Super Plastic
A Brief History of Transforming Robots

by Adam Pawlus, Apr 10th 2007

Super Plastic Volume 5

Weclome back. This week, we don't have a big photo gallery, but we do have a couple of answers to your questions, Unreasonable Demands, and a little history lesson. Ever wondered where Robots in Disguise really came from? Well, read on!



American Anime Toy News Bites

Sega Toys is combinging Neon Genesis Evangelion with a "horror" theme. If you've ever wanted super-deformed Misato in Vampirella's costume (in black), or the closest facsimile, you're in luck. There's a witch Asuka (pictured) and three other little super-deformed vignettes in this line. As they glow with the magic of batteries, these are pretty nifty figures which prove that there's really no such thing as the End of Evangelion.
[ MORE: NCS ]

Naruto figures continue to be marked down at some Target stores in the USA. Consult the clearance aisle as some items are up to 75% off. Your mileage may vary. (But seriously, the clearance aisle at Target? A toy fan's best pal.)

Witchblade, originally a Top Cow Comics property, is seeing a huge surge of popularity in Japan thanks to the mythos being adapted for the Japanese market. Alter (pictured), Orchid Seed, Kotobukiya, and other manufacturers are bringing these out in Japan, with great distributors and developers like Organic making sure these come out in the USA. For the Witchblade fans out there, Marvel Legends-style "Legendary Heroes" action figures are coming out from Marvel Toys, a company formerly known as Toy Biz. Aren't you in luck this year?
[ MORE: Robert's Anime Corner Store | Entertainment Earth | Wikipedia ]

Vinyl figure fans and lovers of Super Mario Brothers will be happy to know that Banpresto just released Mario and a Goomba. They sell for about $20 per and look surprisingly excellent-- I may have to order these for a future installment of the column.
[ MORE: NCS ]



Where do robots in disguise come from?

Over the years, a lot of weirdness comes up in the circles of the worlds of fandom-- take Hasbro's various 1980s properties, like two of my favorites: Transformers and G.I. Joe. For some reason some fans put the animated programs under the umbrella of anime-- but should they? I mean, is America's movable fighting man really, truly cut from the same cloth as Excel and Astro Boy? The [simplified] answer may surprise you.

G.I. Joe started out as a 12-inch action figure line in the USA in 1964. This popular combination of the classic green toy soldier with some elements of Mattel's absurdly popular doll Barbie did very well with boys in the USA, and was exported around the world to countries like Japan, where it was renamed Combat Joe.

Combat Joe from Takara was, at its heart, a line born of the USA and its military-- not exactly exciting to Japanese kids. So what do little boys in Japan like? Robots. Specifically, cyborgs-- the Henshin Cyborg used the basic design and body of Joe, but with swappable parts, clear limbs, and a lot of robot-like pieces that managed to adapt one line into something more fun for the robot loving public.

While popular, Combat Joe was really big-- 12-inches tall is quite large, so in 1974, Takara introduced Microman (Micronauts in the USA), a line that basically downsized the Cyborgs to a more friendly pocket size. As Micronauts progressed, later toys involved "real world" sized transforming toys, like Cassette Man and a Choro-Q style Volkswagon Beetle, which would go on to be sold as Soundwave and Bumblebee, respectively.

The Microchange toys (and another Takara line, Diaclone) does reasonably well in Japan and is exported to Europe, South America, and elsewhere. Hasbro see it and decides to take a bunch of the toys, recolor them, repaint them, and rebrand them as the Transformers, with these toys receiving faction logos, stories, and an all-new history from various teams inside Hasbro and at their publishing partner, Marvel Comics (who, legend has it, invented the Autobot and Decepticon logos as well as named most of the characters.) A year later, this rebranded pile of robots would be re-imported to Japan with the storyline and branding used in the USA, as kids loved it and the line continued to have great success for years.

The animated series for Transformers was largely developed in the USA for American audiences-- it was eventually exported to the rest of the world (including Japan), and when America stopped being the driving force for new cartoons, the Japanese market took over and began animating its own programs from the ground-up, creating new programs with such wonderful titles loosely translated as Transformers: Super God Masterforce.

Eventually, the robots in disguise would go out of vogue again. The only stories being told were in the back of Japanese kiddie mags with a few black & white manga pages-- until about 1996, when Hasbro let Canadian animation studio Mainframe Entertainment (the people who did Reboot) created an all-new computer generated program based on a new generation of toys, called Beast Wars.

But why do you, the otaku, care about furry robots from Canada? Well, this series, too, eventually was exported to Japan, but the funny thing here is that the dub is considered to be one of the worst ever. While American fans have complained for years about the quality (or lack thereof) when it comes to dubbing Japanese series for a Western audience, it was the Japanese fans who complained about the vocal stylings of Beast Wars Metals, where characters such as the (arguably) "badass" Rattrap were written and recorded to be the more Pikachu-like Rattle. So, as you can see, no matter where you live there's going to be something to gripe about when it comes to the dub. Except for Metal Gear Solid, we lucked out on this one.

