It always sucks being the unlucky soul that has to follow the proverbial “tough act”. It is not easy to live up to what has already been established as a high water mark, and something that might have been good enough, or perhaps even better than that, before, is now seen as only second-rate. This was the situation for Sunrise’s 1987 robot anime Metal Armour Dragonar. It had the unenviable job of becoming the next “big thing” for Sunrise and Bandai. However, it was the 80’s, and giant, well-animated robots were THE thing in anime. I mean, what could go wrong?
The problem was that the “last big thing” Dragonar was supposed to replace was… Gundam. You may as well replace Baseball with Cricket on US networks, or replace chicken wings and beer with soda water and celery sticks at the local pub. Even though Gundam ZZ was not a smashing success, by this point it was, or should have been, pretty clear that in order to dethrone Gundam as a cultural force was going to require a lot more than… a warmed-over Gundam.
Yes, the main issue with Dragonar wasn’t that it was a bad show. It really wasn’t. It still isn’t. I enjoy it immensely, and have watched it several times. The animation is great, the character designs are good, and the mecha are interesting and innovative while being familiar at the same time. The story, though, was more or less cribbed from a Cole’s notes of the original Gundam series, and the show suffered for this lack of originality. As it was, Dragonar has, more or less, faded into history, while Gundam continues to conquer all.
But this is hindsight. Despite this unfortunate turn of events, at the time, Bandai was fully committed to kitting out the mecha of Dragonar. The great thing about the Dragonar line was it included both the original and upgraded versions of the main mecha, as well as the generic mecha used by the enemy “Giganos Lunar Empire”. (See… it’s different! The enemy here is on the moon, not in a colony. Totally not the same as Gundam.) That means there are a lot of different Dragonar kits to collect. Of course, I’ve done my best, and I think I’ve succeeded in getting all 1/144 Dragonar models. For more details, check out my Dragonar Score and see what I’m talking about.
One luxury I rarely have is to be working on a kit from the anime I’m currently watching. However, my workbench had an opening when I decided to start watching Dragonar again. Thus, I dug one out of the stash so I could enjoy both watching, and building, the same franchise at one time. (I don’t mean literally one time – I don’t model while watching TV. I focus on one thing at a time, so I can do each justice.) I had a lot to choose from when it came to a subject, but since I’ve already done the generic Schwalg, I thought I’d go “full hero” and bust out the main mech, the XD-01 Dragonar 1 (aka “D1”). Let’s see how mecha were done back in the day, and if Dragonar kits have what it took to be the “next big thing”.
If you’ve been around the Lagoon at all, you know I place a high, high premium on box art. A good box is a work of art in itself, and a cruddy box… well, that’s a reason to leave a kit to rot on the shelves in many cases. Thankfully, the folks doing the Dragonar boxes knew this, and each and every one of them is, indeed, artfully done. The box art on Dragonars is, far and away, superior to the art on the roughly contemporary Gundam ZZ boxes. The ZZ boxes look jumbled and cartoony. The Dragonar boxes are much more restrained and professional looking.
The D1’s box is a perfect example. Unlike so many other mech kit boxes that look like shots from an anime, the Dragonar boxes look like… well… art! They have a clearly artistic composition and look more like high-end warplane paintings than what you’d expect on a robot kit box! This adds realism and legitimacy to what are, of course, fanciful designs. It makes the mech seem more like it actually exists, and that it was worthy of an artist’s attention.
The main focus of the illustration is, of course, the Dragonar-1. However, rather than being a boring “standing there” shot, or one of it doing something ridiculously heroic, the image shows the D1 skimming only feet (or inches) above a rather dark and foreboding sea. The dark green-grey of the water with its small wave caps contrasts with the blue sky behind the mech. However, what really makes this illustration work is that it’s tilted. The D1 is flying straight at us, but we know it’s maneuvering hard, because the horizon is tilted wildly. This, combined with the large white rooster-tail stirred up by the mech’s proximity to the ocean gives a great sense of action to the drawing.
