Tamiya's 1/48 A6M2 Zero
Updated: Jun 8
I like to travel. And I like models. In 2018, I had the opportunity to travel to Japan. It's an amazing country. At the time, I had just started to pick up modeling again and that's what made me think of Tamiya, my favorite company growing up. Little did I know that where I stayed, Shinbashi, Tokyo, is also home to the incredible Tamiya Plamodel Factory.
Coincidence or the universe reaching out? All I know is that I had to pick up a Zero.
Editor's note: Choose your own content! Click here to be taken to the kit and build, or continue reading to learn about the plane's background.
No other World War II aircraft in the Japanese arsenal demands attention like Mitsubishi's A6M Zero. It is a beautiful looking aircraft and appears effortless in flight. Outwardly, it contrasts well against its peer adversary aircraft such as the menacing P-40 Warhawk or the brutish F4F Wildcat. The Zero is graceful.
It was the product of a 1937 Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) request for a carrier-based fighter that combined maneuverability at least equal to the current carrier-based fighter, the A5M, and the range to escort bombers on missions into China. Its first flight was in 1939, and it was introduced to the IJN in 1940.
Mitsubishi and chief designer Jiro Horikoshi solved for the desired specifications by designing an extremely light aircraft. To do so, they used a new lightweight aluminum alloy called "extra super duralumin" and saved weight wherever they could.
Armor protection for the pilot or critical mechanical areas? Nope.
Self-sealing fuel tanks? Certainly not.
The result was an aircraft with a range of 1,600 miles, making it the longest-ranged single-engine aircraft of WWII. Not bad!
Despite its lack of armor, the Zero excelled in combat in the early war. Its high-lift wing, combined with its light weight, meant the Zero had excellent maneuverability and could out turn anything in the skies. Add in the Zero's armament of two 7.7mm guns mounted in the fuselage and a 20mm cannon in each wing and you get a machine that struck fear into Allied pilots.
The Zero, like all aircraft, was continually updated over the course of the war. The first Zero was the Type 11. The first digit referred to the body design. The second digit referred to the engine, in this case a 940hp Sakae 12. The next Zero, and not the 21st, was the Type 21 because it was the second main body design but still used the original Sakae engine. This is the version that attacked Pearl Harbor, and is the version I have built. It is distinguished by its folding wingtips, centerline fuel tank, and large production run early in the war.
As the war progressed, the Zero would see changes in wing design: squared-off wings on the Type 32; shortened wings on the Type 52; and various powerplant upgrades culminating in the 1,600 horsepower Mitsubishi Kinsei engine housed in prototype Type 64s.
In spite of continuous improvement to airframe and engine, the Zero slowly declined in effectiveness. The Allies introduced more capable fighters such as the F6F Hellcat which could make short work of relatively lightly armored Zeros through the combination of a superior powerplant, armor, and armament. Tactics also evolved. Allied pilots quickly learned to avoid turning fights with Zeros and began to employ "hit and run" maneuvers and the "Thach Weave". And speaking of pilot experience, the Japanese were unable to replace their front-line pilots at the same rate the Allies were able to, nor with the same level of quality: they did not cycle experienced pilots into instructor roles like the Allies did.
In a sense, the Zero is emblematic of Japan's trajectory in WWII. It enjoyed initial success followed by a steady erosion of combat effectiveness. Underscoring this, is the use of the once graceful Zero as a kamikaze aircraft during Japan's final desperate months of the war.
According to Scalemates, this kit was originally issued in 1973. Even though the kit is a legacy one, I think Tamiya has captured a nice amount of detail. A variety of markings are included, as is a beautiful paint card that shows two color schemes. Over the years, Tamiya has released several versions of this kit, one even includes ground crew and equipment. They have also released other Zeros in this scale, including a newer-tool A6M5. All in all, this legacy kit is a good value for the money (I think I picked it up for an absurd amount of yen that equated to roughly $10-15), and after building it, I definitely recommend it.
Aircraft builds often start out with the cockpit, and when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. If you didn't build it up first, how would it get inside the fuselage? Now the other thing about the cockpit is that once it is tucked away, it is hardly visible. Maybe that's why people like to show off pics similar to these. To paint the cockpit, I put down a coat of XF-69 NATO Black, followed by XF-71 Cockpit Green, and then painted the details in various colors. Once that was done, I brushed on Vallejo's Gloss Varnish, followed by an oil wash. Considering this is a legacy kit, I think the cockpit turned out rather nice!
Next came the main assembly. The cockpit fit reasonably well inside the fuselage, but the same can't be said of the main wing panel. The panel left a series of gaps by the wing roots, and a large "step" on the underbelly. A bead of Vallejo's Plastic Putty easily took care of the wing roots, but the step took a little more effort. Initially, I treated the step with putty, but after chipping occurred while sanding, I decided to add several layers of Tamiya's Liquid Surface Primer. Blue painters tape was used to protect nearby surface detail from the lengthy sanding process.
Aside from the wing, assembly was mostly straightforward. A shot of Vallejo's Surface Primer revealed a few more minor areas in need of TLC, but that was it! That's what you expect from a Tamiya kit. Even if it was tooled in the 70s!
Aircraft kits always present interesting opportunities for painting. From the cockpit (above) to detailing the Sakae 12 engine, and a detour into the colorful world of aotake, this kit had it all. But foremost, I wanted to paint a Zero that took part in the raid on Pearl Harbor. This sounds simple, but as my research into aotake foreshadowed, is not so straightforward.
