Marasai. Then they doubled back and said “actually, it’s better to have transforming mecha” so I designed the Baund Doc. And finally they went “no, it looks like non-transforming mechs are the way to go actually” [laughs] and I designed The-O.
Yokoyama: Come to think of it, we went to the same university, Kobayashi. Musashino Arts University.
Kobayashi: Yes, although we never met at school.
Yokoyama: I studied Japanese painting [Nihonga].
Kobayashi: Japanese painting?
What about you, Mr. Kobayashi?
Kobayashi: I was in the design department.
Yokoyama: There’s a lot of different types of design. Visual communication, visual design, industrial art…
When you say visual communication, do you mean like in film?
Yokoyama: Yeah, film is a part of it. I believe you study magazines and stuff too. And… signage systems and the like. If you wanna know how I know this, it’s because I took those classes the whole time. [laughs] By my third day of classes in Japanese painting I realized I had zero talent for it. [laughs] You have to paint with India ink and it was such a pain in the ass! [laughs] If I knew Kobayashi in my college days I probably would’ve raised an uproar. [Hiroshi] Ichimura-san (current editor for Model Graphix) was also an alumni. That school had a lot of closet modeling geeks. Even while I was enrolled, I mostly built models and barely drew.
Mr. Yokoyama, were you employed during your college days?
Yokoyama: In the beginning, I’d do film-related work while attending classes, but I missed the window to make a career out of it.
Were those Japanese live-action films?
Yokoyama: When making films with Shuji Terayama, he’d need a lot of painting done and ask me to come help, so I was drawing up a storm. I got good at finishing drawings fast thanks to that. There were a lot of extravagant plans, like having to get a 16×16 painting ready in a couple hours. We’d paint a lot of the backgrounds while on set too.
They were art films.
Yokoyama: Yes, very artsy. High art, you could say.
Kobayashi: Your drawings from that period on all have that kind of feel.
Yokoyama: Yeah. From there I gradually slid into illustration for S-F Magazine.
And speaking of S-F Magazine, how did you get started with that?
Yokoyama: As an illustrator, there were definitely specific magazines I wanted to draw for. When I read S-F Magazine I strongly felt “This, I could do!” My interest in models stems from my dad, who feverishly built model planes for as long as I could remember. But there aren’t many others who do both modeling and illustration for a living, are there? So that’s how I befriended Kobayashi… basically.
Kobayashi: Yes, that’s right.
Yokoyama: When I went off to Tokyo — that was when I was in prep school, so I would’ve been 18 or 19 — my first stop was Post Hobby8. [laughs] And the reason I chose Yoyogi Seminar for my art classes was that there was a Post Hobby right next to it. I barely studied at all and just bought model kits. Around that time, Naoto Takenaka9 was making art at Yoyogi Seminar too. I thought, what a strange person. [laughs] Around there, I would kick back at the Nakama Mokei Center10, then when I enrolled in college, there was the F-X project11, and they came out with models for the F-15 and 16. They started flying MiGs and then MiG models started coming out. I made tons of model planes to pass the time. Shuhei Matsumoto-chan (current AFV modeler) lived in the dorm room next to mine and we built plenty of kits together.
Kobayashi: Back then, he was doing crazy things in the Pla-Plane Contest12, and you drifted apart a bit.
Yokoyama: Yeah. So advanced it felt like it was out of my league, and I drifted to bikes and cars instead. The supercar boom was still going, and it was an era where there was just way too many things I liked in the world, so I was always busy. [laugh] I went ballistic over the Countach13. Of course, I collected supercar cards too. And there were supercar quiz shows on television back then.
There were, weren’t they? I’ve heard of those, although I’ve never watched one.
Yokoyama: Someone would hear the sound of the exhaust and go, that’s a Ferrari 308! I’d always think, why would you even know something like that? [laughs]
Kobayashi: I never made sports car models then. It just never appealed to me. In the end, I just bought nothing but model planes. And built them instead of doing schoolwork.
Yokoyama: So then, I saw Star Wars right around my first or second year of college. It completely blew me away. I was like, amazing, this is it! Its influence on me persists even today. It’s an excellent work that gets better with time. Then there’s Alien, Message from Space. Those movies give me life.
There was The War in Space as well.
Kobayashi: The War in Space was really something. Gotengo…14 Man, oh man.
The story with that movie is, Toho’s staff went to see Star Wars in America, boasted that they had nothing to learn from it, and made that movie.
Kobayashi: There’s a difference between what you can’t learn from and what you can’t make!
And they truly didn’t learn anything.
Kobayashi: They say you can’t beat those who are self-taught. But when making Japanese live-action film, for better or worse, they go “there’s nothing to learn” and “it’s no match”. It’s poor sense.
