Reviewby Adam Pawlus, Jul 20th 2011
Transformers: The Headmasters
After season 3 of Transformers was produced for the American market and dubbed into Japanese, Takara and Toei produced an alternate version of season 4 called Transformers: Headmasters in 1987. Over the course of 35 episodes, the bulk of the existing Autobots and Decepticons were removed from the story. The Headmasters allowed the studio to introduce a new cast of characters to the Japanese marketplace to continue an ongoing intergalactic robot gang war, birthing a continuity specific to Japan.
Jumping around from outer space to planets Mars, Cybertron, Chaar, and a re-imagined Athenia, Headmasters follows the weekly exploits of five alien Cybertronian expats from the planet Master as they defend the galaxy's energy supply from the evil Decepticons. Friends are lost, planets are destroyed, allegiances are challenged, and robots are transformed into a variety of robotic creatures and vehicles primarily aimed at boys ages 4-11 and older fans of toy-based entertainment.
With a snappy tune invoking themes of love and the need to fight to create a better future, Transformers: The Headmasters kicks off a sweeping, inherently Japanese theme song. By comparison, the American Transformers show sported lyrics that were closer to the "Itchy & Scratchy" theme. Granted, it would be appropriate here as well due to the large amount of fighting and biting on each of the show's 35 subtitled episodes. (A trio of recaps exists for the Japanese home video market, and was not included here.) If a fan liked the original seasons of the show, The Headmasters is just as enjoyable. The story doesn't seem to go anywhere in particular, but it's still a fun ride.
The Headmasters picks up the Transformers story at the end of the third season of the US Sunbow series, taking place after just the two-parter "The Return of Optimus Prime." The show takes place in the far-off future year of 2011 and our heroes the Autobots are still in charge of the planet Cybertron. A new breed of warriors comes out of nowhere to shake up the status quo, with blocky character designs more closely matching the toys from which they were inspired when compared to the supremely streamlined look of the characters introduced in the previous season of the show.
The series quickly rids itself of the majority of the old Transformers characters, focusing its run on a small group with rotating guest robots. There's not a lot of character growth to be found over the course of these 13 hours, with the exception of the Decepticon Ninja, Sixshot. Fans are treated to a lot of transforming and shooting with the crying quota filled by holdover human boy adventurer Daniel Witwicky. Mix in a dose of melodrama and a lot of shooting, and you have a pretty entertaining DVD package for fans of the genre or franchise.
Time isn't always kind to animation, the masters of these episodes have aged and it's clear that the 1987 show has seen better days. Visuals are a little dark and fuzzy in spots, although the episodes are largely colorful and clear. The sound mix sports a fairly standard array of anime effects with cues from the previous Transformers shows, which included a few clips from the Star Wars Trilogy. Similar to other robots-in-disguise cartoons from the era, the animation comes complete with glitches like red Decepticon logos rather than purple and inconsistently colored robots filling the screen. The character of Soundblaster is frequently colored wrong, at times reverting to a lighter blue color rather than the correct black while his head seems to be inconsistently painted from one cut to the next. A sharp eye may even notice the same character appearing alongside himself in a group shot, so keep an eye out for these as you go.
Rarely focusing on comedy, the show does have a few shining spots. A lot of unintentional humor can be found from a boy and his donkey in Peru, plus the Decepticon Headmasters mock the whole notion of robots doing some magical formation to save the day just before the entire cast of heroes all hold hands and do exactly that. Few moments of self-awareness permeate the show's generally serious tone, but those who watch the show will be rewarded with robots playing cards, robots mopping, and what appears to be depressed cassette tape robots moping around in an office's break room. You won't find that just anywhere!
Shout! Factory brought The Headmasters to the English-speaking audience with a subtitle track sporting western names for the characters. An infamous English dub was produced by Omni Productions in Hong Kong but is not included in this collection. For the readers out there, Shout! Factory's subtitle track is largely consistent with the bulk of the American naming conventions of the characters and is generally free of typos... but you will notice a few here and there. The subtitles make numerous references to bits and pieces of American Transformers lore like the Pit, the Inferno, and the AllSpark-- none of which existed in this Transformers Mythology until Beast Wars nearly nine years after The Headmasters aired in Japan.
The main reason to pick this show up is for the curious Transformers aficionado that wants to see more vintage animation. Fans of 1980s toys will also be delighted by the appearance of the Beastformers, a Takara toy line better known to audiences outside Japan as Hasbro's Battle Beasts, alongside returning Decepticons Ravage, Ratbat, and Laserbeak suddenly gaining the ability to speak. Characters Fortress Maximus and Scorponok were legendary toys of the 1980s, and they see plenty of action in this series.
A strong knowledge of the early Transformers franchise and cast isn't a requirement, but it is recommended as not every character and cameo gets explained through the course of the story. The first episode alone sports 103 different characters over the course of 20 minutes, so if you're new to this franchise, it may not be in your best interests to start here-- at the very least, check out the animated 1986 Transformers: The Movie for a back story to The Headmasters. This series all but requires your being familiar with the ins and outs of the Autobots and Decepticons of the 1980s to get the most from the show, but any fan of vintage mecha with some time on their hands will surely get plenty of kicks out of this set.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : C
+ A rare treat for Transformers fans in Region 1, cheaper and more easily found than existing releases in other regions
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