Nomura Toys: Empire of Tin


It goes without saying that if there were no World War II, there would have been no anime series called Space Battleship Yamato. But it should also be pointed out that if not for very specific shifts in global commerce after World War II, the first line of Yamato toys would not have been made by a company called Nomura. And that takes some explaining.

Prior to the war, tin was the material of choice for most of the world’s toys. Cheap and malleable, it was easy to bend and form into whimsical shapes that would paradoxically be durable enough to take the usual punishment a kid would dish out. And if you had a tin toy back then, the raw materials probably came from Nuremberg, Germany: the global nerve center of the tinplate trade. After the war, Germany lost its grip on this trade (along with much else) and it floated around the globe to land on the one other nation that could most benefit from it: Japan.

Under the American occupation from 1945 to ’52, a host of new companies with names like Marusan and Bandai eagerly sprung up to become the new suppliers of tin toys to the rest of the world. (Ironically, many of these toys would romanticize the very military machinery that had brought Japan to heel, but that’s another story entirely.) “Made in Japan” would become a famous catchphrase during these years, first in the pejorative sense and then slowly, grudgingly, a sign of quality as things improved. And on some of the best toys, that phrase was accompanied by the initials T.N: the callsign for Toys Nomura.

1950s tin toys by Nomura, some of which were battery powered.

Nomura was an early player in the tin game, opening its doors in the late 1940s and quickly dominating the marketplace with colorful, original tin toy vehicles that embodied the new paradigm of wakon-yosai, Japanese spirit combined with Western learning. Nomura had long been at the top of their game when Astro Boy and Tetsujin (Iron Man) 28 arrived to herald the age of homegrown SF robots, and tin was the perfect material to render them in three dimensions. Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet flew in from the US to create a perfect storm, and Nomura was right there at the epicenter.

1960s tin toys by Nomura, reflecting the rise of robots and technology.

View Robby in action here.

See The Apollo-Z capsule toy here.

But as the 60s progressed, other production materials came into the fray and newer, nimbler companies such as Popy were quick to take advantage of them. Popy’s weapon of choice was diecast metal, which brought unprecedented mass and weight to a robot toy, lending it a new sort of realism that made tin seem…well, cheap and malleable. Plastic, too, could be made to perform in ways that tin could not. By the early 1970s the writing was on the wall for Nomura: evolve or die.

Investing in costly new production methods meant the company had to secure more income, and that meant more licensing deals with popular properties. Looking around in 1977, it was very easy to identify the hottest property around: a feature film called Space Battleship Yamato. Popy had already taken a stab at Yamato in 1975, but their lackluster efforts hadn’t gotten them very far. Yamato’s intricate mechanical designs were revolutionary, and only a toy that accurately captured them was going to pass muster with the fans. When a Yamato sequel was announced by producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki in November 1977, Toys Nomura (now known as Nomura Toy) decided to get involved. By the time pre-production for Yamato 2 began in May 1978, Nomura had signed on as a key sponsor, gambling on the notion that they could deliver what the fans would expect. Fortunately for all concerned, they were right.


Print ad (January, 1979).
Click to enlarge.


1979 Catalog, courtesy Robert Duban.
Click here to view a gallery of all pages.

Apparently willing to bet it all on the starting gun, Nomura’s entire toy line thundered into Japanese stores within the first two months of Yamato‘s October, 1978 premiere. Supported by an imaginative and eye-catching TV commercial (excerpted above), they had every reason to believe Yamato 2 would be a worthy successor to the insanely popular Farewell to Yamato movie. Actual sales figures are probably buried in a vault forever, but the fact that Yamato 2‘s average TV rating topped 22%, there is every reason to believe Nomura caught many more customers than they were dreaming for.

1/1300 Diecast Yamato (October, 1978)

The very first Yamato toy immediately told the fans Nomura meant business. No chunky windup motor, no featherweight plastics. Not even the flat hull bottom and the off-model fightercraft detracted from the fact that you could hold this 8″ long finely-crafted hunk of solid metal in your hand and feel like you were holding the real thing. Bonus features included pop-out wings, an opening hangar door, and a full-color “space panel” backdrop.