It’s also unusual to see a flying mech so close to the surface of the water. However, if you’ve seen the show, then you know for a lot of the first half, the D1 is based off a carrier, and the pilot (Kaine Wakaba) does like to play footsies with the wave tops. Thus, this box makes use of this rather unusual employment of a flying robot very well. By adding in a faded image of Dragonar-2 blasting out in the background, a further sense of urgency is added to the image. When you consider all of this, and note that the style is more that of a fine painting than a sketch of a cartoony super-robot, it combines to create an exciting, but formal, representation of the mech inside.
The white borders on the main illustration serve to visually lighten the box, keeping it clean, especially compared to the gaudily coloured ZZ boxes of the time. On the sides of the box, the clean, minimalist style continues; there’s a write up (only in Japanese) and a few shots of the finished model, including one with the Dragonar separated from the lifter unit. The fact that this much is achievable on a box that is about half the surface area, and about ¼ the volume of a current HGUC Gundam is remarkable.
As nice as the box is, though, I don’t build the box. It definitely colours my perceptions and first impressions, but I’ve been modelling long enough to see nice box art cover for a truly savage kit. The questions is, then, how’s the kit inside?
Inside the small, nearly square box, are three and a quarter sprues of mint-green plastic. If you’ve ever seen an original MSZ-10 ZZ Gundam kit, then you know exactly the colour I mean. This particular shade seems to have been a Bandai favourite back in the middle-late 1980s, because it seems to pop up a lot. “Wait, did you just say 3.25 sprues?” you ask? Yep. I did. There is a fourth sprue, but it’s very small, and only contains a few parts for the lifter pack. There’s also a rack of primitive all-the-same polycaps and, of course, the instructions. There are also a sheet of colourful stickers. These, however, are clear plastic stickers, like those on ‘80s GI Joe toys. I know from lots of GI Joe decalling back in the days that you DO NOT want to use these. Not on a model. Not now… not in 1987… not in the future… not EVER!!
As expected from a kit of this age, things are pretty simple. I have to say, I like what I see. It’s a great break to not see internal frames, layered armour components and weapons that are small kits in and of themselves! Most of the major subassemblies are in halves. Legs, arms, body… all halves. The gun is moulded as a single friggin’ piece, even! When was the last time we got that luxury? The Lifter’s wings are single piece, though, which makes them easier to handle and prevents excessive fragility and negates unnecessary sanding.
This kit is no HGUC, nor is it a distant cousin to the Real Grades of today. It is a simple, but well-laid out, model of a cool robot. There’s very little evidence of build-around, which is impressive in a subject from this era. Gundams and Valkyries of this era were horrifically endowed with lots of build-around – where one assembly has to be finished before going inside another “raw” one – and to see it largely absent is amazing. There is some surface detail, and the engine nozzles and intake fan on the lifter jet engines look really good.
There are some sink marks, particularly on the rifle, but by and large the kit is mark- and flash-free. There isn’t a tonne of surface detail but what there is, is nicely done. One thing I did like immediately is that all the colour separation lines on the lifter and the Dragonar are, indeed, etched as panel lines. However, the lines on the legs, where the large blue and red stripes go, are very faint. I feel that these will have to be rescribed. Still, it makes eschewing the decals easier, and I’m glad there’s not just a wide expanse, clear of demarcations, goading you to use the bloody stickers!
One thing that will hit less-veteran Gundam builders right away is the monochrome nature of the sprues. Whereas more modern kits have full colour moulding and great colour separation, this kit was clearly made before that was even considered. The single colour of mint green makes for a less visually impressive package than even the aforementioned ZZ, which at least had two colours in the box. Heck, it means that Matchbox kits have more colour moulding that this Dragonar does! Still, that’s just how it was back then… this is a full retro experience, after all!
