For the past 35 years, Transformers has been one of the most dominating and revolutionary forces in the toy industry. In addition, it has an iconic animated series (which also popularized a unique sound effect whenever the robots transform), and a highly profitable and yet polarizing live action movie series. So how did Transformers come to be? Is it Japanese? Is it American? Can and/or should its animated properties be acknowledged as anime? If you are pondering any of these questions, then that’s what today’s Editorial Tuesday is here to answer!
Takara’s Diaclone and Microman
The 1980s was a time when cartoons were used as glorified commercials to sell toys. It started with Gundam in Japan while America paved the way for it with He-Man. Eventually, a number of franchises throughout the decade would catch on in both nations, and Transformers was no different and would capture both markets. Ever since the debut of Tetsujin 28, or Gigantor, the mech genre has always been a popular niche in Japan and it was natural for Takara, one of Japan’s biggest toy empires, to follow suit. In 1980, Takara released one of the first ever-transforming robot toy lines, Microman and Diaclone.
The original Diaclone toys featured characters that would inspire the Dinobots, Insecticons, and the Constructicons, while some figures of the Microchange line of the Microman brand would later be repackaged as Soundwave (originally called Cassette Man), Bumblebee (or Microcar), and Megatron (or Gun Robo). While these names work in a Japanese setting, they sure wouldn’t go over with native English speakers. After Hasbro found success by licensing and re-branding these toys as Transformers in the West, Takara would discontinue the Microman and Diaclone brands, and instead sell the figures as Transformers in Japan. However, Takara would later resurrect these franchises in 2015 for old school fans.
Hasbro’s and Marvel’s Transformers
A few years after Diaclone and Microman became successes in Japan, American toy company Hasbro would get the rights for Western release. Though Hasbro was making millions off their revived GI Joe toy line, in the era of Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” mentality from the Oliver Stone film, Wall Street, it wasn’t enough for them. They wanted to diversify and when executives saw the toys in Japan while taking a business trip, Hasbro just had to have them. They got the rights to the original molds, but gave them a new paint job to offer an American flavor. As opposed to keeping the original backstories of the Diaclone and Microman brands, Hasbro gave Marvel Comics the responsibility to create new character names and backstories for their newest toy line, Transformers.
The writer given the responsibility to come up with a new story would be Jim Shooter, the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel at the time. He came up with the idea that the Transformers were aliens from the planet Cybertron, and they left to find new sources of energy. Then Shooter gave the responsibility for the individual character names and backstories to Bob Budiansky (however, the name Optimus Prime, or Battle Convoy in Japanese, was coined by legendary comic writer Denny O’Neil).
The upcoming comic serials and commercials were good to go, but before Transformers could officially hit the shelves, GoBots, released by BanDai and Tonka, beat Hasbro by six months and caused some minimal concern. In the end, Hasbro decided to throw caution to the wind and still release their Transformers toys in the spring of 1984. They made over $110 million dollars in sales, and came out on top against GoBots. It all came down to Transformers being a superior product as GoBots would be discontinued by 1987, and Takara would gain the rights when they bought out Tonka at the turn of the 1990s.
As the Transformers toy line succeeded, demand in the American market kept rising so Hasbro kept going back to Takara to see what toys they could use. It would eventually evolve to transforming dinosaurs, insects, combiners (put all the Constructicons together and they form Devastator, one mega robot, who was actually a good guy in the original Japanese toy line) and then eventually triple changers - meaning buyers can change them into three forms! When they couldn’t get any more toys from Takara, Hasbro resorted to getting the license of the Valkyrie, the transforming mechs from Macross, which would then be released as Jetfire/Skyfire. For a majority of the decade, the sky was the limit.
Generation 1 Animated Series and Movie
As stated earlier, if there was any better way to sell a toy line in the 1980s, it would certainly have to be through an animated series and Transformers would obviously get one. Sunbrow and Marvel would produce the series as Toei animated it. The series became an instant hit with its unique designs, bizarre story, and charismatic characters. While Optimus Prime became an icon, fans know the character wouldn’t have succeeded if it weren’t for the performance of its voice actor, Peter Cullen, who is also famous as the voice of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. As opposed to sounding forever depressed, as Optimus Prime, Cullen channeled his brother, a hardened Marine, to make him sound like an authentic hero.
His performance captured those qualities and the kids embraced him. In addition to Cullen, the series managed to cast many great legends in US voice acting such as Frank Welker (as the voices of Megatron and Soundwave) and Casey Kasem (as Cliffjumper and Teletran I). Then after the success of the TV series, it got its own feature film in 1986 to introduce new characters (aka new toys) and killed off some fan favorites (aka getting rid of the old line). The cast of the 1986 movie featured some legends in acting such as Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy (as Galvatron), Breakfast Club’s Judd Nelson (as Hot Rod), Unsolved Mysteries’ Robert Stack (as Ultra Magnus), and one of the final performances of the legendary Orson Welles as Unicron – the main villain.
