The Mike Toole Show
Z is for Zoids
by Mike Toole,
I've been helping out a little over at Discotek's anime vats on the 2001 version of Cyborg 009. From afar, you might think that getting a show like this together is easy—you sign a contract, and the licensor sends you pristine, uncut masters, right? Well, this particular series involved filing a request with Sony to send over their videotape masters, and it turns out that Sony had a lot of them. There were episodes that were in widescreen, and episodes cropped for 4:3 TVs. There were episodes in Japanese, and episodes in English. There were episodes that were edited for US broadcast standards, and uncut episodes. Each of Sony's master tapes contained a single episode, which makes sense, because cramming multiple episodes on single tapes makes it harder to keep track of archives. But making this archival request triggered an avalanche of hundreds of these tapes. The company has hired a professional (note: it's Justin) to comb through these tapes, assembling the best, most complete version of the show. It's crucial to go through every last tape, because the back half of the series was never released on video, and the final three episodes never even got shown on Cartoon Network at all, let alone anywhere else.
Very often, that's how it is for older shows. Don't be fooled by Cyborg 009's 2001 pedigree—while the show was animated digitally, tape was very much still in use as a format for archives and delivery. Even more recent media can yield mixed results—I've been dealing with a certain classic series stored on an old magnetic hard drive. The catch: this digitally-captured version of an old analog series looks absolutely dreadful, so it's back to the tapes, to see if there's a better-looking version stored elsewhere. At least the archives aren't stored on Type C videotapes. That's still a thing for some really old shows; It takes like ten minutes just to manually mount and spool one of these tapes on the ancient VTRs that can play them back!
But the work involved in getting Cyborg 009 together really got me thinking about all of those other forgotten Toonami shows—shows like MAR, and DICE, and of course, Hamtaro. Don't sleep on Hamtaro, folks. We got over a hundred episodes of it in North America, but that still leaves almost 200 episodes of Hamtaro undubbed, not to mention the OVAs and movies. Who else remembers the Ham-Ham Dance?! These people, apparently. But most of Toonami's also-ran shows were one-shots, as opposed to decades-spanning franchise hits like Dragonball Z, Gundam, and Sailor Moon. But one of these shows that didn't stick around is something that's been around for almost thirty years- it's called Zoids.
Zoids, which is principally a line of snap-together, motorized toys manufactured by Tomy, started life in 1981, under the name Mechabonica. This set of three little robot dudes is kind of a cunning product, fusing the fun of wind-up toys with the emerging hobbyist juggernaut of plastic model kits. This set of intricately-designed robo-dinosaur warriors rocketed into toy stores in 1981, and stayed there; Japanese kids didn't want 'em. But Tomy had a robust US branch (remember this panic-inducing light-up racecar game??) and a history of some minor success with wind-up toys, so their failed product was rebranded under a new name. I like to imagine that it all went down like this.
Tomy toy exec #1: So, what if we spelled 'droids,' but with a Z? Tomy toy exec #2: Okay yeah, so it'd be ‘Droidz’? Tomy toy exec #1: No, that would still get us sued by Lucasfilm! I was thinking ‘Zoids’. Tomy toy exec #2: Yeah, that's a great idea! Also, ‘Zoids’ works as a combination of ‘zoic’ and 'android,' which is actually where the name came from, Mike. Get it? That's why they're all based on animals?? You big fat dope.
In one of those wonderful tales of marketing serendipity, the Zoids re-brand worked out. Just look at how cool they look in the commercial! The toys weren't a blockbuster in the US, but they sold decently well—Radio Shack even marketed their own exclusive Zoid for Christmas 1983-- the humongous, battery-powered mammoth you see below. In that same year, Tomy of Japan re-introduced their failed Mechabonica toys under the name Zoids, and this time, it worked. The company started releasing new Zoids on the regular, as fans thrilled to the intricate, detailed story of the war between the Helic Republic and the Zenebas Empire that was told almost entirely on the backs of the toy boxes.
