2004 In Review

by Darren Pierce : Densha Blues : 01.01.05 4:11am EST
2004 is gone, and the world of Japanese toys has seen another year of innovation, evolution, and obsession with its sometimes circular fits of self-reflection. While the old relics of industry continue to hold fast their reins, pushing their envelopes in measured parcels, it was perhaps most significantly a good year for newcomers.

Staples of Gokin

Catering to the adult nostalgist, Bandai's Soul of Chogokin brand has taken ownership of the modern diecast robot psyche in the eye of the public. With the number of new "SOC" offerings increasing year after year since its 1997 debut, the sheer volume of new toys produced in 2004 is impressive. We have seen toy giant Bandai trend away from larger, more complex releases, such as 2004's Zambot 3, and toward smaller, simpler characters. Quick returns and better bang for the buck warm corporate hearts indeed. Zambot the SOC was as magnificent and impressive as his much adored animated character, but these triumphs of toy hedonism over fiscal sense aren't a platform for growth.

Bandai has exposed an even clearer trend: The market's insatiable appetite for all things Mazinger. Also-ran Evangelions 3 and 4, and the inevitable recolors of Daiku Maryu Gaiking and Dancougar were painfully expected, but some signs of the obvious were ignored. The second volley of steely Mazinger Girls, excused by "Mazinger Angels", the unapologetic manga featuring the high-heeled robotic foursome, was a tocsin.

Previous years have taught us that Bandai knows no limits, and that the impossible can be made real even in the midst of your own laughter. This year teaches us that Mazinger can be exploited almost as handsomely as Gundam, and there is no reason to think that even Robot Junior, perennial in-joke, stands a better chance to find SOC-status than not.

Yet before the notion of Mazinger Angels toys was settled, SOC knighthood for villains Garada and Dablas was conferred. Meeting the consumers' demand almost to specification, the devilish duo are not only beloved Mazinger characters, but their creation required only partial modification of simple, existing goods to match. They came, one after another.

This year also saw the release of SOC Tetsujin 28, a fitting tribute to Mitsuteru Yokoyama's April departure. Tetsujin is another example of a simple, well-loved design bought quickly to market, and brings us to the matter with Gaiking. The 2001 launch of SOC Daiku Maryu Gaiking matched a highly engineered Daiku Maryu with a smallish, scale Gaiking robot. One might consider this a shortcoming or an opportunity, and one should never underestimate Bandai's ability to capture opportunity. A full-sized Gaiking robot was made public in December of this year, another quick win for the scoreboards.

Marmit's 1999 Daigokin Mazinger Z was a monument to obsession and excess. It was a decadent and obnoxious incarnation of the ultimate metal Mazinger toy. Perhaps more than any other single piece, "the Daigokin" represents nostalgism and the collector. However, short of an occasional recolor, the brand lay dormant since then. This year, Daigokin Mazinger received a linemate, the even larger Great Mazinger, demonstrating that trendy nostalgism is still a formidable force.

While on the perpetual subject of Mazinger Z, the desaturated paws of Panda Z must be noted. A marriage of mascot culture, Mazinger, and chogokin nostalgia, the official corporate parody of the Go Nagai classic spawned a Soul of Chogokin class boutique toy: Chogokin Panda Z. With a magnetic Scrander, double pawed rocket punch, and enough metal mass to please the critics, Panda Z is a strong symbol of Japan's cultural climate.

Hung Hing Toys isn't Japanese, but their Super Heavy Gokin Gold Lightan is a licensed representation of the Japanese golden warrior, and the "gokin" branding is an obvious tribute. Larger than the classic toy, Hung Hing's Lightan is an amazing first effort for a company new to this type of manufacturing. In what should be taken for praise, the figure can be called "Bandai-like". Gold Lightan is an unlikely child of the 80's that has managed to endear itself to the hearts of mass populi.

