There is no stopping
the giant robots of Gundam.

Four decades after the sci-fi anime series "Mobile Suit Gundam" debuted on Japanese television, plastic models lifted from the saga are as popular as ever. Toymaker Bandai Namco has sold over 500 million of them worldwide, and the factory where they are made is still running at full throttle 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

A new plant will come online in 2020, a fitting way to mark the 40th anniversary of the original series.

The story depicts a distant future in which characters do battle in huge robots they call "mobile suits." But the models, known in Japan as Gunpla, are decidedly old school. The parts come attached to injection molding "runners." Basically, you cut off the components and assemble them according to the instructions. Enthusiasts customize them with paint jobs and other fine-tuning.

Yet, in an age when attention spans are short and entertainment options are endless, these plastic figures may well be one of Japan's most remarkable commercial phenomena.

We recently toured the two most sacred spots in Gunpla geekdom: Gundam Base Tokyo, a tourist attraction in Tokyo's Odaiba waterfront district, and the Bandai Hobby Center in Shizuoka Prefecture, where the models are painstakingly produced.

Come along for
the ride.

1:144 scale Char's Zaku mobile suit, for the charismatic antagonist also known as the Red Comet (created by professional Gundam model builder Meister Sekita).

Although the models come with instructions, there are no "rules" for Gunpla. Creators try to make their models of the imaginary machines look as real and authentic as possible.

Gundam Base Tokyo's SD Gundam Section.

Marcus Leung an overjoyed 8-year-old from Hong Kong, said he had traveled to Tokyo to buy Gunpla. The boy said he talks with his school friends about Gundam all the time.

HG 1:144 scale RX-78-2 Gundam.

The essence of Gunpla is to enjoy the process of assembling the parts. Some kits have more than 1,000 pieces, and hobbyists get a thrill from turning mere plastic fragments into their favorite mobile suits.

RG 1:144 scale ν Gundam model, released in August 2019.

Assemblers' imaginations give the breath of life to plastic models.

Metal mold for the old 1:144 scale RX-78-2 Gundam model kit.

This metal mold has many carefully crafted cavities, each of which corresponds with a part. Molten plastic at temperatures of over 200 C flows into these spaces -- the birthplace of Gunpla.

Over 2,000 metal molds have been created for Gunpla.

Some molds weigh more than 1 metric ton. They are lifted by a crane from a storage space under the floor and brought to molding machines.

1:144 scale RX-78-2 Gundam model, released in 1980. The price, then and now, is 300 yen ($2.76 at the current rate).

Of all the molds ever used in production, only one has been discarded. These molds are essentially hidden assets that keep generating profits. The very first Gunpla model is still on the market.

There are over 200 types of pellets used for Gunpla, including 50 white varieties.

Preproduction plastic resin granules are called pellets. They come in various materials including polystyrene, acrylic and ABS. Different materials produce differences in hardness, luster and texture. Some plastics were developed exclusively for Gunpla.

Seventeen molding machines are used including a hydraulic one.

A molding machine: Multicolor molding, which involves creating a single runner using pellets of up to four different colors, has revolutionized plastic model production.

The best material is chosen from various candidates through repeated trials.

Plastic pellets are melted in over 200 C heat and injected into molds at a pressure of 150 tons. One runner is made in 15 to 20 seconds. Some mold shapes are so complex that a simulator declares them to be unusable. When such a mold is needed, a highly skilled and experienced engineer must operate the machine.

A high-temperature runner is taken off the mold by carefully adjusting the arm's force.
This runner for the old 1:60 scale G Gundam model kit is made through four-color molding.

Bandai developed special multicolor molding technology. The equipment was developed jointly with Toshiba Machine.

Engineers' skills are crucial for speedy molding.

The finish is checked by the human eye. Operators confirm that plastic reached all corners and that it has formed the expected shape. They make countless subtle adjustments to temperature and time to bring the products closer to perfection. The process is repeated again and again to get it just right.

Employees work in three shifts to keep the plant running at full tilt around the clock, all year around.
Specially designed machines carry Zaku models -- mobile suits for rank-and-file bad guys, akin to the stormtroopers in Star Wars.

