Patrick and I really did it, I think to myself, triggering the shutter for what has to be my first-ever photograph of a urinal. We've penetrated the inner sanctum. This is where the people who design Gun-Pla relieve themselves.
We're in the Shizz. That's what Patrick has unoffically dubbed the Bandai Hobby Center, the gleaming new high-tech factory in Shizuoka prefecture where each and every Gundam model kit is lovingly manufactured. Bandai set up a personal tour for the two of us after a sake-fueled evening in Asakusa a few weeks back. Patrick's book Otaku in USA made a big splash at the Bandai offices, and my company's been doing translation work for them for years. Now we're being thanked with the otaku equivalent of an audience at the Vatican.
The first (and, as far as we know, only) group of "civilians" to visit the facility earlier this year were Japanese fans selected via an online lottery. More than ten thousand applied. Five hundred were chosen. We are, we're told, the first fresh gaijin meat ever to set foot inside the place.
Actually, that's not exactly true. According to our guide, a horde of crazed French anime fans showed up out of the blue one day several months back, drumming on the windows with baguettes, begging to be let inside via a combination of hand signals and broken English. After a hurried discussion that probably involved a hasty consultation with the local Shizuoka gendarmerie, the management agreed to let them in as far as the entryway. Even that must've been pretty thrilling for a Gundam fan, it being lined with glass showcases containing professionally-assembled samples of Bandai's top kits for the last twenty five years. But they weren't allowed any futher. The Shizuoka facility isn't open to casual visitors. It's a sacred place, hallowed ground for the sort of people who care more about the "One Year War" than the Six Day War.
Photos alone don't even come close to conveying the sense of all-plastic assualt on the senses upon entering the lobby. The displays -- there's easily forty or fifty of them -- are arranged by year, filled with professionally assembled samples used at trade shows back in the day. These are the robots that hooked you as a kid and made you cry when you realized you'd never be able to build and paint them this well.
But we aren't here to see old model kits. We're here to see the heart and soul of the facility. It lies behind a sturdy, card-activated door, sealing it off from the public areas... and the reality of the outside world. Welcome to the "Area 51" of the Japanese toy industry.
Behind it lies the sprawling workroom where employees dressed in simulacra of Earth Federation Forces jackets plan, design, and troubleshoot upcoming model kits, jacked into massive 3-D rapid prototyping stations that let them churn out perfect samples from computer data. Back when Bandai's Gundam kits first strode onto toy store shelves in 1980, the prototypes were all carved by hand from wood by local craftsmen -- descendents, we're told, of the same craftsmen that built Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa's castle here in 1585. It took weeks, sometimes months, for even men as supremely talented as them to assemble a final prototype. Now it only takes a few hours.
We make our way through the Hall of Forgotten Prototypes. Slumbering in a glass case are blueprints for the very first Gundam kit and a mouth-watering selection of products that could'a been but never were. (My kingdom for that giant wooden Walker Galliar or tiny Baikanfu.)
Then we're on the factory floor, home to sixteen cutting-edge injection molding machines in concert capable of popping out some seventy thousand sprues per day. That breaks down into thousands upon thousands of kits. The toy-manufacturing facilities have all been outsourced abroad, but not the models. They're the crown jewel of Bandai's toy line, and the technology is far too important to risk falling into competitors' hands. Everywhere sit giant sacks of plastic pellets, the unrefined base material used to make street-grade Gun-Pla. Stacks of dies await their turns to be mounted on the machines. Some of them look quite old; when I ask, I'm told that they're quite possibly originals, still being used after all these years. Most toy fads peter out after a few years. Bandai's been manufacturing Gun-Pla for more than a quarter century.
In an adjacent work bay a half dozen workers polish and adjust the molds for Bandai's upcoming giant-scale $400 Space Cruiser Yamato kit on lines of greasy tables, like a prison shop class. One genial ojisan, apparently still ineligible for (or uninterested in) parole, is introduced to us as "the man who oversaw the molding of the very first Gundam kits in 1980. He mildly surprised at the crazed twinkle in Patrick's and my eyes, the "big fan of your work, sir," launched in unison in our most cracking fifteen-year-old fanboy voices. How would he have reacted if we hadn't restrained ourselves, barely, from throwing ourselves at his feet?
Amid the din of the machines suctioning plastic pellets from bags of raw material and robotic arms lifting finished sprues from the dies, a pair of beeping automated forklifts shuttles raw materials and finished product around the facility. One is finished in olive drab; the other in red. Both, naturally, feature the cyclopean faces of Zaku mobile suits. They're unmanned, operating under their own initiative as they scurry back and forth between the manufacturing floor and the warehouse.