Throughout the ages, there has always been a debate about specialization. Is it better to be a “Jack of all trades” yet “master of none”, or is it better to “do one thing, really, really well”? Of course, there’s no solid, simple answer to this; it’s all based on context. Sometimes you need something to fulfill a multitude of roles, and others you really want to have that one, specific “thing” that does the job just right. Finding the balance is the key.
That balancing act is something that air forces around the world have been working on and struggling with since the first time somebody thought of more than one military use for an airplane. The goal has always been to try and make one plane fill as many roles as possible. I mean, it’s only logical, since it lowers costs (economies of scale can be leveraged) and shortens the logistics trail; fewer types means fewer different spares, etc. The ideal of a multi-role (indeed even an “omni-role”) aircraft has long been a dream, but has only very recently become a reality. With modern computers and jet engines, it’s finally possible to have one airframe do many different jobs, and do them all well.
However, that wasn’t always the case. In the years leading up to, and during, WWII, the technology wasn’t always there to have one plane act as a flying “Swiss Army Knife”. Granted, there were exceptions, like the Mosquito and Ju-88, that proved the rule, but by and large it was tough to have a single plane do it all. Some that tried and failed were the Bf-110, and of course the weird French “Multiplace do combat”, the Amiot 143. So, in the absence of the “one plane to rule them all”, it was more common to have a number of specialist airframes during the War Years.
One of the more specialized roles for planes was shipboard spotting. Every nation had one or more type of this kind of plane. They were usually multi-crew aircraft designed to be launched from ships’ catapults and to act as gunnery spotters, directing the ships’ powerful artillery against an enemy that was beyond normal visual range. Aircraft like the Fairey Seafox and the Curtiss SOC Seagull, as well as the Arado Ar-196, are all examples of this. Once the battle was over, these planes would land on their floats/pontoons and be winched back aboard, ready for the next go.
Due to the fact that Japan’s empire was composed of many small islands often very far apart, it comes as no surprise that the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) also operated specialist aircraft of this type. However, there is no other nation on Earth that did, has, or has ever, had as many different seaplane/flying boat spotters and reconnaissance aircraft as Japan! From earlier days with the biplane Kawanishi “Alf” to the highly advanced, yet troublesome Kawanishi E15K “Norm”, Japan embraced the recon “floaty plane” the way a giant squid hugs a Great White Shark. They even had floatplanes that folded up for deployment from submarines! (Heck, they had two – the Seiran bomber and the more pedestrian E14Y “Glen” recon craft!)
But, just when you thought that was specialized enough, the IJN took things to a whole new level. They were very specific about what they wanted in their aircraft, issuing very demanding specifications for specialist hardware. One such plane, which I will admit I’d never heard of until I got the kit, was the Aichi E11A, known to the Allies as “Laura”. This was designed as a three-seat biplane flying boat. The role for this craft was shipboard NIGHT artillery spotting. Yeah… the IJN was THAT specific. They wanted it for night spotting. Because the spec was so narrow, not may Lauras were built. The internet tells me there were 17, so we’ll go with that. When you consider all the trouble to design, build and support a mere 17 aircraft for such a specialist role, you have to wonder if it was worthwhile? Did the IJN really need something to fill such a narrow niche?
That’s a question that history answered for us, actually. Shortly after the war began, the Lauras were relegated to transport and liaison duties. So, no, the Laura wasn’t really all that needed after all. However, what’s even more amazing is that the Allies had a name for a plane they’d never even seen! Apparently, no one saw a Laura until it was illustrated in some books AFTER the war! (Yes, the Allied reporting system was kind of a mess in the Pacific. Names for planes that didn’t exist and no names for planes that did…)
When you consider that, the chances, you’d think, of having a kit of this highly obscure aircraft would be similar to finding a Unicorn on your front door step just when you need someone to fart a rainbow. However, as if walking into a gaseous cloud of Skittles was normal, Fujimi decided to satisfy the demand (?) for the E11A and issued one in 1/72. Now, if you’re thinking “Man, that’s gotta be an old kit. Nobody is going to waste plastic on something that obscure today!” then you would be dead wrong. Dead like a vulture smorgasbord.
For, in fact, the Fujimi kit was first issued in 2015! It is still the only injection moulded kit of the Laura that I know of (Planet made a resin in 1/72 in the mid ‘90s, I think). That it took 78 years for the Laura to go from service entry to injection moulded kit is no more surprising than that there’s a kit at all. Of course, being a new a kit, you may be surprised I bought it. Still, the siren song of a cool, yet unknown, “floaty” was strong, and so I picked this up in one of my many raids on Broughdale Hobbies’ massive stack of old kits, including a lot of Japanese floatplanes.
So, let’s pop the top and see what the gang at Fujimi can do in the 21st Century with a type that made it almost undetected through the entirety of not only WWII, but the last 65 years of the 20th Century!