So there you have it-- more worthless trivia than you could have ever hoped to ask for. What's fun to see here is that this franchise has benefited from (and suffered through) lots of back-and-forth while they try to tailor it for both Western and Eastern audiences, and of course, a really big push for Western audiences will be in a theater near you this July.



You Ask, We Answer

Reader Jadress asked...
I was wondering if you could offer any advice for taking care of your figures- maintainence tips. I have a problem that many of the anime figures I've purchased over the years (the nonposable ones, usually with a stand on a base) will warp over time with gravity. For instance, I had an Anthy figure that was very simple, with a small metal rod that ran through part of her legs and attatched to the base. Over time, she leaned farther and farther back- I'd try and bend her legs the other way, but I was afraid of breaking her. Eventually, she was leaning back at a full 45 degrees, and it just looked awful. Any advice for this problem?

If there's one thing I'm full of, it's advice. If there's two things, it's probably pizza. (Cowabunga.)

PVC statues are an unfortunate marriage of the demand for low-cost high-end collectibles and manufacturer's desires to keep something small and durable. While rubbery plastic may not seem durable, or more durable than unyielding plastic, it actually is-- this ability to bend prevents parts from snapping off and breaking, and a little "give" keeps the item in one piece longer than the alternative.

Therein lies the problem. Over time, gravity takes over and some items tend to sag. If it's an action figure, you might see a weapon droop a little, or the figure might lean forward slightly on his or her joints. (Or if you have one of the larger scale Hasbro X-Wing Fighters, you can see its wings sag over time.) Part of the sagging comes from the quality of materials, but you can also blame heat to some extent. The warmth of the air makes the plastic a little more pliable, so if you keep your toys in a very warm room, you're likely to see more sagging. Conversely, if you keep it really cold, the sagging sometimes actually corrects itself. (But not always.)

So what are you to do?

First, I would rotate your statue off of display for a while. If you can, lay her down on her back or put her back in her box for a few months, and see if gravity and the elements conspire to reshape her back to normal. As ridiculous as this sounds, I had a collectible PVC character figure with a metal rod in his legs and a display base which became really warped due to my inability to recognize what the heat was doing to him at first. So I unplugged him from the base, left it alone for a month and change, and now everything's fine and dandy-- of course, it hasn't gotten really hot since then, so I'll have to take care to move him elsewhere when it gets warm, which, by my calculations, is any day now.

You were smart not to try to bend it-- you can snap it or tear it, depending on how much force it's given. If you really want to reshape it, most toy customizers advise you to boil some water and drop the limb(s) you want to reshape in there, but just for a few seconds. This will make the plastic pliable, and you can re-shape it to fit your needs. (Or don't reshape it-- sometimes the heat combines with the "plastic memory" and does the job for you.) Leave it out to cool, and it should end up just as good as you remember it. (But don't have it stand immediately following the boiling-- it'll just make it sag worse.)

Hopefully that will help you. If it doesn't, well, blame the people at ANN for hiring me.

Other Collector's Tips

1. Keep your figures out of direct sunlight. If possible, try to limit the amount of light they receive, period. Some bulbs don't react well with plastics, and some plastics can be left outside for years with little or no problem-- it varies. When in doubt, keep them in the dark. As not many toys are subject to massive amounts of light, there aren't many examples-- however I have seen evidence of brown plastic turning green, white plastic turning yellow, and packaging slowly fading as the sun burns out the yellows and reds leaving you with blue-tinted artwork on your boxes.

2. No smoking. Smoking is bad. I worked in a collectible store when I was in high school and people brought in their collections all the time. Most items, when stashed away for years, unopened, in one's closet tend to be in nearly perfect condition, unless you smoke. These items, even packaged ones, suffered from brittle tape, stickers that fell off, and white and clear plastics turning yellow. While I'm not one to argue what you should do for your health, I can assure you that second-hand smoke is really bad for action figures in the long run.

3. Handle with Care. This may be obvious, but when you're moving, be really careful when you package your toys and statues. While some items (like most Hasbro Pokémon toys, for example) are designed to withstand abuse, your 1:7 scale statues from Max Factory are not. Be sure to pack them in their boxes because you may forget that some have small parts, like ribbons, that can easily snap off and break. And we don't want that.

4. Dust if you can. This is more of a long-term thing-- dust can get into nooks and crannies and it can get harder to get out over time. If you have access to feather dusters, Swiffers, and those little cans of air for blowing out computer parts, you may wish to use those from time to time-- or display your figures in a case or environment where dust isn't a big problem.

5. Small parts are easily lost. Everybody loses parts as a kid-- but you're an adult (or at least close enough to pretend), so it's time you get organized. Buy a tackle box from your local sporting goods store (or Kmart fishing section) for about $4. In this, you can keep spare heads from your statues, spare ninja weapons from your Naruto toys, your missiles from your Transformers, and all those extra Revoltech parts you'd be crushed to lose.