Instructions and “Decals”:
The instructions for the D-1 come on a simple “four panel” folded instruction sheet, one side of which is in colour, the other in black and white. The cover of the instructions is another nice piece of art, a close-up of the D1’s upper half. It is completely different from the box art, and is done in an almost CG style, even though it’s not CG. It’s very detailed, with a lot of attention to things like panel lines. Sadly, the kit is nowhere near this detailed, but that’s okay; its’ nice to know they at least thought the design through, even if it was beyond the mouldmakers’ abilities!
There is a nice full-colour section that discusses the D-1, as well as the “lifter” or flight pack that it uses. There’s even a very impressively realistic cutaway drawing that shows the lifter’s internal structure. This kind of detail seems to be lacking on today’s instructions, and I do miss it. The full-colour painting plan is also decidedly old-school, as it shows what to paint what colours… while the pieces are still on the runners! Needless to say, this doesn’t work, and you should never attempt this unless it is unavoidable!
Inside the manual, there are only seven numbered steps to finishing the Dragonar off. This is a testament to the model’s simplicity, but I doubt that it will be as easy as it looks. With older mech kits, it very rarely is! The instructions, despite being almost completely devoid of any English, are extremely well done and easy to follow. The even show you onto what surfaces glue should be applied, by marking them with little “X” hashmarks.
“Wait.., did you just say “glue”?” you might be asking yourself. Yes… yes I did. This is an old kit. The D1 cannot be built without glue. It’s not a snap-fit kit in the slightest way, and everything that’s a separate part is going to have to be glued, filled and sanded. This is a model first, last and only. It’s not designed to be built up and give you a nice representation without paint or other efforts. This is not a toy, and not designed to mollycoddle its owner. It is a pure model kit, and demands all the skills that a normal kit would. That’s another way you can tell it’s old; Bandai made it so the kit would only be of use to pure modellers, their target at the time. There was no such thing as “casual mech building” back then. There was no final product without being a modeller. It was only when Bandai realized how much market they were losing that this changed, but that was a long way off when D-1 hit the scene!
There is, though, one concession on this point, and that’s the sheet of plastic stickers. The sheet isn’t large, but it does contain the red and blue stripes for the legs and a couple of other places. These stickers, though, are of the clear, plastic type familiar to those who decalled GI Joe toys in the ‘80s. These are not good stickers, and they will have trouble conforming to the rather complex curvature of the D1’s legs, I’m sure. They are there more as an insult than as an aide, it would seem, and it’s best to avoid using them.
Dragonar was a neat show, with cool, original mecha. It was well-drawn and is a fun watch even now. Sadly, by staying too close to Gundam’s winning formula, it ended up dooming itself to widespread obscurity. Such is the fate of so many “me too” shows. Thankfully, Bandai didn’t foresee this, and kitted the snot out of it, making sure we’d all have lots to build from the show for decades to come!
As the main mech of the show, the Dragonar 1 is a pretty cool-looking unit, and the addition of the flight booster, with wings and rocket pods and jet engines (Oh my!), only helps it stand out a bit more in the crowd. As a kit, the D1 is not overly complicated in terms of piece count, but it will likely present some challenges during building and/or painting. I’ve built enough mech kits to know older, simple-appearing models usually have a couple of tricks and pitfalls up their sleeves!
That having been said, it’s a good kit for a beginner. It’s simple, rugged and with only a few pieces, it won’t be too long until the subassemblies are at least glued together. There will be a lot of opportunities to sand on this kit too. Thus, it’s a great one for training a novice mech builder on the basics, before they get hooked on unnecessary aging, excessive kitbashing, or begin to think that mech models are just about popping together pieces like a Lego set.
For an advanced builder, there are places to superdetail or customize, and there’s some nice surface detail, including the intake blades, that should come out well with a wash. The kit should reward care in both building and painting, and it’s one of those that, if you want it to look like the box, you’re going to have to know how to “work it”, as the saying goes!
Dragonar might not have gotten all the fame it deserves, but it sure has a lot of neat kits to its name, and the D1 is one of them. From a nostalgia standpoint it looks like fun, and it won’t take up much room in the stash – you might as well get one (or two) if you see them!