Lush box art is something I am addicted to. You know that from my love of Matchbox boxes, as well as many other old kits. The thing is, really cool box art, not just photos or CG, was something I thought was a lost art. The old boxes all had cool, gritty, realistic paintings that were full of action and excitement, or, barring that, at least had the weight of the painters brush behind them. More modern kits are more sterile in their approach to the box art, and it sucks.
However, Fujimi decided to go traditional on this one! Not only is the art of a plane that many haven’t heard of or ever even seen, but there are no major English titles anywhere. Indeed, the only English is a small bit of safety warning advice in the lower left corner. This adds a heavy dose of exciting “foreign-ness”, a “not for export” vibe that increases the apparent exclusivity and mystery that we haven’t seen in a model plane box for a long, long time (like since the ‘60s). The way the titling is written only adds to the impression. The white band at the left of the box does tell you what it is, but unless you read Kanji, you’re screwed.
The font, done in a traditional calligraphy-style, adds to the “traditional” appeal of the box, looking more like an unrolled scroll than a model kit label. The art itself is an interesting amalgam of old style and new technique. The Laura and its background are very heavy. The colours are bold and most are surprisingly subdued. However, the heavily clouded sky and shimmering waters below add a “just after a storm” look that’s very visceral. While composed in a very old-fashioned way, the art for the Laura itself is super-crisp. It must be CG rendered, but it is so perfect that it actually looks like an anime cell; something out of a Miyazaki movie comes to mind.
This juxtaposition of an old design (very heavily rigged biplanes look anything but cutting edge…) with hyper-modern rendering against a more traditional background should, in reality, create a visual dissonance that would be both off-putting and poorly-advised. But it doesn’t. Instead, it works amazingly well, and the impression one gets subconsciously is that this is going to be a very modern rendering of something very venerable. Guess what? That’s exactly what you get! Somehow the art crew at Fujimi managed to convey exactly the right feeling in a way you’d never expect it. That alone makes the box with the price of admission!
On the side of the box, you get a small piece of the art, as well as a look at two decal sheets. The other side of the box is all Japanese. I can’t read it, so I can’t guess what it says, and it’s not interesting enough for a photo. That’s a problem I find with Fujimi and Aoshima kits in general – a whole side with a writeup and no English is not much use to me. Of course, I’m not the intended audience, so I don’t really have a right to complain.
So, with a box this generally well-crafted, let’s see if the quality continues inside the box, shall we?
Inside the box are four sprues of very dark grey (think Panzer Schwarzgrau) plastic, and one of clear. The four sprues are not loaded with parts; they actually have a lot of “white space” on them, and a first impression could easily be “meh”. It’s got about the same number of sprues as other biplanes in this size and scale, so Laura is nothing special, right? She’s just good at putting on a pretty face.
Well, no. That’s altogether wrong. Taking a good look at the parts, you can see right away that this kit is extremely nice. For one thing, it is NOT overly complicated (hear that, Zvezda?). It has just the right level of complication, and like a bowl of Baby Bear’s porridge, this little flying boat is sure to please. The detail on it is excellent. There are fine, yet deeply-recessed, panel lines where they are appropriate, and small details like hatches and the round covers on the wingtip floats are beautifully reproduced. Where the kit really shines, though, and where it’s most important, is the fabric.
Since the E11A was a fairly conservative design, it has a lot of fabric on it! The wings are all fabric-covered, as are the tail surfaces. Like a good Matchbox (high praise, even if you think I’m being facetious), the fabric is pronounced, with real-looking “sag”, but not too much. What really impressed me, though, was the texture. The “metal” parts of the kit have a smooth surface finish. The “fabric” ones are textured, like fabric! They have a finely “fuzzy” look that, even through the paint, will hopefully show through. It might not for me, since I do a lot of top-coating, but for less ham-fisted modellers, this effect could be extremely interesting. The amazing part is that a piece can change textures several times over its surface, depending on what it’s representing. Nice work, Fujimi!
As for internal detail, well, sadly, that’s where Laura proves that beauty is skin deep. There’s a basic interior, but it’s only a couple steps up from the Stranraer, with a few more bulkheads and some instrument panels, but that’s it. There’s no “wall detail” on the cabin sides, and the whole thing looks more like a blank slate than a finished cockpit. Now, this is good news if you’re a scratchbuilder, but good luck finding a lot of references. Mind you, I haven’t looked too hard, because I don’t care.
The Laura’s cockpit is very fighter-like and small. In the WWII Japanese tradition, it is also heavily framed, so you’re not going to see much in there. Add to the fact that the cockpit canopy is underneath the engine nacelle, and you’re not really missing out. So, if you’re one of those that needs to have a super-detailed cockpit, then go to it! If you’re like me and don’t really care, because the canopy is moulded closed and you just want a cool flying boat for your shelf, then hey, you don’t have to spend time fiddling with a billion little resin bits!