Aoshima's high-quality and high-diecast Shin Seiki Gokin line is bordering on being more of a British import line than Japanese. Nonetheless, the 2004 lineup, featuring Space:1999 Eagles and Thunderbirds 1 and 2 from the original Thunderbirds series, well lived up to their branding, and resonated a Japanese ethos, even from a Union Jacked shipping crate.

The Brave Spirit Never Dies

Takara's Brave Series is considered a 90's phenomenon that supposedly ended in 1998 with Gaogaigar's close. Toward the end, neither the Gaogaigar toys or animation was faring well, and the whole experiment was put out of its misery. Yet as often happens with TV shows, Gaogaigar didn't become popular until it was killed. In 2004, the now cultish Gaogaigar was still hot -- and after a long chain of mediocre GGG goods in the last few years from Kotobukiya and Yujin, the SOC holyland of Gaigaigar toys was still far out of reach.

Max Factory, which hadn't produced a high-end metal figure before, reversed the trend. Releasing their large and impressive Max Gokin Genesis Gaogaigar set, the toy will likely forever be remembered for the set of gratis white gloves found in the top of the box. The Max Gokin is another tremendous first effort from a company sailing virgin waters.

Perhaps more anticipated was CM's Corporation's Brave Gokin Gaogaigar. Not only featuring diecast metal parts, it fully transformed and combined. The figure's high build quality and toy-like playability would be impressive from nearly any company, but moreso as CM's first high-end toy effort.

Studio Half Eye was been long known for craftsmanship, slowly eeking out a trickle of hand carved, hand assembled toys with the glacial tempo of true artisans. The Studio Half Eye of late seems absolutely high volume compared to their past, with more projects in the works than one can stay on top of. Getting into the Brave spirit, their Simple Change Dragon Kaiser is typical SHE work: miniature, intricate, a masterpiece.

Yamato Comes of Age

Yamato perhaps bit off more than they could chew when they got into the high-end toys business. Their first projects were ambitious in scope and lackluster in execution. Over time, their skill has grown to match their appetites, and their projects have been scaled to match their talents.

Their 1:60 Queadluun-Rau is typical of the kind of thing Yamato does well -- essentially a well detailed model fitted out like a toy. It isn't spectacular, but solid. After the Q-Rau came their Votoms Scopedog, and Yamato had suddenly matured. The Scopedog, large and robust, is arguably their most toy-like and least bug ridden high-end collector's product yet. At once, they may have left their flawed image behind them and created something that even their detractors want to own.

At the close of the year came their fully transforming Koenig Monster. This is a complicated piece, more like Yamato's earlier Macross goods. It is the kind of thing one might typically expect to have those famous Yamato tragic flaws. But it seems the toy maker has matured indeed -- while not a perfect execution, the Koenig Monster is evidence Yamato has come a very long way in every facet of their craft.

Yamato's Valkyrie fans were treated to GBP armor for their 1:60 Valkyries in 2004, and the announcement of 1:48 scale armor as well.

Autobots, Transform! ... again

Leaving behind the heavily American-influenced Micron Legend line, Transformers Super Link bridged the decades old franchise back into some more traditional Takara territory. The "super link" gimmick itself refers to some toys' ability to combine in binary fashion, feeling much like Gaogaigar's truck brothers. The line fostered several impressive titles, including Wing Saber, Omega Supreme, and the significant Transformers / Microman Anniversary Set. Super Link's year ended with a quick succession of three 5-way combiners that evoked feelings of Takara's times past.

Takara has long been known for making toys that often play great but photograph poorly. Zinc Panic seeks to study Japanese toys for their significant contributions to design, and we must forgive Takara for sometimes ignoring the coherent visual. Takara's year-end blitz campaign for their 2005 product line, Galaxy Force, is a noteworthy matter. Channeling Brave vibe and Hero Robot cool, Galaxy Force is nothing if not photogenic. The first salvo was released in December.

The BinalTech line of re-imagined Car Robots carried on strong throughout 2004. The Jeep Wrangler, Chevy Corvette, Mazda RX-8, and Ford Mustang all received BinalTech treatment with the usual high standards. The expected pelting of recolors came as well, along with scheduling for continued new items into 2005.

