Shotgun Blast: A History of Yamato Toys Old & New
As fantastic and revolutionary as Bandai’s famed line of Yamato model kits was, even a brief glance into the history of Yamato toys renders them tame by comparison. Whereas modelbuilding is something of an artform, toys are all about friction and energy. Whereas models take on a personality only while being built, toys can be sent into action many times to serve different means and ends. And most importantly, whereas models exude a “don’t touch” vibe once relegated to a display shelf, toys demand the opposite. These are only a few of the reasons why Space Battleship Yamato toys exploded like shotgun pellets past the model kit revolution and peppered the Japanese “play” culture with whole new categories.
As with so many other aspects of Yamato, the trends of its toy products are a measure of larger trends that stretch all the way back to the 1950s when Japan’s postwar reconstruction made toys and games into a major export industry. Out of necessity, the fate of big manufacturing companies had become interwoven during the war with that of families who sequestered machinery in their homes so it wouldn’t be destroyed by air raids on local factories. Much of that machinery was kept in operation in a widespread program to support the war effort. (On a darker note, this decentralization lead to mass firebombing and created a scenario not unlike that of the Gamilon Planet Bombing of Earth. As a child of the war, Producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki almost certainly kept that in mind when developing Yamato.)
After the war, some families bought or inherited their machines and made them the cornerstones of family-run businesses. Still in possession of the skills they had gained during the war, this makeshift labor force was a key component in an ever-improving postwar economy. This set the stage for such world-class companies as Tamiya, Bandai, Tomy, Takara, and many more. Foreign investment poured in as US toy companies like Hasbro outsourced the making of GI Joe accessories to Japanese workers who specialized in precision sewing and detailing.
Above: Tin toys of the 1950s, manufactured by Nomura Toy.
Naturally, the availability of newer, cheaper materials rapidly pushed the industry forward. Tin, wood, and fabric would gradually be swept aside by PVC plastic and manufacturing techniques would take a quantum leap forward. Science and technology, the driving themes of the most popular toys from the 50s, lead the way to a full-scale science-fiction and fantasy takeover in the 60s. Toy tie-ins with live-action movies and TV shows lead the way to more imaginative ones with manga and animation…and the stage was set for the 1974 launch of Space Battleship Yamato. But a rather serious obstacle was waiting in the wings to blindside everyone involved: the 1973 Oil Embargo.
Abruptly reminded that the whole massive machine was a hostage of its supply line (oil, after all, is the essential ingredient of plastic), the entire world felt the consequences–Japan more than most. People suddenly seemed less important than the system they relied on. Yoshinobu Nishizaki commented on this in 1977, saying, “The oil shock was enough to shake the roots of our social structure, which developed with the remarkable growth of postwar Japan. Today we appear to be only serving as a gear of the gigantic industrial mechanism and we are spiritually isolated.”
He went on to attribute Yamato‘s appeal to Japan’s desperate need for a reminder that individuals mattered and could still take control of their own fate. This absolutely made 1974 the right time for Yamato to tear itself free from the dying Earth and fly off to outer space. Unfortunately, it was not yet quite the right time for Yamato toys to do the same. The reduction in oil availability led toy companies to explore other mediums, and ironically this would turn out to be a godsend.
Bandai, originally founded in 1950, launched a new toy division called Popy in July 1971 to develop toys based on film, TV, and manga properties. Circumstances pushed Popy to gamble on diecast zinc alloy, which would prove to be as good as gold when applied to giant robots and action vehicles. These became so successful by 1975 that Popy could spare only minimal resources on Yamato and generated a grand total of two toys for the entire first TV series: a soft-vinyl Analyzer figure and a diecast Cosmo Zero (shown below), neither of which satisfied the fans who longed for more accurate representations. (Not surprisingly, they had the same complaint against Bandai’s early model kits.)
It was just one of the early letdowns that kept Yamato from achieving the breakout success Nishizaki felt it deserved. Determined not to give up after just one try, he came at the problem from different angles throughout 1975 and ’76, slowly building enough momentum to strike a movie deal with Toei Studio in early 1977. For a change, the timing was on his side. Out of the blue, Star Wars accomplished Yamato‘s original mission by reminding everyone that the human spirit mattered above all else. The oil was flowing a little more freely, and the plastic taps were turning back on. The Yamato movie arrived in August 1977, exactly the right time to benefit from this. At last, the anime saga and its toy tie-ins could both look toward a brighter future.
Though Bandai’s model kit division kept close ties to Yamato, reaping enormous rewards as a result, Popy was not the progenitor of the first major wave of Yamato toys. That prize was won instead by another venerable player, the Nomura Toy Company. Best known for its hugely popular tin toys in the 50s and 60s, Nomura switched over to diecast metal after Popy’s smash success with it in the early 70s. The company signed on as Yamato‘s toy licensor in 1978 just in time to ride the enormous wave of Farewell to Yamato.
