Monday, December 30, 2013

Four Fun Robot Toys from Mego’s Micronauts Line

In this last installment of my year-end series about cool robot toys from Japan, I've decided to look back at one of the classics: Takara’s Microman line, which was released in the U.S. in the late '70s by Mego under the name Micronauts. Micronauts was a contemporary of another line of imported Japanese robot toys, Mattel’s Shogun Warriors, and both lines even had comic book series published by Marvel. While Shogun Warriors featured Super Robots from several anime series that had pilots and combination configurations, that toy line didn’t have any pilot figures or robot figures with combination capabilities; in contrast, Micronauts provided the first examples of mech and combiner robot toys to kids in the U.S. Read on for a look at four of Micronauts’ groundbreaking toys.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Getting it Right with Getter Robo Toys

Because I live in the U.S. and not Japan, my first introduction to combiner robots came through Japanese toy lines that were imported into the U.S. during the '80s: Gobots, Transformers and Voltron. Since each of these toy lines had its own cartoon series, it was generally assumed that if you saw a group of vehicles or robots combining together to form a gigantic robot in the cartoon, there was also a toy available that could do the same thing. After all, who would taunt potential toy buyers with a cartoon that showed vehicles and robots doing something that their toy versions couldn't do, right?

What I didn't know at the time and only found out recently was that the concept of a combiner robot actually began in the '70 with a manga and anime series called Getter Robo. In Getter Robo, three combat jets would combine together to form a giant robot; depending on the sequence of the jets' combination, a different giant robot would be formed. Getter Robo was very popular and it spawned plenty of merchandise and numerous anime and manga sequels; in fact, these toys were also included in Mattel's Shogun Warriors line.

However, there's a drawback to the first Getter Robo that's peculiar for a Japanese combiner robot: For as ground-breaking as the combiner robot idea was at the time, no one seemed to know exactly how the combat jets could come together to form anything, let alone a giant robot. As you can see from the video clip below, even the animators behind the original anime series had to take significant shortcuts during the jet combination sequences.

From what I can gather, the dominant attitude towards the first Getter Robo toys and model kits is that companies would produce the jets and the giant robots, but they wouldn't produce jets that could combine to form a giant robot. Apparently, this approach worked, but it seems very strange when compared to the countless combiner robots toys that Getter Robo influenced. Subsequent jet and robot designs for most of the sequels were much more detailed and provided clear views of how the jets combine, but the early designs for Getter Robo are astonishingly vague in their combination mechanics.

Of course, if you really, really want to collect toy replicas of the original Getter Robo jets that can combine into various robot configurations, you can--but it will cost you. The Perfect Change Getter Robo set, the most detailed and scale-accurate combining toy based on the original Getter Robo design, costs hundreds of dollars. The cheapest set, Dynamic Change Getter Robo, is a chibi-scale interpretation of the original design and it costs over $100.

The Perfect Change Getter Robo set.

The Dynamic Change Getter Robo set.

The problem with Getter Robo toys sort of reminds me of the Transformers Masterpiece collection. The animators who worked on the first Transformers cartoon took many liberties with the toy robot designs in order to create robot characters, all of the purpose of selling the toys. Now, decades later, Transformers fans can by transforming toy robots that look exactly like they did from the original cartoon from the '80s, but each Masterpiece figure costs several times the amount of a regular transforming toy robot.

Figures from the Transformers Masterpiece collection.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Mighty Miniature Robots of Machine Robo

Sometimes, I don't know what I would do without the Internet, particularly when I look up things that were well-known at one time but have since faded into obscurity. In the ancient times when print media ruled the information landscape, it could take up to days, weeks, and even months to track down publications that mention trends or products that are no longer considered popular by mainstream culture. With the Internet, the same kind of search can only take a few hours or even minutes, especially because amateur writers can publish whatever they want online without being solely driven or restricted by profit.

This intro brings me to the topic of this post, Bandai's Machine Robo toy line. Machine Robo started in 1982 and it was one of the earliest toy lines based on robots that can transform into vehicles. Bandai started exporting these toys to other countries in 1983, and Tonka distributed them in the United States under its Gobots line. As anyone who grew up in the '80s knows, Tonka's Gobots quickly faded when they competed against Hasbro's more popular Transformers line, another group of transforming robot toys imported from Japan. Yet while the Gobots vanished from American pop culture during 80s, I discovered via the Internet that Bandai's original Machine Robo line kept going in Japan throughout the following decades. Read on for more thoughts on Machine Robo and what makes it so resilient in the face of other more popular toy robot lines.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Great Moments in Toy Robot History: Shogun Warriors

The origins of popular and recurring trends in pop culture can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint, especially trends that have gone on for so long that they become an accepted fixture of everyday life. For this post, I'm talking about Japanese robot toys that are imported and sold in the U.S. I'm sure robot fans who are around my age will remember how Japanese robot toys dominated the shelves of toy stores during the 80s, but the trend of U.S. toy companies securing the rights to sell Japanese robot toys in North America actually began in the 70s with Mattel's Shogun Warriors. While the Shogun Warriors line didn't last long, its influence would impact the toy industry for decades to come. Read on for my retrospective of this trend-setting toy line.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Big 'Bots and Belligerent Behemoths Clash in Pacific Rim (2013)

Since I'm planning to wrap up 2013 with a look back at a few examples of Japanese robot toys--one of my favorite kind of toys--I thought I would kick off this year-end series of posts with a review of Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, one of the big-budget releases from last summer that I missed when it was playing in the theaters.

