The Bandai Story

In the 1970s, Space Battleship Yamato created a powerful tide that lifted many boats, and no boat was lifted higher than the one named ‘Bandai.’

Few fans of anime and its many spinoff products haven’t heard that name. Bandai is quite simply a Japanese juggernaut that grew from very humble toy- and model-making roots in the early 1970s to a mega-corporation that manufactures just about everything a self-respecting otaku could ask for. These days, Bandai even makes anime itself. Every such company dreams of one day latching onto a blockbuster property and riding it for all it’s worth into the land of eternal prosperity. Bandai bears the distinction of doing that not just once but twice; in 1974 with Yamato and again in 1980 with Mobile Suit Gundam. It was Yamato, in fact, that challenged and boosted Bandai’s capabilities to the point where they were equipped to build Gundam into a worldwide phenomenon.

The craftsmen of Bandai have never forgotten this, and said so quite plainly in a long-overdue tell-all book titled Bandai Character Plastic Model Chronicle (Gakken, April 2007). Written by Satoshi Kato and Hideki Kakinuma, two artists who have worked in many levels of the anime industry from mecha design to package design, the book covers Bandai’s prehistory in 1958 all the way up to the present with many photos of the ‘breakthrough’ kits that pushed the company into the realm of giants. The book is primarily filled with text, however, which includes a substantial chapter on the genesis of the Yamato models. (A complete visual history of the kits begins here.)

Thanks to our mighty translator Earnest Migaki, that very chapter is presented here in English for the first time. Enjoy!

Space Battleship Yamato: The Road to the Display Kits

Text by Satoshi Kato and Hideki Kakinuma, ┬ęGakken 2007
Translated by Earnest Migaki, edited by Tim Eldred

What’s Space Battleship Yamato?

The fans who have kept Yamato alive for the past 30 years were no doubt born in the 1960s. This was the generation that wasn’t affected by the immediate aftermath of WWII in the schools. During those wars, Japan had the technology to develop things like the Battleship Yamato and the Zero Fighter, but in the end it’s regrettable that we fell to the might of the American and British forces. The generations that grew up afterward took on the orthodox historical perspective of WWII. Even though we lost, the pride of Japan remains in the images of the Yamato and the Zero. These images remain popular in scale-model merchandising as well.

Battleship Yamato was the largest and most powerful ship in the world at the time, and it was built to save Japan from her enemies. But she ended up sinking to the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Kyushu instead. What took 3 years to build had only a 4 year lifespan. A truly sad story; the end of the era of huge battleships. The anime Space Battleship Yamato takes this sad tale and gives Yamato a new identity in a futuristic setting.

Using legendary names from Japan’s history, the anime jumpstarted the huge battleship again in the future to save all of humanity, and livened up the drama with science-fiction and fantasy. This Yamato had heroes and heroines in love, as well as mecha battles that were technically feasible. With the huge popularity of the Yamato movies, people began saying Yamato was truly unsinkable. With the unusually high attention to detail, plamodel fans who weren’t necessarily anime fans felt they had to watch this anime or miss out on something great. (Editor’s note: ‘plamodel’ was a hybrid word meaning ‘play-model,’ since many model kits of the time had toylike action features. The word would later come to mean ‘plastic model.’)

The 1970s were a time of complete social collapse as a result of widespread pollution and stalled development. Basically, what brought Japan out of that slump was the anime resurrection of Yamato. Taking the remains of the ancient warship and refitting it with the Wave Motion Gun allowed Yamato to overcome all enemies. The attention to detail rose above the typical TV manga geared only for children. (Editor’s note: since most early animated programs were adaptations of popular manga, they were categorized as ‘TV manga.’ The term ‘anime’ arose after the success of Yamato.)

What did Yamato Fans respond to?

When the first Yamato movie came out, new merchandise (posters, books, LP records, etc.) followed the unusually popular film. At the same time, Bandai’s plamodels became a hit in a their own category. The love of Japanese people for figurines and mecha from their favorite anime shows is legendary, even to an American Otaku researcher who recently appeared on TV to report his findings. What made Yamato special was the fact that the narrator would constantly call out ‘Yamato!’ Not ‘Kodai!’ or ‘Shima!’ or even ‘Captain Okita!’ Always ‘Yamato!,’ because Yamato was the main character of the series.

Episodes 1 & 2 focused on the original Yamato to bring out people’s emotions, because the ship was one of the series’ strong points. The American Otaku researcher was probably right when he said that Japan is the world leader of the ‘Plamodel Empire,’ what with all the feeling we have towards the phenomenon of mecha such as battleships and robots.

From Battleship Yamato to Space Battleship Yamato; the Zero Fighter to the Cosmo Zero

In the anime, not only Yamato, but the Zero Fighter is also resurrected. In the future, another ship that saves mankind is the heroic space fighter, Cosmo Zero. Separate from fans who merely rode current trends, plamodel devotees jumped into this arena first as hobby, then they grew into it by exploring their interests in the background and history, with some even building their craft into a career. This too can be considered dramatic, heroic, and possibly even tragic. For these people, Space Battleship Yamato was a worthy successor of the original.

No series before this one ever focused so much detail on the design of mecha and weaponry. The first Yamato film drew over two million moviegoers. Its TV broadcast earned a 30% share in the ratings. The second movie attracted 4 million people nationwide. As each subsequent movie or TV series was released, it revolutionized the anime industry.

Bandai was very fortunate to have become the merchandiser of plamodels for the Yamato series. Bandai wasn’t doing so great before they got the Yamato contract, which, according to rumors, was originally slated to go to a rival company named Imai. Once Bandai acquired the Yamato license, things really took off for them. Chances are if they hadn’t gotten that license, the power balance of the plamodel world would have been very different, indeed! One can also say this was an important turning point for the plamodel world itself, as it led the evolution from scale models [of real-world objects] to character models [of fantasy objects]. This also led a movement in which history was overtaken by fiction. It would have been interesting to see which would have sold more in the Japanese plamodel world: the battleship or the space battleship.