Man, having to get the whole story from the back of the box never sat well with me. After all, if the toys were really that cool, where the hell were the cartoons, or at least, the comic books?! It turns out that the comics were mainly in the UK.
I approve of this team-up, but sadly, the title here doesn't actually mean that Spider-Man teams up with the Zoids, but simply that the comics appear together in the same magazine. UK superhero comics in the 80s were pretty cool; bargain-priced and cheaply printed, they were often a mixture of reprints of US material and surprisingly challenging, ambitious locally-made fare. The UK versions of American comics like GI Joe and Transformers set up their own storylines and unique vibes, and the UK Zoids comic has no counterpart—not in the US, and not in Japan, where the story of Zoids outside of the toy boxes was told primarily in hobbyist magazines, accompanied by carefully-staged, intricate diorama photos. (Note: Zoids takes place on Planet Z. It's actually usually Romanized as ‘Zee’ or ‘Zi’, but come on, dudes: Planet Z!)
In these comics, the Zoids are the creations of the Zoidaryans from planet Zoidstar. After a long period of dominance and brutal combat, the Zoidaryans themselves more or less go extinct, leaving their creations (now separated into red and blue factions) to duke it out. It's a simple concept, one that's replicated in the contemporaneous Zoids computer game, but in the pages of these comics, it leads into an increasingly high-stakes, apocalyptic storyline, courtesy of a sharp 26-year-old writer named Grant Morrison. This comic ran for fifty-one issues and is still picked over and discussed; meanwhile, good luck finding anything substantive about the first Zoids manga, 1988's Zoids Battle Comic.
I dunno, it looks kind of cool to me! A Zoids manga surge would eventually happen, but in the meantime, the flagship toyline flatlined and needed to be re-introduced to international audiences.
Robo Strux, as it was called, had more of a coherent storyline, with blue heroes facing off against red mutants, but it didn't stick around that long. That's fine, though, because in the 90s Kenner got the license and re-introduced Zoids to the western world again.
This rebranding was no doubt the result of the popularity of techno music. Anyway, it's interesting to me that the toyline was so tenacious—just like Weebles, the Zoids wobbled, but would not fall down. Actually, Weebles are a Hasbro product, which is a fine coincidence because Hasbro would acquire the toy line for its next North American relaunch, in 2001. This marks the point when the anime premiered on Toonami; smart thinking, man, you can't have a toy line without a cartoon tie-in, right?! Interestingly, while the toys and TV series were simply called Zoids, the show itself was the second Zoids anime series—a show originally called Zoids New Century Zero.
In retrospect, this was a pretty savvy move by the property's international marketers. Zoids New Century is arguably a better show than its predecessor Zoids Chaotic Century; the former is a war epic that's really wrapped up in the storyline of Republic versus Empire that characterized the original tales from the toy boxes, magazines, and comics from the 1980s. This was at the request of Tomy, which is something I learned after talking to series scribe Katsuyuki Sumizawa at Otakon last year; he wrote and supervised the scripts for the first two seasons, and was surprised at how many story details that the toy company supplied for him and his team to use. Anyway, back to New Century—unlike its predecessor, it's a tournament battle show. It might take place on good old Planet Z, but it's about teams of Zoids pilots and mechanics duking it out for prestige and glory. Its fusion of 2D character animation and 3DCG battlin' Zoids certainly looks better than its predecessor, and it helped to once again re-cement the Zoids name in the west.
Then, thanks to the same phenomenon of international marketing that made Zoids a success in the first place, the franchise's trajectory got charmingly weird. The second show's success on TV and in toy stores in the west led to the first show getting dubbed and broadcast, and Tomy (by this point, Takara Tomy, thanks to a merger) hustled back to order a third series—this one custom-made for western audiences. In much the same fashion as Transformers Armada and that second season of Ultimate Muscle, Zoids Fuzors may have been animated in Japan, but it was done with an eye for the western market, and aired on TV there first.