Takara also continued their line of reissues of classic toys. Hound, Stepper, and the Insectron trio found new life in 2004, in addition to the mammoth Predaking. Once again, Takara subtly nips at Bandai's high throne of toy making. Predaking is an amazing toy in any generation, and is exactly the kind of high-end, heavy metal, super robot reissue that Bandai could've been doing for years.

Gundam Readied for the Global Stage

Rest assured, 2004 was filled with Gundam. The mega franchise enjoyed ongoing massive popularity in Japan and a bright future in foreign markets including the US. Gundam Seed repackaged the genre in its most modern, commercial visage -- tailor made for global consumption. The best laid plans of mice and management are sometimes derailed. In the United States, where consumption is rapid and burn out comes quick, the Gundam craze fizzled before Gundam Seed really had a chance.

Japan pressed on with Gundam Seed Destiny, an unprecedented direct sequel to a Gundam TV series. The Seed generation mecha are well suited to merchandizing. They are plentiful, recognizable, and easy to "toy". Seed Destiny's main mecha, the Impulse Gundam comes in a spectrum of color coded combinations with various accessories and simple gimmicks. The designs are ripe for the multi-modal product attack -- from gashapon to DX classes -- that Bandai is famous for.

The Gundam Quality MMM Force Impulse Gundam carries on the relatively young "Metal Material Model" line. The feature version of the starring Mobile Suit well lives up to Bandai's standards, but is short on metal content despite the Chogokin label.

The Katoki shilled Gundam FIX and Gundam Zeonography lines, aimed at detail oriented modeling enthusiasts, continued strong in 2004, spawning a third family member, "Cosmic Region". Debuting with the Force Impulse Gundam, Cosmic Region allows the popular form factor to explore designs not necessarily influenced by Hajime Katoki.

Gundam FIX' more pedestrian cousin, the eternal Mobile Suit in Action line, carried on with nearly 3 dozen new products, including MSiA versions of characters from the failed Advanced MSiA line. In the never ending quest to sell consumers popular Gundam characters in gross repetition over a dizzying array of formats, 2004 introduced Extended MSiA. With levels of detail closer to FIX and pricing closer to MSiA, the new EMSiA line allows the faithful to relive that "Christmas experience" with their favorite Mobile Suits one more time.

The Special Creative Model prize game line released a perfect transforming Gundam and G-Fighter. The SCM line has produced a high quality product, but being a crane prize item, it lacked mass market momentum. The highly articulated, high detail, but ABS format is a different direction than the PVC used by MSiA and FIX lines. A wider venue was sought, and in June, to much fanfare, the HCM Progressive line was launched.

HCM Pro borrows from the vintage "High Complete Model" legacy, and delivers a collector's oriented toy in a package suitable for DVD rental outlets, video game stores, and other traditionally non-toy markets. One good format begets another. Hot on the heels of HCM Pro was Gundam HMS line, a scaled down gashapon version of its nascent progenitor.

Also maintaining status through 2004 was SD Gundam Full Color Stage and Gundam Collection, and new to 2004 was Gundam Re-Arms and the retro stylings of Sofubi Suits Gundam. The outside observer has to ask just how long the momentum can be carried.

SD Gundam Force was envisioned to serve Gundam Seed's mission in the kiddie market. A modern spec'ed retake of long lived SD Gundam world characters in a multimedia strafing guaranteed to sell toys world wide. In the US, SD Gundam Force suffered from the same circumstances that jinxed Gundam Seed. This critically impacted the super deformed mecha, with far less toy merchandize being released in both markets than was planned. Nonetheless, SD fans were treated to a substantial helping of high quality toys while it lasted -- these being the first, and possibly last, of their kind.

Bandai's Evergreen Genres

Practically every year, with limited interruption, Japan enjoys a buffet of tokusatsu entertainment and their associated toys from the Super Sentai, Kamen Rider, and Ultraman genres. The continuous flow of related toys, traced back to the 70's, provides an interesting and educational insight into Japan's soul.