The 1/1300 Yamato measured nearly eight inches long and was so well-remembered by fans that a perfect replica of it would be released 20 years later to kick off a Yamato toy renaissance. Read all about that here.

Diecast Cosmo Tiger II (October, 1978)

At 7 inches long, this 1/100 toy was a bit smaller than the Bandai model kit, but made up for it with solid metal heft and spring-launched missiles. Similar missiles on a Battlestar Galactica toy of the same era would soon bring long-lasting ruin to US-made action toys, but Japan was able to avoid this fate.

Diecast Analyzer (October, 1978)

Standing 5.5″ this all-metal Analyzer could crush Popy’s soft vinyl 1975 version without breaking a sweat. Both poseable and rollable, it wasn’t a perfect matchup to the anime design, but still landed closer to the mark than the Bandai model kit. Though solidly built, the limited play value of Nomura’s diecasts was not a big hit with Japanese kids who preferred the transformation and connectivity of “super-robot” toys. Nevertheless, Nomura toys are now highly prized by collectors, many of whom used to be those same kids.

Mystery Analyzer (October, 1978)

Proving that it could also be adept with plastics, Nomura had a second Analyzer on toy shelves at the same time as the diecast version. What was the “mystery?” This Analyzer was self-propelled and could bounce off walls in unpredictable directions, thanks to a rotating wheel on its underside.

Sofubi (Soft Vinyl) figures (October, 1978)

For the first time, Yamato’s human characters could now be played with right alongside the mecha. This set of five included Kodai (Wildstar), Yuki (Nova), Shima (Venture), Captain Okita (Avatar) and Dessler (Desslok), who sported a cloth cape. They stood just under 4″ and were only poseable at the arms and waistline, but this deficit was soon to be addressed.



Windup Analyzers (October, 1978)

Fans were always happy to see their toys with action features, and Nomura answered the call with these two mini-Analyzers. The smaller version (about 2.5″) was markedly different from the larger one (about 4″) but both were undoubtedly a welcome sight to Japanese kids with mini-allowances. At right: Analyzer and friend. (This “friend,” made by Takara, became George Lucas’ favorite Star Wars toy of all time.)

Cosmogun (October, 1978)

This toy may have fallen a little short of perfection in terms of a perfect replica, but once they could hold a Yamato crew pistol in their hands that would light up and buzz, most Japanese kids could probably overlook this. Also included was a plastic pin badge. This toy was later repackaged as a Blue Noah blaster when Nomura picked up the licensing to that series in 1979.

Cassette 8 Movie Projector (October, 1978)

As one of the earliest examples of at-home, on-demand Yamato viewing, fans could now watch a 2-minute segment of Farewell to Yamato as often as they liked. The cassette contained an 8mm film reel of the scene in which Yamato blew away Goland’s missile ships. It wasn’t the first time Yamato could be purchased on 8mm film (Asahi Sonorama had crossed this line a year earlier), but this set included its own hand-crank projector with a battery-powered lamp, a built-in screen inside the box lid, and a flexidisc soundtrack to accompany the show (or a dialogue transcript if you wanted to do the voice-acting yourself). It wasn’t yet home video, but it was close enough.

Yamato Capsule (October, 1978)

For the fan who thought they had everything, this mini grab-bag offered up an instant collection of stickers, erasers, and plastic do-dads that could be strung together into a bracelet or necklace. And who wouldn’t like to have their own Iscandarian message capsule to keep it in? Click here to examine the contents in detail.

Ministeck Mosaics (October, 1978)

Before video games and the internet, people could amuse themselves for hours placing tiny colored tiles onto a grid and snapping them into place to make instant art for the den or family room. That was the case in West Germany, anyway, where the “Ministeck” was invented and exported to other countries with long attention spans. Thanks to Nomura, Yamato fans could get in on the action with these two do-it-yourself hobby kits. Incidentally, this was long before the word “pixellation” gained common useage.

Model kits (November, 1978)

One of the lesser-known facts about Yamato model kits is that Bandai was not the only company to manufacture them. For a period of roughly one eye-blink, Nomura offered up four completely separate kits of their own making, which have earned special attention over the years from connoisseurs. To read the personal account of one in particular, click here.