There was just one problem: Fuzors wasn't that good. It wasn't terrible—it still had the Liger Zero, one of the toy line's flagship mecha models, but a changeover in animation studio and production staff meant that the new series didn't have much in common with its predecessors, from either a visual or storytelling perspective. Chaotic Century won a lot of fans with its far-flung war story, and New Century even more with its squads of frothy, charismatic heroes and adversaries. Fuzors, despite showcasing the gimmick of Zoids robots combining to create bigger, stronger robots, just didn't catch on. While 26 episodes were ultimately produced, only half of the series aired on Toonami before it was quietly shuffled off the block. Intriguingly, when the series aired in Japan half a year later, it had some new animation and effects added—stuff that wasn't present in the US broadcast! Did they try to fix it, or were these scenes stuff that the production staff wanted to include, but ran out of time for the US airings?
Anyway, the faceplant of Fuzors signaled the end of the brand's latest arc of popularity. Another series, Zoids Genesis, was dubbed and slated for release on Toonami's online service, but never made it to air. I'm told that the show did air in the Philippines and other English-speaking markets in Southeast Asia. If true, I hope they dubbed the whole thing!
I'm bringing up all of this Zoids talk for a few reasons. For me, the biggest reason is the Zoids Fan. If you go to a convention panel about mecha anime, or the history of Toonami, or toy collecting, you're bound to stumble across them: the one Zoids Fan in the room. This person will talk your ear off about the differences between the late 80s versions and the 90s Kenner re-issues of the toys, or the fan-made English patches of the numerous Gameboy and Nintendo DS games, or the lost, late chapters of the manga by Michiro Ueyama that only got released as doujinshi, or their fanfiction where Bit ends up with Naomi instead of Leena, or their other fanfiction where Bit and Brad are maybe more than friends!! Mentioning the series always fires wild enthusiasm on the part of someone in the room, and I think that enthusiasm is worthwhile.
The second reason is because all of the existing Zoids anime is brokered by ShoPro, the subsidiary of Shogakukan and Shueisha which handles international licensing for all of their cool stuff. This means that if we ever get the Zoids cartoons on Blu-Ray (don't laugh, man—they re-released all four shows on Blu-Ray in Japan, packed with exclusive models from Kaiyodo!), it would likely have to come through Viz, who are typically ShoPro's licensee for all of their cool stuff. Now, I realize that Viz have been pretty busy with blockbuster, globe-spanning productions involving enduring, classic heroes like Infini-T Force and Sailor Moon Crystal, but if they can get Ranma ½ on Blu-Ray done, pleasing thousands and thousands of old and new fans across the continent, then I'm certain that they can give me, personally, this one weird little show that I want. So you can call this column a charm offensive.
The last reason I'm writing about Zoids is that we've just arrived at a point where folks can be fans of the nutty motorized toys and cool cartoons in real time again; Takara Tomy recently announced that they'll be relaunching the toy line this summer, alongside a brand new TV anime from OLM, Zoids Wild, plus new iterations of the manga, video games, and other nonsense. See that?! I got my finger on the pulse, baby.
In researching this article, I noticed something I always dig—a whole lot of international cross-fandom chatter. Western fans have translated old Gameboy Advance games for fun,and reached out to folks like manga creator Ueyama to talk about his contributions to the series. Japanese fans have expressed fascination with the UK comics, and fan-translated an illustrated storybook about the Zoidaryan myth. And throughout, toy fans on both sides of the world have carefully and patiently helped each other acquire the different variations of the Zoids that have hit different parts of the globe. After all, that mammoth is pretty cool, but Japan, North America, and Europe all got different color schemes! A core element of fandom is that shared fascination that brings lots of different people together, and I've rarely seen it expressed so keenly, or across so many different kinds of stuff—comics, toys, and animation. The mammoth may have eventually gone extinct, but Zoids fandom won't!
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