Due to under advertising of the movie, it was an unfortunate failure but is still memorable for pushing the envelope for its time. In addition to killing off Optimus Prime and Starscream, it is famous for using a few swear words, which was unheard of in a children’s animated movie at the time. Lastly, people enjoy this movie for its heavy soundtrack, mostly for Dare and You Got The Touch by Stan Bush. As for the killing of Optimus Prime, to the corporate bigwigs, it was just their way of saying they’re not going to make toys of him anymore. Then when audiences saw the movie, Hasbro actually got letters of complaints on how they didn’t like that they killed off the leader of the Autobots and even Peter Cullen admitted he didn’t know what the character meant to fans until he died. Thankfully, the character was brought back the following season (only to die again in Headmasters).
Eventually, people in America got bored of Transformers; sales took a hit and so did the ratings. While syndication of G1 Transformers halted towards the end of the 1980s in the US, the Japanese were still excited about it. The series and toy line went on for another decade through Headmasters, Super God Masterforce, and Victory. However, Hasbro decided to bring back Transformers with a new twist in the 90s for its native audience.
In order to bring Transformers back from the dead, Hasbro with the help of Takara re-branded the franchise by not having robots transforming into vehicles but into organic prehistoric beasts, and this line would become Beast Wars. Initially, fans weren’t receptive to the idea but as time went on, it became a success and saved the Transformers brand. While the original Transformers had the Dinobots and the Insecticons, they were still aesthetically robotic but with Beast Wars, you could transform the robots to animals that look like the actual animals.
And just like how the original Transformers had an animated series, Beast Wars would follow suit with a fully CG series, which was really new at the time (and the only other CG animated series upon its debut was the legendary Reboot). Beast Wars ended up becoming a continuation to the original G1 Transformers as the Autobots and Decepticons evolved to the Maximals and the Predacons. Trapped on prehistoric Earth, both factions assume the forms of the local wildlife so the abundance of energy won’t overload their circuits.
While the US got a CG series, Toei would adapt the Beast Wars brand as a traditional hand drawn anime, which became a cult hit to hardcore fans with its own unique set of characters and toys.
In recent years, toy companies started to take notice that their first generation of fans were getting older. In addition to making toys for a new generation, Hasbro thought it was also worth exploring to make toys for the fans that have now grown up. Due to this mentality, they started their Masterpiece series, which has detailed articulation and molding appropriate to that customer base. They tend to run $150 and up, but became a must have for hardcore collectors. Some are Japan exclusives such as the Eva Unit 01 paint job for Optimus Prime since Evangelion is popular in Japan, and some are exclusive in Japan for legal reasons such as Megatron without an orange cap. Ever since G1, Megatron, who can transform into a handgun, has been a source of controversy in the US for obvious reasons we don’t have to get into. However, as long as collectors put an orange cap on the barrel, it should be easy to obtain.
For the past decade, the live action movies of Transformers have been bringing in the money, but they haven’t been bringing in the praise. Whatever needs to be said of Michael Bay as a director, you can hear from that one song call An End of An Act from Team America. Regardless of the quality of his movies, nobody can deny they are helping keep Transformers alive for new generations. While the idea of a Bumblebee movie might be out of whack, as long as it brings in the money, it means more Transformers.
Is Transformers Anime?
For the past 30 years, there has been a debate that Transformers G1 should be considered an anime. It’s an issue that has numerous angles we have to look at before we can come to a definitive yes or no. Due to the Japanese origins of the franchise, there is a solid argument to make that it should be considered a Japanese anime. However, Hasbro and Marvel comics took the original Diaclone and Microman toys and Americanized it as Transformers, and Takara would later adopt it for the Japanese market. The G1 animated series was animated for Western audiences but Toei, the same studio that is famous for Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon, animated it. Due to these numerous factors, it is a question to give a true yes or no answer to. People can say it is an American funded series that was animated by the Japanese, but it was initially not intended for Japanese audiences so due to these factors, the dispute still goes on to this very day.
Furthermore, there are some sequels to the G1 series exclusive to Japan that are considered anime such from Headmasters to Victory. Then in the late 90s, Japanese animation studios would also make their own versions to Beast Wars (Neo and Second), which wasn’t CG like the Western series. Then in the 2000s, Japan made their own original animated versions to Transformers – Micron, Superlink, and Galaxy Force, or Armada, Energon and Cybertron in the West. While some versions to Transformers did originate from Japan that we can all agree deserve the label of anime, as in Japanese animation, the original G1 series from 1984 is still up for debate.
Whether it’s from Japan or not doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change that Transformers is distinctly unique and not many products can live up to what it has done for nearly 35 years. Through Optimus Prime, we can learn the value of freedom, to stand up for what we believe in, and for us to unite as one. It has values that are universal and if fans stick to them, that’s all that matters.