We 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 Gunpla relieve themselves.

We’re in “the Shizz.” That’s what Patrick has unofficially dubbed the Bandai Hobby Center, the gleaming new high-tech factory in Japan’s Shizuoka prefecture where each and every Gunpla (Gundam model kit) is lovingly manufactured. Bandai had set up a personal tour for the two of us after a sake-fueled evening in Tokyo’s Asakusa district a few weeks back. Patrick’s Japanese-language book Otaku in USA made a big splash at the Bandai offices, and my translation company AltJapan has been doing work for them for years. Now the two of us are 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 were Japanese fans selected via an online lottery in 2006. 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 25 years. But they weren’t allowed to go any further. 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 Gundam’s “One Year War” than the Six Day War.

Photos alone don’t even come close to conveying the sense of all-plastic assault on the senses upon entering the lobby. The displays—there’s easily 40 or 50 of them—are arranged by year, filled with professionally assembled samples used at trade shows back in the day. These are the robots that reduced countless Gundam fans to tears as kids when they realized that they’d never be able to build and paint them as well.

But we aren’t here to see dusty old model kits. We’re here to see the high-tech heart and soul of the facility. It lies behind a sturdy, card-activated blast 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 the door lies the sprawling workroom where a crack team of engineers dressed in simulacra of “Earth Federation Forces” jackets plan, design, and troubleshoot upcoming model kits, jacked into a massive 3-D rapid prototyping station that lets 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—descendants, we’re told, of the same craftsmen that built Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa’s castle here in 1585. (Little did Japan’s greatest Shogun realize what an impact his decisions would be having on robot fans more than four centuries later.) It took weeks, sometimes months, even for such supremely talented beings, to sculpt and assemble a finished a wooden prototype. Now, thanks to the miracle of the rapid prototyping machine, it only takes a few hours.

Fittingly, our next stop is in a museum-like area we call 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 have been … but never were. If only! Simply getting to see them is a heady mixture of pain and pleasure for any true-blue fan of Gundam’s exploits.

Before long we’re out of the museum and on the factory floor, home to 16 cutting-edge injection-molding machines in concert capable of popping out some 70,000 sprues per day. That breaks down into thousands upon thousands of kits. The manufacturing facilities for toys have all been outsourced abroad, but not for model kits. The Gunpla are the crown jewel of Bandai’s product 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 Gunpla. 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 from decades past, still being used after all these years. Most toy fads peter out after a few years. Bandai’s been manufacturing Gunpla 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 (older gentleman), 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 seems more than a little 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 15-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 shuttle 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 programmed initiative as they scurry back and forth between the manufacturing floor and the warehouse.

Robots making robot toys. In a place where the employees wear Gundam uniforms and even the commodes feature the giant hero’s trademark red, yellow, and white colors, why are we not surprised? BACK TO TOP.

OTAKU USA. Copyright 2007.