The hit movie "Men in Black" suggested the overall theme for 2004's Super Sentai addition: Dekaranger. An earth based special police force oversees alien visitors to our blue planet. PLEX, the design house responsible for most of Bandai's tokusatsu toy design work, continued their recent trend of breaking from traditional blocky and square-shouldered robots, producing another round of spectacular intercompatible robot toys. Visually interesting and tactilly habit forming, Dekaranger saw the return of the Big Scale transport base and featured a Super Robot riding a massive motorcycle. Dekaranger Robo and Dekawing Robo are especially noteworthy for suggesting a fluid, dynamic form while in a static pose -- something PLEX isn't always known for.

Themes of magic and mysticism were hot in 2004 with the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" movies, and the sentiment was rolled straight into 2005's Super Sentai announcement: Magiranger.

Kids' card games were also hot, and Kamen Rider Blade took full advantage of the trend. Kamen Rider popularity remains high with kids and adults, and the full deck of 52 playing cards provided endless fodder for suit variations and rider upgrades. Tied into the Kamen Rider juggernaut are the Super Imaginative Chogokin and Souchaku Henshin lines, both of which stayed strong in the year. Apparently, music is the next big thing in 2005. The announced successor Kamen Rider Hibiki features a drum pounding demon from Japanese mythology that duels with compact disc animals that sends Cassetteman turning in his grave.

To sell more toys, you need more characters: A lesson learned in the toy industry. Ultraman Nexus sees our hero upgraded through several forms, offering plenty of toy possibilities. The recent wave of Ultra Gokin toys are reminiscent of old school chogokin character toys, even if constantly delayed throughout the year, making many believe Ultraman is the red-headed stepchild of the corporate empire. Vehicle toys are traditional side items on the Ultraman menu, and Ultraman Nexus offered the endlessly recombinable Chrome Chesters. PLEX is converging on a standard joint format for modular toys, and the Nexus vehicles, like some from Ultraman's past, are full players in the PLEX universe.

Nothing leverages that standardized jointwork like PLEX' flagship line: Machine Robo Mugenbine. For all practical purposes, Mugenbine was launched in early 2004 on the heels of Machine Robo Rescue's close. With a standard Mugenroid core robot, each Mugenbine set allows you to build a vehicle or an animal form with the included extra parts. Buyers are motivated, of course, to buy as many sets as possible to assemble their own custom creations.

The concept has been greatly successful with kids and adults, seeing numerous fan sites pop up that showcase the dedicated work of the mugen adept. PLEX itself, taking a front seat role, which is rather extraordinary for a design house, is the line's biggest cheerleader, communicating directly with the fan base through web sites and other publications. The line's success assures continued development through 2005, and the introduction of a new sub-line, the MugenBase series. The scaled up MugenBase sets feature base modes, as the name implies, and a new class of core robot called a "Turboroid" that can handle independent vehicle transformation without excessive extra parts.

Konami Hits Hard

In recent times, robotophiles were limited to big toy makers Bandai, Takara, and sometimes Tomy. Konami broke into the mecha-crazed toy world in 2003, in what could've easily been a flash in the pan. As an established company and one of Takara's major investors, they had the staying power to weather a few bombs if necessary, but they were blessed with a strong start.

Gransazer closed in 2004, marking the end of what would prove to be the first in a new tokusatsu sentai series. Followed up by 2004's Justiriser the new Choseishin sentai aesthetic borrows heavily from traditional Japanese themes and Toho-esque mecha. The toys are quality plastic transformables that seem to have broached a new standard in obsessive packaging.

2004 also saw the debut of Konami's animated Amdriver, which launched a massive wave of transforming toys and action figures that came on strong well to the end of the year. The fan of powersuits had well over a dozen detailed and substantial "BISARs" to chose from, each a layercake of acute-angled armor and iMac inspired plastic. Some of the early year products had minor flaws, but execution improved greatly throughout the run.

It was, after all, a great year for newcomers.