The piles of products will be shipped to destinations as close as Tokyo and as far away as South Korea and the U.S.

The Bandai Hobby Center opened in 2006 and employs 120.

The Bandai Hobby Center plant in Shizuoka Prefecture is operating at full capacity. Another building, to be completed in 2020, will expand the capacity of the manufacturing complex by 40%. The plan is to increase shipments to the U.S. and China, two markets where demand for Gundam products is growing fast.

3D data, left, and a blueprint for the RG 1:144 scale ν Gundam model launched in August 2019.

Drawing up a plan for a Gunpla model requires studying reams of anime materials. Mobile suits are essentially weapons that have to travel in space and engage in mortal combat, including sword fights. The structures need to have reasonably realistic aerodynamics and mechanical dynamics. Sometimes, designers seek advice from outside experts. This blend of fantasy with a relentless drive for "reality" underpins the Gundam brand's appeal.

Gunpla has evolved thanks to numerous technological breakthroughs.

Hand parts are crucial for capturing the energy of the animations. Initially, the models' hands had only one hole for a saber. But the number of movable joints has increased gradually over the years. Now, all five fingers can be moved. Some products feature hands with mobile joints that are completed when they are cut off the runner. Engineers know the temperatures and speeds at which different kinds of plastic melt and solidify; they adjust the timing of plastic injections accordingly to form the joints.

This runner, for the RG 1:144 scale Strike Freedom Gundam, is made through two-stage molding with black mounted over orange. It is finished by removing the unnecessary parts.

Bandai also has technology to create a runner through a three-stage molding process. This approach reduces the workload for assemblers by combining multiple parts. Experts involved in all stages of the process -- design, mold production and actual molding -- are committed to developing better models.

Inner frame for RG 1:144 scale Strike Freedom Gundam.

Some products have an inner frame installed inside the exterior shell, which enables the model to strike various poses, including squatting, bending backward and stretching the arms upward.

Bandai Hobby Center's Mold Production Workshop in Shizuoka Prefecture.

In creating complex Gunpla models, tiny changes in the mold can cause the plastic to clog, resulting in a low-quality product. The production workshop receives many flawed metal molds. Engineers wearing the uniform of the Earth Federation Forces featured in the anime work to fix the problems. This entails shaving down or expanding the molds by millimeters, and then sending them back to the production site.
"When Gunpla was first put on the market, we had to work hard until midnight to meet demand," recalls Akihiro Kurita, 62, pictured at right. Since joining the company in 1980, Kurita has been working for the mold section. He is a walking dictionary of Gunpla history. "I never imagined that the products would sell for 40 years." His favorite mobile suit is the Nana hachi (78), or RX-78.

Tools that have been used for years have acquired a dark gray patina.
At least 10 years of hard work are required to become a full-fledged mold maker. Hiroki Nakano is still learning the craft.

"When I saw mold-making work on TV, I thought it is cool," says Nakano, 26. His instinct told him this was the right job for him.

Tools evolve with their users.

Nakano uses a range of tools and has crafted some of his own. "I have made many of the tools because there are tasks that cannot be carried out with off-the-shelf products." Each nameless instrument has its own unique role.

Metal mold for the old 1:144 scale RX-78-2 Gundam model kit.

Mold makers take a deep breath and peer into a microscope. They apply a file to the inside of the mold, making small, quivering movements.
"At first, I was told to redo it many times as I overdid it in shaving or expanding," Nakano says. "But I have finally learned the ropes and now I can usually do it right the first time."
Even so, he says, he still has a long way to go. "It is important for a mold maker to be able to grasp the entire process needed at a glance. Kurita-san has an amazing ability to do so."

Engineers wear uniforms based on the Earth Federation Forces uniform in the series.
These shelves are filled with Gundam Space Century series models.

more beautiful, more fun.

The Gunpla team members pool their skills and experience to create ever better models. Their dedication is one big reason why -- four decades and 500 million sales later -- these plastic figures continue to inspire fans of all ages and nationalities.

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