Kenichi Sonoda had his professional debut at age 21 in a big way — working for both Gainax and ARTMIC. Gainax was knee-deep in the production of their first film, Royal Space Force (late retitled Wings of Honneamise). While Sonoda joined late in production, he contributed background designs consisting of a train and, well, legs.
In the years to come, Sonoda would help put ARTMIC on the map with series like Gall Force and Bubblegum Crisis, but before all that, there was Neko Mimi. Literally meaning “cat ears,” Neko Mimi was a series of garage kits produced in conjunction with Mono Craft featuring robotic cat girls. While the bodies were made out of resin, the clothes were vacuum-formed plastic that allowed modelers to swap out different helmet and clothing designs.
At 1/10 scale (roughly 10cm tall) Neko Mimi kits were relatively small, but their low price of 1,800 yen may have helped them become what the ARTMIC Design Works book described as an “original character garage kit best seller.” It’s unclear how many Neko Mimi kits were actually sold, as there’s scant evidence of them online and ARTMIC Design Works shows the same kit with three different outfits. The same book also mentions a printed collection of Neko Mimi artwork was released and sold well.
Usa Mimi (“bunny ears”) was a planned follow-up to Neko Mimi but never progressed beyond character studies sketched up by Sonoda. Another stillborn garage kit series, Combat Jyou (a pun on both GI Joe and the polite Japanese word for “daughter”), featured two future Sonoda hallmarks: cute girls and military hardware. ARTMIC Design Works suggests that this garage kit series would have featured similar customization options to Neko Mimi.
As for what became of Neko Mimi, Usa Mimi and Combat Jyou, look no further than Gall Force Star Front. Serialized in the pages of Model Graphix magazine a year before the Gall Force Eternal Story OVA reached shelves, Star Front was a photonovel that used photographs of scratch-built kits. In it, Sonoda’s character designs (featuring prototypes of Rabby, Rumy, and Patty from Eternal Story) blended the elements of the three garage kit lines into one, featuring both cat- and rabbit-eared helmets and a variety of futuristic weapons to fend off aliens.
Character goods are commonplace now, but in the mid-’80s, companies targeting second wave otaku were still figuring things out. General Products, like ARTMIC, experimented with garage kits and merchandise based on character designs that had no attached series. Instead, the characters themselves drove sales. This strategy still can still be seen in everything from Sanrio to Super Sonico.