6. Don't expect them to be worth something some day. Toy collectors, especially collectors of new toys, have notoriously short attention spans-- today's hot figure, on eBay tomorrow, isn't always worth a lot. Numerous collectors buy items because they expect to turn them around some day and double or triple their money. Sometimes you can, but more often than not, on modern items, this doesn't happen because collectors have no nostalgia for Dragon Ball figures from 10 years ago when new releases are usually better designed, better constructed, and easier to find than their ancestors. Just buy what you like-- and if you get sick of it and it someday happens to be worth something, well, all the better.

7. Don't forget, they're toys. Even the PVC statues are basically toys-- these things were designed to give you fun and excitement for a short period of time, and while some statues (polystone, resin, etc.) are better designed to withstand the trials of time, sun, and so forth, action figures are not. They're meant to be disposable playthings for kids, and no matter how much you care for them, they probably won't last forever-- so take good care of them, keep them clean, and enjoy them while they last. (Which could be 15 years, 50 years, or longer-- you never know!)



Unreasonable Demands: We Want...

Reader Chingsung Chang writes...
Almost every figure I see seems to be in some exaggerated pose to stress cuteness and/or sexiness. To some extent, this is cool, and works (eg. Mikuru-bunny style). However, I honestly wish that companies would produce more figures of the tamer variety, designed to portray what the character is actually like in the series/game/whatever they come out of. I often find that everything is way too exaggerated in figure poses for me to really like them.

We're all entitled to our unreasonable demands-- but in your case, I think you're really out of luck. In animation (and sculpting), a figure gains its personality, usually, from two traits: its face, and its pose. Look at Bugs Bunny, casually chomping on a carrot showing how he's pretty cool in his current situation. Look at the expressive faces in, well, nearly every anime series you'll ever see. These things are very important for conveying a character's personality, and when you have just a plain, neutral posed figure, it gets pretty dull-- and hurts sales.

Sega made some Neon Genesis Evangelion "action figures" which had, essentially, straightened arms and legs and little articulation. While this was representative of the Evas as they were stored, and a logical way to present the rides of Asuka, Rei, and Shinji, they were boring. Dull. A couple of years later, Kaiyodo made super-poseable figures with loads of weapons, tons of articulation, and fairly extreme poses. Even American action figures have moved more toward posed figures, or at least figures that can be posed in more dynamic ways. This is a blessing and a curse, as some figures and toys can't do basic things like sit due to their poses. (Ask any Star Wars collector how great it is to have Kit Fisto's Jedi Starfighter when almost every Kit Fisto figure won't fit. Nevermind, wrong audience.)

As such, Mr. Chang, I think you're probably going to be out of luck-- the trend in the market today is for more dynamic and more lifelike (even if exaggerated) personalities in toys and statues. The market has only responded with greater interest as we see wind-blown hair and wacky poses, as these are things that tend to grab a buyer's attention at a convention or at retail. Also, my day job is working in the toy and collectible industry-- and I can assure you from our sales figures that people just aren't buying demure, coy statues. They want sexy, and in most cases, they want extremely sexy. Fans looooove "the booby," as it were.

Reader Amy writes...
I am an extraordinarily big fan of the anime Gankutusuou, and your sub-column "Unreasonable Demands" reminded me of a vision I had once of the most amazing resin sculpture of the show's main character The Count of Monte Cristo. It featured him from the waist up, with his hair caught in a swirling breeze while he held his golden cane and had a hauntingly sad look on his face. It was sixteen to eighteen inches high, and was a true work of art, costing no less than $250. Of course, there has been no merchandising for Gankutsuou, and this statue exists only in my mind. But if it were real, I would lie, cheat, and steal in order to get my hands on this thing.

Lying? Cheating? Stealing? Are you reading this, world of organized crime? (Tony Soprano should give this a shot.) Just go to Wonder Festival, ask a sculptor to make a statue, and you can totally get American and Canadian otaku to break the law on your behalf. As it isn't illegal to make or give away statues, this will surely help you seem more law-abiding. After all, it's not your fault if someone happened to break into a bank and robbed the place after you were so generous as to gift them with The Count of Monte Cristo, right?

What's your unreasonable demand? Email me (adam at 16bit.com), and I'll post one each time right here!



That's all for today...

Two unreasonable demands in one week. Wow. That's, like, too much unreasonable for one column. (But maybe we can do more next time, right?)

Numerous readers have written in with video game-specific questions, concerns, comments, and demands. While I'm all for covering pretty much any licensed merchandise outside of Japan, currently you'd be best served in other columns when it comes to your requests for things regarding series, episodes, music, albums, and of course, games. (But game toys? Those are welcome here.)

Anyway, thanks for your feedback, and your demands. We'll be back in two weeks!

Your pal,
--Adam Pawlus


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