One of the most enticing aspects of researching otaku culture in the 1980s is the sheer amount of material produced, often in the form of obscure content just waiting to be rediscovered by someone flipping through old magazines or perusing the dusty shelves of a used bookstore. One stellar example is Fruity Five, a comic and photo novel series published in Model Graphix and later collected into a single full-color book in 1985.
Part gag comic and part photo novel, Fruity Five blended many of the common elements swirling around in the ‘80s, including but not limited to: plastic models, tokusatsu (specifically the Super Sentai series), doll-like garage kits, and horror.
The Girls of St. Andrea Private School
It must be noted that the plot of Fruity Five is very much of its era.
An alien spaceship posing as Halley’s Comet and carrying a dangerous alien spore crashes on Earth behind a private all-girls high school run by the perverted Dr. Punch. The alien who piloted the spaceship (a life form that can take the form of a cartoonish penguin or a miniature pixie girl, both very much ‘80s phenomena) pleads with Dr. Punch to help him deal with the alien spore that’s at risk of growing and mutating in Earth’s atmosphere. In short order, the penguin alien increases Dr. Punch’s intelligence using alien powers and then they go about recruiting a Sentai-like team of five girls from the school.
The five members of Fruity Five are, as you could have probably guessed, named after fruit; Strawberry, Peach, Lemon, Blueberry, and Melon. They travel in a ship that seems to be a pun on “avocado” and the literary whale “Moby Dick” (it’s called ‘Aboga Dick’ and I’ll admit at first glance that name gave me pause) and have a variety of weapons and power suits at their disposal to subdue the alien spore in a battle that takes place inside a TV factory.
Everything from the underwear gags to the cartoonish penguin to the alien spore riffing on H.R. Giger’s alien feels unsurprising considering the era in which it was produced, but even with all that silliness the focus is still clearly on the Fruity Five girls and the garage kit dolls of them available via mail order. Characters regularly break the 4th wall, with references to speeding up the plot and a character directly calling out the series’ Sentai influence, so it feels more like a gag comic than a serious sci-fi story. Rather than a strict delineation between comic pages and photo novel segments, photos of the Fruity Five girls, the alien spore, and the Aboga Dick are spliced into pages as comic panels. It’s a gimmick that probably wouldn’t fly today, but again, must have seemed quite novel in the 1980s.
While much of the design work in the series is unremarkable, the armor suits worn by the Fruity Five team look like a blend of Studio Nue and ARTMIC sensibilities, with the linework and design language clearly inspired by the work of Kazutaka Miyatake, Shoji Kawamori, and Kenichi Sonoda.
Behind the Scenes
The manga itself was the pro-debut of Koichi Tokita, a prolific artist who has since gone on to carve out a career for himself creating Gundam manga for magazines like Comic Bom Bom and Gundam Ace. Tokita also designed the characters, although the basic concept is credited to a group called “Cosmos,” while Saki Hijiri–who I’m assuming is the same Saki Hijiri credited with writing eight episodes of Aku Daisakusen Srungle–gets the nod for the original story. Graphic designer Kunitaka Imai, who worked with Kow Yokoyama and Hiroshi Ichimura on the original SF3D is credited as designer. Kuniyuki Matsumoto, who may have edited Monthly Armor Modeling magazine at some point in the early 2000s, is credited for planning.
The lack of familiar names attached likely goes hand in hand with the series’ obscurity, but these types of magazine features being forgotten shouldn’t be surprising. In the heady days of the 1980s, hobby and anime magazines were bursting with media-mix projects blending photo novels, scratch-built models, and written prose, and many of these were wholly original projects not attached to an established series or franchise. As a result, once their publication run ended, they were often forgotten. SF3D is the most obvious exception to this rule, buoyed by strong designs and an extensive model kit line that kept the series in people’s minds for years.
In many cases, these media-mix series were backdoor pitches for anime series (as was the case for ARTMIC’s Gall Force Star Front) or designed to tie into an established license, like Model Graphix’s well-known Gundam Sentinel or the obscure Kow Yokoyama series The Age of Dragons that ran in early issues of B-Club magazine and used figures from Bandai’s Spiral Zone series as the starting point for its bio-mechanical fantasy setting. Given that a hallway poster in the one panel of Fruity Five specifically asks for sponsors for an anime version of Fruity Five, perhaps Cosmos was hoping this would turn into a larger multi-media series, too.
Garage Kit Dolls
In almost all cases, these types of features existed as sort of a hybrid modeling feature and advertisement for a toy or model kit line, even if those models were obscure or hard to come by. The group behind Fruity Five, Cosmos, sold garage kit dolls of the protagonists, but these were very much incomplete projects. While clothes made out of actual cloth and soft-vinyl armor were key features, both the armor and the doll itself were unpainted and needed to be built and finished by the consumer.
This type of doll/kit hybrid wasn’t uncommon in the ‘80s when figure models were big and even larger manufacturers like B-Club occasionally released a model with “real” cloth clothes1. The amount of work required to build these would have been substantial, however, even with the clothing included. The ball joints required string to keep them together, soft vinyl armor parts would have needed to be trimmed and painted, and of course, the resin doll itself would have required normal prep and paint work. Fruity Five articles detailed ways to customize and improve these models and illustrated different types of weapons and add-ons that could be scratch-built, but there was still a lot of work to be done to get them into a finished state.
This was an era when it was expected people would put in that work for a satisfactory end result. Bandai’s Spiral Zone2 series operated on a similar principle (with the suggestion that the customer add paint and customizations to get the most out of the product), but sold on a larger scale and in a state that was much closer to the end result as they were marketed as toys. Either way, the Fruity Five figures fit in with garage kit products like Monocraft’s Neko Mimi series and even the character-driven resin merchandising of Musasiya’s Lumroid.
Reminisces on social media from Japanese fans who remember the series mention the rarity of the dolls, perhaps owing to their mail-order distribution (an advertisement in the back of the Model Graphix book mentions that they were looking for distributors, but at the time of publishing seemed to be strictly mail order). Today those statements are backed up by the fact that the dolls seem to rarely, if ever, show up on Japanese auction sites or second-hand retailers like Mandarake. The collected Model Graphix book is easy enough to find, however.
Not Quite Buried Treasure
Fruity Five wasn’t the only mixed-media photo novel series buried in the pages of old hobby magazines, but it stands out that it was notable enough to justify a collected volume. Many of its contemporary peers didn’t receive the same treatment, so Fruity Force, as forgettable as it may have been, lives on in a way that disparate articles stretched across 40-year-old back issues can’t. For completionists looking for something new in the visual vein of Studio Nue and ARTMIC, Fruity Force isn’t the worst book you could toss into your Mandarake order for a few hundred yen.
- Like this 1/6 scale model of Madoka from Kimagure Orange Road.
- Probably deserving of its own article at some point, Spiral Zone was a toy series released by Bandai (and later licensed and sold overseas by Tonka) with designs by Kunio Okawara and Kazuhisa Kondoh. It featured 1/12 scale figures with real cloth clothes and removable armor, plus a few vehicles (the most famous of which is probably the Monoseed Monocycle.) While the line has gained popularity with collectors, it’s also known for fragile and fiddly parts, belying its origins as a sort of half-model, half-toy hybrid.