Running since 1969, Hobby Japan has been a keystone publication for plamo, gunpla, and anime enthusiasts for decades. But, for a brief period, Hobby Japan ran a sister publication filled with shocking experimental designs, niche columns, and an international range of coverage. Short for “Sensational Model & Hobby,” SMH ran for 18 issues from 1995 to 2000 in a larger, more expensive (retailing at 1,500 yen) magazine format. It did away with Hobby Japan’s focus on the standardized otaku tentpole franchises and modeling tutorials and instead focused on artist/modeler spotlights with a wide range of columns.
Gone are Godzilla and the RX-78-2, in their place SMH ran covers featuring clockwork men, women in leather and piercings, and asymmetrical machines perched on the carcasses of colossal beasts. SMH covered horror movies and punk bands, artists ran features showing giant mechanical women giving birth to pilots in fetal positions. In Japan the term “garage kit” is equated with “garage rock,” and SMH was the embodiment of that. The imagery in the magazine was rooted less in Akihabara, and more in the gleefully debauched world of The Misfits or The Cramps, with a dash of Shinjuku sleaze and a flourish of the grandiose excess of ’90s Hollywood action and sci-fi movies.
SMH featured a wide array of artists and sculptors with recurring contributors including Yasushi Nirasawa, Kenji Ando, Matic-Log, and Takayuki Takeya among others (Nirasawa, Takeya, and Zeiram director Keita Amemiya were also all classmates at the Asagaya Design School). Each issue focused on a different theme along with prose stories accompanied by figures from a particular artist, a section for columns, as well as short comics by the likes of Katsuya Terada. One issue focused on ball-jointed dolls featured the works of German surrealist Hans Belmer alongside Japanese ball-jointed doll artists such as Simon Yotsuya and Ryoichi Yoshida. Another issue ran a feature called “PBS: Post Bla-Run Syndrome” in which sculptors and artists put their own spin on Blade Runner’s themes of cyberpunk and retro-futurist noir.
Yasushi Nirasawa was one of the magazine’s most frequent contributors with multiple covers devoted to his art and figures, as well as publishing his comics like Test Bed (about an experimental android powered by engines that look like bean sprouts) and Guillotina (think Bayonetta if she could remove her own head). Much of his work involved hyper-sexualized women or fearsome creatures decorated head to toe in ornate weaponry and baroque machinery to the point where no part of the page or body was left without some little detail. Nirasawa worked extensively in games, toys, film, and tokusatsu but sadly passed away in 2016.
Eisaku Kito wrote a story with a series of figures sculpted by him called An Antique Machine in Peaceful Times about mecha built for war but repurposed for daily life, set against a backdrop of dilapidated amusement parks on barren planets. Kito’s work, in some ways, had a similar asymmetrical approach reminiscent of Makoto Kobayashi, except Kito added playful art-deco touches to his machinery.
Matic-Log created faux advertisements for futuristic products, with colorful bio-organic machines, like a robot designed to be the perfect baseball pitcher that’s basically a walking jockstrap with a leathery, featureless face.
Takayuki Takeya (who has done character designs for Shin Godzilla, the live-action Attack on Titan, and the tokusatsu TV series Garo) was another of the magazine’s stars with his Angle of Hunters (sometimes translated as Angle of Fisherman) series of sculptures and stories. Angles of Hunters was a striking blend of Japanese fishing culture, Afro-futurism, and strange monsters. A far cry from a sterile world of sleek machines, Angle of Hunters was drenched in animal carcasses, weathered faces, and broken docks ladened with crates of fish eggs the size of baseballs.
Kenzo Okamoto’s section “Believe it Or Not” featured his own twist on famous cryptids. The Jersey Devil was transformed from a cloven-hoofed winged mammal into a colossal prehistoric pteranodon-esque creature that was thawed out of a block of ice. Meanwhile, Bigfoot wandered the train stations of modern-day Japan in search of a forest.
Takuji Yamada, known for his detailed dioramas of Mobile Suit Gundam and various kaiju series, contributed a series of dioramas based on Showa era Japan called The Nostalgic World, which lovingly recreated scenes of children on swing sets, snowy bus stops, families gathered around the kotatsu and other scenes of highly-detailed warmth and sentimentality. For a magazine as eclectic as SMH, even these scenes stuck out.
While many issues of Hobby Japan touched on American properties such as ALIEN, Star Wars, and Batman, SMH, in particular, showed strong western influence in each issue. Toy companies like McFarlane Toys and Art Asylum had features detailing their latest releases and interviews with sculptors. Kazuma Shudo wrote “Go Go!! Mondo Video,” a review of b-movies and new releases like Warriors of Atlantis and The Iron Giant, accompanied by art from Koichi Ohata of M.D. Geist and Genocyber fame. There was even a feature on Ohata’s M.D. Geist being brought to the US by Central Park Media where you can spot a young CB Cebulski. “World Latest Garage Kit” featured visits to conventions across the United States and a glimpse of the US garage kit scene (lots of horror movie characters, X-Files, and Vampirella).
SMH also included a section devoted to reviewing western comics, featuring the likes of Sandman, Hellboy, Big Guy & Rusty, Zippy the Pinhead, and Cybersix (plus a few of the more shlocky titles, like Satanika). Heavy metal album artist Wes Benscoter had his own column alongside other articles looking at western bands (one of Benscoter’s features compared the art from Kazushi Hagiwara’s manga Bastard!! to that of heavy metal albums, but since Hobby Japan didn’t have the rights to the manga, Wes just told you what volume and page to look up).
Many of the covers also took a western bent with cover stories including “Batman & Robin & Other Bat Characters”, “HR Giger’s Film Design” and a “Zombie Carnival ‘99” issue that included an interview with special effects artist Tom Savini.
SMH ceased publication in 2000. Information in English is spotty, but it appears that there was a dispute between the magazine’s editorial team and Hobby Japan. It seems like there was some indication of relations falling apart just before SMH ended, because in 1999 the magazine DDD (“Dengeki Dabsters Departmentstore[sic]”) emerged from Media Works with much of the same staff, contributing artists, and stylistic sexy counter-culture bent. DDD only survived for 11 issues and ceased publication in 2002.
Much of SMH is drenched in male-focused cheesecake statues and an overt edginess that’s a little eye-roll inducing, but it was also an outlet for unique artists taking chances and making some truly fascinating work. Right now Hobby Japan doesn’t offer much of an outlet for the likes of works like these, but they live on in the DIY modelers that set up shop at Super Fest and Wonder Fest or events like DesignerCon in the US. SMH still stands as a publication from another time.
Special thanks to Neal D Anderson for suggesting I check out this magazine in the first place.
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