Participating as a sponsor of Yamato 2, Nomura advertised heavily throughout the run of the TV series and rolled out a toy line that was finally worthy of the name, consisting of diecast spaceships, action figures, and much more. They also became the only other company to manufacture Yamato models. Their modest but finely-crafted line of four kits enjoyed only a brief time on store shelves before they were overwhelmed by Bandai’s marketing muscle and faded into history, never to be reissued. Any unbuilt Nomura model kit that surfaces today fetches very high collector’s prices and will most likely remain unbuilt forever.
Nomura held the Yamato toy throne for a period of two years, after which Popy moved back in to reclaim its turf. When Be Forever Yamato gave way to Yamato III in 1980, Popy took Nomura’s place as a sponsor for the new series and one-upped its predecessor in several ways. Whereas Nomura had only made two sizeable Yamato toys, Popy made three. Whereas Nomura had only made one pistol, Popy made two. Popy also had valuable access to Bandai’s model manufacturing resources and could modify a Bandai model into a Popy toy with added durability for play value. Overall, however, Popy’s toy line was not as extensive as Nomura’s and took a hit when Yamato III was cut in half by the Yomiuri TV network, thus robbing it of longevity. This may have had a chilling affect on Bandai, since the only toys to accompany Final Yamato in 1983 were a series of Bandai jigsaw puzzles (shown below right).
With the heyday now over and no new Yamato production to latch onto, a long toy hiatus began. Both Popy and Nomura went on to other things, and Bandai certainly flourished, creating or absorbing other companies who would play a role in later years. But only one new Yamato product appeared during these years that was even remotely toylike: a limited-edition pewter statue produced by Japan’s branch of the Franklin Mint in 1989. Fans looking for something with actual play value would have to wait a bit longer.
The true revival would come almost ten years later, when Yoshinobu Nishizaki stepped back and Bandai stepped up. As a result of their Yamato success story (which made possible their Gundam success story), Bandai was Japan’s unrivalled toy-and-modelmaking colossus. Their content licensing branch, Bandai Visual, had acquired Yamato‘s lucrative home video rights and was doing bang-up business with their in-house ‘Emotion’ label. As Yamato‘s 25th anniversary in 1999 approached, Bandai Visual formed a new partnership with Leiji Matsumoto, and an avalanche of new products would result–most especially in the toy category.
First up was a fitting nod to the past; a 20th anniversary replica of Nomura’s first diecast Yamato. It was lovingly manufactured by a company called Mimuko, and later imported to the US by Toycom. Mimico followed up with a beautifully-sculpted new line of cast resin spaceships under a “Museum of Leiji Matsumoto” banner, some of which were based closely on Bandai model kits and others of which were entirely new.
Left to right: Mimuko’s reproduction of the first Nomura Yamato, part of the “Museum of Matsumoto” collection, and a few of Banpresto’s game prizes.
Concurrent with this, Bandai’s Banpresto division rolled out a very creative mix of novelty items such as keychains, ballpoint pens, display models, and even wristwatches. Previously known by other names, the company became Banpresto when acquired by Bandai in 1989. They built a great reputation on the design and manufacture of prize toys for arcade games (and later home video games). Their Yamato products set a rapid pace from spring ’99 to fall ’01 and their wide distribution played a major role in the revival.
Smaller companies could also take part now that Bandai Visual had opened its doors to outside licensors. The up-and-coming Liberty Planet, an early player in the “Urban Vinyl” movement, started off in 1999 with a few Yamato garage kits (an entire separate phenomenon covered in depth here) and staked a solid claim on the vinyl world with a line of 11.75″ figurines in 2000 and ’01. Though they are no longer in business today, they created some of the most impressive Yamato products, including an impressive meter-long model released in 2006.
Left to right: Figurines by Liberty Planet, Megahouse, and Time House. Bandai’s Popynica Yamato and series 3 of Megahouse’s Cosmofleet Collection
Bandai and another of its divisions called Megahouse took over from Banpresto in 2001. Bandai turned many heads with its 17″ “Popynica” Yamato , and Megahouse laid down their own “Urban Vinyl” cards with figurines in the same scale as Liberty Planet’s. Both companies then moved into spaceship production, with Bandai releasing the build-it-yourself “Mechanic File” Yamato in 2005 and Megahouse launching the miniature “CosmoFleet Collection” in 2006. Popy was heard from once more during this time, starting up the “Mechanic Collection” in 2006 before being folded into another Bandai arm called Plex.
But this too was just part of the story as the 21st century began. Nimble new “designer toy” companies found themselves with enough skill and capital to join the revival. These included Zero Goods Universe (who specialize in an exquisite line of character dolls), F-Toys, Taito, Denboku and Marmit, all adept at rendering spaceships and characters in both plastic and metal. Even well-established convenience store chains such as Sunkus and 7-11 got in on the game with miniature figure collections that could fit into any empty corner on shelves and desktops when they weren’t riding on your keychain.
Left to right: Yuki doll by Zero Goods Universe, a smattering of convenience store toys, a soft vinyl Dessler figure by Denboku, and Bandai’s Gashapon figures.
As of this writing, 18 different companies (only 4 of which are part of the Bandai empire) have contributed to the massive shotgun blast of Yamato toys. Clicking on the links below will open up complete galleries for all of them, up to and including the first quarter of 2008. Doubtless there will be more to add while Yamato fans are still willing to stand in the line of fire.