Action Figures (November, 1978)

Inspired by the tremendous success of the Star Wars action figures, Nomura tried to capture the same lightning with these 3.3″ Yamato characters. They followed the same lineup as the earlier soft vinyl versions but had far more articulation and, even better, a place to play in…

Yamato First Bridge Playset (November, 1978)

One glance is all it takes to be convinced. This one is the showstopper, the absolute favorite Yamato toy from the early years. Scaled to fit the action figures AND the smaller windup Analyzer, the Bridge Playset has it all. Moving seats, lightup control panels, interchangeable backdrops (click here and here for examples), and even sound effects. The characters could now yell out “video panel switch on,” “Yamato launch,”or six other signature phrases at your command.

Measuring about a foot wide, 8″ tall and 8″ deep, the bridge set could also accommodate Bandai figurines made 25 years later (far right, 2nd from top). Nomura thought it significant enough to rate its own toy commercial, stills from which are shown along the bottom row. Unfortunately, the marketing of action figures was not as fully developed in Japan as it was in America, so sales were something of a letdown. This, of course, takes nothing away from the grandeur of this one-of-a-kind Yamato toy.

1/850 Diecast Yamato (December, 1978)

One just wasn’t enough, and there was plenty of metal still to go around. Stretching almost a foot long and weighing more than any photo could convey, this became Nomura’s most popular diecast toy ever (though to be accurate, it had some plastic parts too). The proportions were virtually the same as the 1/1300 version, but the fightercraft were more accurate and missiles could be fired from the forward launch tubes.

Inflatable Kite (1978)

If you ever wondered if there was a way to get a Yamato toy up into the air, wonder no longer. A few puffs of air and your 2-foot kite was off to outer skies.

Diecast Miniatures (March, 1979)

At just under 4″, these metal Yamato and Andromeda minis came in about an inch shorter than their counterparts in the Bandai Mecha Collection model kit series. But they could almost certainly do better in earthquake conditions.

Gum Eraser Yamato (1978)

Nomura teamed up with paper goods manufacturer Amada (who did brisk business with their Yamato card and sticker sets) to produce a wide variety of “gummy” figurines which cost very little to make and could be stamped off by the truckload. Products like these first appeared in Japan’s 1977 “Supercar” craze (ignited by a spate of racing toys, movies, and anime) and soon became ubiquitous. The nicest of these was a 4.75″ 2-tone rubber Yamato that came in both grey and blue variants.

Multicolor Gum-rubber Figures (1978)

The 50-yen gummy figures (above left) came individually wrapped in several colors. There were eight models, each about 2.3″ in length (or height). The 20-yen figures were sold out of the box shown above right or the party-size grab bag shown below left. These were all under two inches, 17 different models in 8 colors. Shown below are a mix of the 50-yen and 20-yen gummies. All of these were marketed as erasers, but it’s doubtful they were used for such a menial purpose.

Picture Puzzles (1978)

One more unique item from Nomura was a large-format (10″ x 15″) puzzle depicting an imaginary adventure on Planet Telezart, and another with the main characters. The art for these puzzles was never reprinted elsewhere.


Blue Noah Toys (1979)

Where does one go after Yamato? Nomura stuck with Office Academy and got cranking on a variety of toys based on Blue Noah, Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s next TV series after Yamato 2. (Read all about it here.) The series did not duplicate
Yamato’s success for a variety of reasons, and it’s very likely that Nomura’s toy line ran into the same fate. Nevertheless, Nomura’s
Yamato line showed everyone what was possible with the right combination of craftsmanship, imagination, and the will to survive in the cutthroat world of toy manufacturing. Only one other company was qualified to pick up where Nomura left off, and their story forms the next great chapter in Yamato
toy history.

Click here to Continue.

Read more about Nomura Toy Company at ToyBoxDX

Read more about the history of tin toys at these sites: Collect.com | Toy Collector Magazine.com | Questia.com

Special thanks to Yamato superfan Steve Harrison for aid and assistance.

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