The fuselage: If you have seen Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), you might think *cough* modified T-6 Texans *cough* Zeros were near-white. If you have seen the more recent Pearl Harbor (2001), you might think some were dark green. This was a paint scheme, but only used later in the war. If you have seen modeling forums discussing Japanese paint chips from the era you...well you won't know what to think! I decided to go with Tamiya's call out, XF-76 Grey Green (IJN). Internet consensus is generally favorable on this color, albeit some people like to lighten it slightly to account for "scale effects".
Editor's note: The igluemodels headquarters has discovered incredible new uses for cosmetic wedges. Just look how these sponge-like pads tenderly support the Zero during painting!
The engine cowling: Tamiya's instructions call for X-18 Semi Gloss Black. However, some internet sources suggest that this anti-glare color was a very dark shade of blue. I decided to paint my cowling approximately 80:20 XF-1 Flat Black:XF-8 Flat Blue reasoning that flat black in large areas usually looks a little too harsh on scale models (there's that "scale effect" again) and as a hedge that the internet is correct.
The propeller blades: From the front, the propeller looks like it might be solid aluminum. However, Tamiya indicates that the back of the propeller blades should be X-18 Semi Gloss Black and internet sources suggest that the blade backs were a brown color. For some color variation, I went with brown.
Landing Gear Struts: Primarily a black color, with various metallic colors added for detail.
Canopy: There is a plenty of debate surrounding cockpit colors and it does not help that Mitsubishi and Nakajima appeared to use different paints. I opted for simplicity and painted the canopy frame with XF-71 Cockpit Green, followed by a "barrier layer" of XF-2 Flat White, and finally the outside as XF-76 Grey Green (IJN). I used a combination of Tamiya Tape for Curves and Vallejo's Liquid Mask to mask the numerous windows on the Zero's canopy.
Aotake: Here's an excerpt from my prior piece.
I'll spare you all the rabbit holes coated in aotake that I have gone down researching this topic (well, some are linked at the bottom of this post) and give you my interpretation of the internet's consensus. Zeros used on December 7th, 1941, to attack Pearl Harbor did not have aotake applied to their landing gear wheel wells, doors, or covering panels. Why? Because these Zeros were built by Mitsubishi, and Mitsubishi did not do that. Nakajima, which didn't start production of the Zero in earnest until 1942, did paint the wheel wells and landing gear doors and covers with aotake. Why? Because they did.
As you can see, there were plenty of specifics to get lost in!
A nice feature of the kit is the ability to choose different markings that represent Type 21 Zeros throughout the war. In line with my desire to build a "Pearl Harbor Zero", I chose to build the aircraft flown by Lieutenant Commander Shigeru Itaya of the Akagi Aircraft Carrier Fighter Group who led the first wave of fighters on the December 7th, 1941 attack.
I applied the big red circles, known as "Hinomaru", or "circle of the sun", or derogatively by Allied servicemen as "meatballs". I was amazed how vibrant the red looked against the base color and how the "cool-factor" of the plane received an immediate boost. They were also tempting to paint on. I opted against this because the kit has the feeling of a "simple" build and I know that there will be plenty of time to create Hinomaru paint templates in the future (D3A Vals and B5N2 Kates anyone?).
Since I built a plane meant to represent a specific airframe, flown by a specific person, on a specific date in history, I think it is worthwhile to take a small detour back into the world of history.
Shigeru Itaya was born in 1909 and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1929. Through the ensuing years, he saw combat in China and worked his way up the chain of command until he was appointed group leader of the Akagi in 1941. On December 7th, 1941 he led 43 Zeros of the first wave attack on Pearl Harbor. And like so many other pilots of the IJN, he did not survive the war. In June 1944, he was shot down over the Kuril Islands by friendly fire.
As it relates to tail markings, I am not sure that Tamiya's supplied decal AI-101 is correct. The reference to "AI" appears accurate, as that was the designation for the aircraft carrier Akagi, but 101 is in conflict with several other pieces of information, chiefly:
Most other model companies use AI-155, including Eduard's new and beautiful looking 1/48 Zero
An image of just-in-frame AI-101 without leader stripes (the two yellow bands on the tail of my build) that is captioned to be flight operations on the Akagi during the Pearl Harbor raid. And also this website featuring more photos: Japanese-Aviation.
Documentation of Itaya's shot down wingman, Takeshi Hirano, whose Zero was AI-154
Finishing and weathering
Because this build represents an early-war aircraft, weathering will be minimal. I intend to rely on the pre-shading work from the initial painting stages, a simple pin wash for deep panel lines, and a light oil dot filter. Tamiya's Weathering Master pigments will round out the effort.
This was a very enjoyable build. Sure, the kit has a few issues with the wing fit and possibly incorrect markings, but on the whole it was a rewarding experience. The Zero is an aircraft synonymous with IJN aviation and this kit gave me a springboard to dive into details of Japanese aircraft that I didn't know I wanted to know. Aotake anyone?
More importantly, I learned new perspectives like those from Shigeru Itaya regarding the attack on Pearl Harbor, an event that occurred 80 years ago today. With this significant anniversary noted, I do hope we can take a moment to pause and reflect on the ensuing four years of war and all those affected.
Thanks for reading,
Sources, information, and other useful links
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