Yamato Saves the Day

Since the formation of Bandai back in 1971, they slowly built up their sales. During the first year they sold approximately 1.16 billion yen worth of merchandise (about $11 million US) with about 120 million yen in profits ($1.2 million). The sixth year (1976-1977) they sold approximately 2.6 billion yen ($26 million) with 320 million yen ($3.2 million) in profits.

But Bandai Models took a hit in 1977 when they couldn’t secure rights to the Super Car Boom that took off that year, and their sales dropped to 1.28 billion yen ($12.8 million) with a loss of 6.5 million yen ($65,000). As a result, the then-president shut down the factory in Shizuoka prefecture and consolidated it with the Tochigi Bandai Plant. What saved the day for Bandai was the Yamato Boom. Prior to the Super Car Boom, Bandai sold the first four Yamato kits: Yamato, Cosmo Zero, Black Tiger and the Analyzer Robot. These kits didn’t sell well because they were marketed towards children, rather than the hardcore plamodel fans.

At the time, it was common for anime and character goods to be manufactured as ‘zenmai,’ a term for windup toys. Bandai did not manufacture their own windup motors, but instead used what was available from a variety of different versions available in the general market. Unfortunately, they could not find one that would fit inside the slender body of their first Yamato kit. As a result, the model everybody wanted was compromised by a large ‘zenmai’ motor that stuck out of the bottom. This ruined the image the fans had of Yamato. Hardcore modelers with exceptional skill were able to remove it and patch over the hole, but those who wanted a perfect version of the ship needed to make it themselves from scratch. In an earlier year, the Imai Company made a ship model from Mighty Jack, a marvelous kit that also ran on a motor, had spring-loaded wings that popped out on either side, and a smaller ship that emerged from a hatch in its underside. Yamato fans were also disappointed their ship did not include such features.

After Yamato finished its first TV run, the popularity increased and fans wanted merchandise that was closer to the images they saw in the anime. Plamodel fans flooded Bandai with letters requesting more parts and accessories, or a better-made Yamato. Based on their reaction, Mr. Matsumoto of Bandai Model Development believed that ‘Yamato might just save the day!’ So in the summer of 1977, the next Yamato merchandising campaign began.

Even with a re-release of the original kits without the ‘zenmai’ motors, they took a long time to disappear from store shelves. The hardcore plamodelers cried out to Bandai that they didn’t want the cheap models anymore. They wanted the real thing. For this reason, Bandai improved their Yamato kit and added a stand so fans could put it on display. This was a hit, and fans went out of their way to support Bandai for listening to the demands of the customers.

Riding the new wave of popularity, Bandai decided on how to develop the new product line. The improved Yamato had little dramatic impact, so they decided on the ‘Deform Display Model’ for their next line of attack. In the anime and on the movie posters, there is a shot showing the huge bow of Yamato with the stern diminishing off into the distance. They thought simulating that would make a perfect kit that hardcore fans would love, but when it was released some fans looked at the model and said, ‘What’s this? From the side it looks like a dehydrated bonito!’

Amidst fears and expectations, the Yamato ‘Deform Display Model’ was re-issued as the ‘Image Model’ on July 1978 to coincide with the release of the second movie. 10,000 units were sold out at once with orders for more, especially from the fans who were the most critical during the initial release. This was how Bandai made a remarkable turnaround from being in the red to back in the black. One can say that Yamato was not only on a mission to save the earth, but also to save Bandai. This also revolutionized the plamodel world by showing that customers weren’t interested in cheap-quality kid toys anymore.

The Epoch-making 100-yen Mecha Collection Series

During this time, Bandai wasn’t the only company making ‘character models.’ The enemies in anime shows were there only to be brought down by the heroes. However, characters like Dessler (Desslok) and Dommel (Lysis) had great presence and appeal as the enemy for the first time. As they advanced their plans against Yamato, they brought with them a sense of believability as well.

Riding the boom, Bandai rolled out their Mecha Collection Series at the start of 1979. In order to secure the low cost of 100 yen each (about $1 US), they decided from the beginning on the size of the box, including the runner size that would fit into it, even if the kits themselves didn’t have a unified scale. They also took other cost-cutting measures to keep the price down. They printed the instructions inside the box cover to save on paper. The box was made from recycled cardboard and used only three ink colors instead of the standard four (red, blue, yellow and black). Experts these days notice the missing black, but back then it’s highly doubtful anybody had a clue.

Regularly, mecha for the supporting characters was not manufactured at all, but the Yamato series added them to the lineup. These smaller kits appealed to various groups of people, from the anime fans who became plamodelers, to kids who barely had enough allowance to buy their favorite kits, to even the experienced scale modelers, all of whom were a part of this boom. In the past, many models were built, played with, got broken and that was it. The newer ones could be collected and displayed. This special line of kits continued until June of 1981 with 30 different items.

Imai’s Thunderbird boom placed 45 different kits in stores, but they just couldn’t compare with the impressive lineup of the Yamato series. In the past, over half the plamodels for Thunderbirds included action features that ran on ‘zenmai’ motors. But as times changed, the Yamato series was where it was at. It’s interesting to note that 30 years after the initial Yamato boom, the series can still hold its own after all this time.

Bandai had become famous for its plamodels and collections, and their know-how would now take them into the newer territory of the ‘Gunpla’ boom with Mobile Suit Gundam.

(End of Chapter)

Read Kato and Kakinuma’s coverage of the 2007 Yamato model in the “Part 11” link below.

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