I said the kit was just as complex as it needed to be, and not more. The strut assemblies are the posterchildren for this, since they are multitudinous in number, but are well-formed and everything has holes for location. There are V-struts when there need to be, and single struts when that is the way to go. Only the engine attachment looks like it could be an issue, with it needing to match up with a piece moulded into the underside of the top wing. If it fits nicely, then Bob is your father’s brother. If not, you’re going to have some ticklish sanding to do.
The most amazing part of this kit is the rig. I’ve never owned a biplane kit that came with scaffolding before, but the Laura does. To help with the alignment and positioning of the wings and struts, there is an actual rig you have to build. This is on the clear rack, and it is made of six pieces that help to align the wings and struts together. It provides a resting place for the top wing and supports it while the outer braces are installed. It’s quite a neat little feature, and while it scares me to use it, I’m sure it’ll make life much easier! There’s also a neat little stand for the finished plane, that looks like steel with lightening holes (that need to be drilled out) and little feet on it. It’s only three pieces, but it’s nice they made it look like ground handling equipment or a museum stand, and not just a brick for the Laura to sit on.
Instructions and Decals:
The instructions come on one piece of paper folded into four, making it a nice slim booklet to fit into the box. There’s a front page of safety and warnings in multiple language on the front page, and it opens to reveal 15 steps of assembly. There is a black and white paint plan; sadly, no colour here. However, it’s not that big a deal since all the schemes are the same, except for the tail markings, which are each shown separately. To top it all off, there’s a nice clean view of the parts racks, so you know if you’ve got it all.
Unlike some more modern instructions, the Laura uses simple, clean, black and white line drawings to get the point across. They are not 3D-rendered, CAD solids used for the moulding process just put on paper. And to that, I say: Thank Bloody Goodness! The older I get, the harder time I have with the whole “Hey, let’s use CG models!!” idea for instructions. They’re almost always too small, or dark, to really get the idea across. These instructions, on the other hand, are absolutely perfect. I cannot stress enough what a gorgeously simple set of instructions this model has.
They have all the precision of a CAD model, but just in simple line drawings. All the detail is there, but it’s so easy to see, so crisp and clear compared to a solid model, that the effect is to be almost restful to the eyes. The only time things get a bit hairy is when there are a lot of callouts for strut numbers and alignments. But hey, it’s a biplane, so you have to expect that. The only worrying part is there are numerous notes (some with exclamation points) that appear in Japanese only. However, if you’ve built a lot of older Gundams, that won’t surprise you, and I’m sure anyone who has built a few models will be able to figure it all out.
As for decals, you get two sheets! One is coloured, one is all white. I assume that those are done that way to handle problems with the transparency of the coloured decals. If so, this is a rather unique way of solving the problem. I’m not sure how it will work, but give them credit for trying to cut that problem off at the pass! One potential issue of course would be that now there will be two layers of decals on the aircraft instead of one, making sanding and fairing them in more difficult.
I’m also not familiar with the decals in Fujimi kits because I’ve never used Fujimi decals that I can recall. If they’re thick, then the double layer is going to be a big problem, but if they’re thin or flexible enough, it shouldn’t be too bad. Still, doing the decals this way is very strange, and I really don’t yet know if it was a great idea or a gimmick that didn’t need to be tried. Time will tell, I guess!
As far as models of the esoteric and bizarre, yet very real, go, the Fujimi E11A Laura kit is really a fantastic product. The kit is a perfect blend of modern technology and detailing being taken to appropriate levels. It’s not a simple brick, but it’s not so fiddly as to turn of even those who’ve never built a biplane (like me, as I write this). It has great textural detail and panel lines where they matter, and the effect is that this kit is, for lack of a better word, “mature”.
This kit is sophisticated enough to entertain or act as a canvas for a superdetailer, yet it’s not out of reach of someone with some experience. The complex array of struts might be off-putting to a novice or modeller if only limited experience, but I can’t help but thinking that it’ll go together fine regardless. This kit doesn’t try to win you over with gobs of unnecessarily fragile detail parts or some weird and quirky build order. It’s a simple, straightforward kit that is beautifully presented. If anything, it reminds me of the really nice Academy WWII kits, like the Stuka.
That such an oddball of a plane, with such a specialized role and such an unimpressive historical record would not only be produced as a kit, but produced this nicely by a major manufacturer, really speaks volumes about the state of the hobby, I’d say. It shows that kit makers still take their craft seriously, and that the realize that sometimes, a specialized product that fills a tiny niche is just as valuable as a statement of intent and capabilities as a kit that has wider commercial appeal. That’s a pretty mature outlook, and it proves that sometimes it’s best to specialize while doing everything well.