Summer blockbusters have never been held in high regard by the film critic community, and such critics have been particularly displeased with Hollywood's over-usage of CGI effects to produce increasingly bigger and louder blockbuster movies. To be sure, such criticism is not entirely inaccurate: CGI does permit the creation of larger-scale environments and set pieces in ways that miniatures, matte paintings and other practical effect techniques could never allow. As such, CGI has enabled the production of many, many summer blockbusters that are enormous in terms of spectacle but conspicuously short in terms of creative ideas and conceptual depth. Pacific Rim is not one of those movies, because del Toro eagerly packs every frame of his film with enough details and ideas that fans who know what they're looking at will be reviewing this movie for years to come. Pacific Rim is a "big" in every sense of the term--big CGI, big landscapes, big battles, big ideas, and big ambition. In fact, I can't think of how any other special effects technique other than CGI could have accommodated del Toro's story.

In a nutshell, Pacific Rim is about a group of pilots, military leaders, scientists and technicians who build and operate giant robots called "Jaegers" that are designed to fight a seemingly endless series of giant monsters called "Kaiju" that have been emerging out of the Pacific Ocean for years to regularly trash the nearest city. The movie takes places during the closing days of the Kaiju war, when the Jaeger team is planning its final offensive that promises to put an end to the Kaiju menace.

Pacific Rim is a well-made film in every aspect: a well-written script, a well-cast ensemble of actors, and a well-directed approach to the material. Yet to really appreciate this movie, one has to understand that it is a tribute to Japan's "Super Robot" fantasy-science fiction genre and its "Real Robot" spin-off subgenre. Super Robot and Real Robot anime and manga usually involve giant robots that are piloted by human beings to fight giant monsters, other giant robots, or both. The Super Robot genre began in the mid-50s with the manga series Tetsujin 28, and it has continued with popular titles such as Mazinger Z, Mobile Suit Gundam, Patlabor and Neon Genesis Evangelion.

One of Pacific Rim's Super Robots, complete with "Rocket Punch" action.

Pacific Rim also draws inspiration from Japan's kaiju movies (ergo the collective name of the giant monsters in Rim), and the monster designs in the movie demonstrate how much del Toro and his production crew love and understand kaiju films such as Godzilla and Mothra. Nevertheless, most of the film's other details--the characters, their technology, the situations they face and the world they inhabit--are clearly modeled after Super Robot and Real Robot narratives. To put it another way, Pacific Rim is to Super Robot and Real Robot stories as Star Wars is to pulpy sci-fi space operas such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.

With so many details spread throughout the movie, some aspects feel somewhat lacking. In particular, so much detail is applied to movie's fictitious world (a world where there's even a black market for dead Kaiju parts) that the characters feel more like broad personality types than fully-developed individuals. We see bits and pieces of who they are and their roles within the beleaguered, monster-pummeled society they represent but not much more than that; at times, it almost feels like watching Top Gun with giant robots instead of fighter jets. Yet del Toro's enthusiasm for the material permeates every aspect of the film, so I enjoyed geeking out with him just to see what kind of unique interpretations he could put on machines and monsters that are so closely associated with Japanese pop culture. To say that del Toro went above and beyond what he set out to do is an understatement, making this one of his best films to date.

If you don't understand why anyone would want to make a big-budget, live-action film based on anime and manga stories about giant robots, then Pacific Rim probably isn't for you. Otherwise, if you love big brawling 'bots and are looking for an example of CGI done right, then go grab some popcorn and treat yourself to del Toro's magnum mecha opus.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Fantastic Four(th): A Review of Lou & Yana's JawsFest 4 DVD

They said they wouldn't do it ... but the fans demanded otherwise. Thus, with great pleasure I had the privilege of recently receiving a screener copy of Lou & Yana's JawsFest 4: Revenge of the Finatics DVD. This DVD marks fourth and final installment in Lou and Dianna "Yana" Pisano's series of fan-made videos that are devoted to Jaws, the franchise that it spawned, and the locations at Martha's Vineyard and elsewhere that made the franchise possible.

Of course, the Pisanos' previous trilogy of JawsFest DVDs are extremely comprehensive about Jaws and its connections to Martha's Vineyard, so what could possibly be left to cover? PLENTY. Read on for my complete review of Lou & Yana's JawsFest 4, a DVD with plenty of interviews, location tours, sing-a-longs, and shark jumpings.