Yokoyama: But that aside, modeling isn’t as big of a craze these days. In the old Shonen Sunday and Shonen King the back cover would have ads for models.
Kobayashi: Like the Imai Thunderbirds kits.
Yokoyama: Now it’s ads for the Famicom, but back then there was a huge boom.
Everyone goes through that eventually.
Yokoyama: If you were visiting someone in the hospital, or you needed a present for a friend’s birthday, you’d get a model kit.
Kobayashi: And you’d have to reserve kits in advance.
Yokoyama: It was the king of toys. When did it get dethroned? [laughs] It’s a regular civilian now. And I used to think it was the most fascinating thing there was, too… How sad.
Are you open to doing collaborations?
You mean Robot Battle V.
Yokoyama: Yes, that’s it. I used Kobayashi’s connections to publish the comic with [Asahi] Sonorama. Then there were talks with Kotobukiya to put out a garage kit based on the main robot. We were figuring out who should sculpt it, and first a modeler at Kotobukiya made a prototype, but it was a little off. Kobayashi said “this is all wrong”, then went “I’ll do it for you” and went and made it himself, but… it’s so cool!
So you collaborated on the merchandise.
Yokoyama: You can make this really easily. Kobayashi put his all into it, after all. I was really worried about how the final model would come out, but both the figure and the wires look perfect.
Kobayashi: Well, after all, injection-molded kits have a ton of little parts and end up being a huge pain. To put together, I mean.
Any last messages for the readers?
Kobayashi: Brush your teeth. Do your homework. And introduce me to your older sister.
Yokoyama: Yeah, yeah, yeah! Introduce us! That ought to do it. [laughs]
What are you planning on doing next?
Yokoyama: ’88 is gonna be huge!!
Yokoyama: In any case, it’ll be huge! Get ready. [laughs]
Kobayashi: Dragon’s Heaven is cheap, so buy it, please… How about I just say that?
Kobayashi: Just under 10,000 yen!
Yokoyama: To preorder the laserdisc. An autographed copy. [laughs]
- Kow Yokoyama’s Home Page
- The Art of Mokoto Kobayashi
- Kow Yokoyama’s Sci-Fi Plastic Model Classroom
- Kow Yokoyama’s SF3d Original
- Makoto Kobayashi’s Dragon’s Heaven
- Dragon’s Heaven Production Material
- Kow Yokoyama’s Robot Battle V
- Hawking Model Kits in 1983: Hyper Dorvack Document
- Mach Vision: A Bubble Era Arcade Game from Sega, Nissan, and Makoto Kobayashi
- The 1/220 Scale Gundam Garage Kits of Kazuhisa Kondo and Makoto Kobayashi
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- A jet fighter used by the Ultra Guard, first seen in Ultraseven.
- Trading cards featuring tokusatsu characters.
- Probably deserving of a proper article, it’s difficult to understate the influence of Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation shows on Japanese sci-fi of the 70s and 80s.
- A Japanese folktale known as “Sansho the Bailiff” in English. Adapted as a popular children’s book in the early 20th century, adapted as a live-action film in 1954 and later an animated version by Toei in 1961.
- AFV stands for “armored fighting vehicle.” In Japanese modeling circles, “AFV model” is a term used to refer to realistic military model kits, like tanks.
- One of the earliest direct-to-video OVAs, released in 1984. Like Megazone 23 it was originally planned as a TV series before being reimagined as an OVA
- Producer at Sunrise who worked on a huge number of Gundam productions.
- A chain of hobby stores that first opened in 1965 and later began publishing Hobby Japan magazine in 1969.
- Presumably this refers to the famous actor, comedian, director, and singer, who among a million other roles, dubbed Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury in the Avengers movies. Curiously, his Wikipedia page doesn’t mention Yoyogi Seminar at all, though he did get a degree in graphic design.
- A model shop near Nishi-Ogikubo station in Tokyo. Closed down around 2013.
- Likely refers to the design program that started in the 1960s and eventually led to the development of the F-15 and not the Japanese stealth fighter development project.
- A model contest first held in 1970 organized by reknowned modeller Hiroshi Ida (founder of the magazine Model Art) and sponsored by companies like Gunze, Hasegawa, and Fujimi.
- The Lamborghini sportscar that kicked off the supercar craze in the ’70s and adorned millions of bedrooms in poster form in the 1980s.
- A flying submarine warship that appeared in numerous films by Toho Company, Ltd. and the 1995 OVA Super Atragon.
- Published by ASCII, LOGiN was perhaps most notable for leading to the creation of the massive influential gaming magazine Famitsu.