Space Bridging The Pacific: The Origins of Transformers Toys

Space Bridging The Pacific: The Origins of Transformers Toys

by Ben Meier of

Transformers has become one of the most iconic and successful toy brands in history with its appeal spanning generations from kids born in the late 1970s who watched the first batch of toy commercia... er, cartoons after school, to kids born in the 2000s who first met Optimus Prime on the big screen of a local movie theater. It's a phenomenon that has spread globally, most recently making a giant stronghold in the burgeoning middle-class population of China. Transformers has even dominated the entertainment and landscape of Japan, whose culture is wildly different from the American culture from which the Transformers came...or did they come from Japan TO the USA? Where exactly did Transformers come from?

Everyone who eventually wonders on this question has a guess, but that guess is almost always viewed through perspective. Americans and Europeans will see the original 1980s cartoon and its American-centric style and storylines, but the average Japanese fan might see their nation's long and continuous history of robot toys and assume Japan to be the origin. A man on the street might think Transformers came from Hollywood in 2007, but any '80s kid (Transformers fan or not) knows otherwise. So what is the real story? Well, it starts in Japan... with Americans.

Part 1: Why Robots?

Tetsujin 28-go
After World War II, Japan experienced rapid cultural changes, spurred by their defeat and occupation by the United States and its allies. Many Japanese civilians did not experience the war as it happened, believing their military abroad to be an invulnerable conquering force, until suddenly Allied bombers were in the skies over their cities, wreaking great destruction. One such civilian was a boy named Mitsuteru Yokoyama, whose wartime experience of seeing B-29 bombers pound his home city of Kobe to ash caused him to be fascinated with the destructive power of these machines. Yokoyama went on to become a manga (Japanese comic book) artist, and in 1956 created the first human-controlled giant robot character, named Tetsujin 28-go. The story tells that the robot was being developed during the war as a secret weapon and invincible defender against the Allies, but was only completed after the war ended in defeat for the Japanese Empire. Instead, the creator's son operates the robot essentially as a mechanical superhero on their adventures. 

Because Japanese industry was crippled by the war, the production of consumer goods like toys had to resume with whatever materials and means available. To that end, Japan was granted the ability to produce tin lithograph toys, largely out of recycled metal from cans and other sources. The Japanese excelled at the production of such toys, and the method was well-suited to represent the bulbous forms of early robot characters like Tetsujin 28-go. These toys were often motorized with clockwork producing a walking and arm-swinging action. Though increasing safety regulations caused tinplate toys to fall out of favor in the US, they continued their popularity in Japan well into the 1970s, and were used to embody successive generations of super-robots like Mazinger Z as the popularity of the super-robot genre continued to grow out from artists like Yokoyama. 

Part 2: They're not dolls!

On the other side of the world, however, the culture was different. The American military was synonymous with heroism and glory after the war, even despite a somewhat ignominious draw on the Korean peninsula in the 1950s. Concurrently, the cheap and efficient production of durable injection-molded thermoplastic goods was coming into vogue, particularly in the toy industry.

Original G.I. Joe lineup
In 1963, a Manhattan-based licensing agent named Stan Weston developed a way to combine these two trends by creating a concept for a highly-articulated series of American military dolls, complete with interchangeable uniforms, weapons, and tools. Recognizing that the term "doll" was tightly linked to the fashion dolls popular with young girls at the time, Weston branded his new toys as "action figures" to avoid the stigma of parents buying "dolls" for their sons as well. Weston called them G.I. Joe, "America's movable fighting man." Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based toymaker Hasbro bought Weston's concept for the 12 inch-tall figures under the direction of Don Levine, and began production the following year. Not only were the figures a hit, but the invented term "action figure" stuck, and evolved into a whole range of boys' toys, lifting the "doll" stigma to allow more engaging human figures than tin soldiers or single-piece plastic army men.

G.I. Joe's success flowed to many US export markets overseas such as Europe and the UK as "Action Man", and Japan in 1970 as New G.I. Joe, produced under license by Takara. These figures featured heroic American-style figures fighting evil Nazis, both with manga-inspired changes such as larger eyes and softened facial features. Since General MacArthur's post-war policies during the US occupation of Japan cast the American military as a friendly and heroic force there, Imperial Japanese soldiers were conspicuous in their absence from the toyline, due to the somewhat awkward position of being on the defeated Axis side. The line floundered, perhaps due to a lack of Japanese representation for Japanese boys to identify with. 

Takara had no desire to let the already-paid-for license go to waste, and so in 1971 rebranded the line as "Allies of Justice", using the same architecture for the figures but casting them in costumes of popular Japanese superhero characters of the time, like Ultraman and Kamen Rider. As the tide of sci-fi and futurist popularity rose in boys' media, Takara reinvented the line again in 1972 as Henshin (roughly, "change") Cyborg. These 12 inch figures modified the G.I. Joe template by casting the figures in tinted translucent plastics, allowing vacuum-metalized "chrome" machine parts to be seen inside their bodies. Takara also modified some joints to allow limbs or parts to be removed and interchangeably replaced - these figures were part machine now, after all. Various weapons and vehicles could now be combined with the sparkling, fanciful figures to help them fight the evil alien King Waruder (a name deriving from the Japanese word waru, meaning evil person, or warui - wickedness or evil).

Part 3: We Didn't Start the Fire

There's no reason to pretend all of this development was Takara's doing, however. In the meantime, numerous Japanese tin litho toymakers got into the super-robot scene, with Billiken, Bullmark, Nomura, Masudaya, and especially Popy (a subdivision of the larger Bandai) throwing their hats in the ring to some extent. As the 1960s and '70s wore on, and Japan's industrial situation rapidly improved, die-cast zinc alloy and injection-molded plastics become more cost effective, and allowed for greater detail than tinplate. Many of these companies transitioned successfully to this new market, advertising their toys as being made with "zincron" or other made-up names for versions of the trademarked ZAMAK zink-aluminum alloy. In fact, die-cast ZAMAK became so cheap, that entire toys were primarily made of the alloy, with large robots weighing a few pounds each, with plastic only interspersed to allow moving parts, or to add vac-metal accents to the brightly painted metals. Popy became dominant in this market, competing with companies like Takatoku, Clover, and Ark/Arklon for innovative robot designs and tie-ins with anime cartoon shows about the magical or futuristic robots. By the late '70s, the designs had become incredibly nuance and complex with transformations and play features like firing missiles and other spring-loaded gimmicks.

Takara was a late entrant to this market, instead choosing to stay the course with their highly articulated plastic figures. The onset of the 1973 oil crises drove up prices on petroleum-based plastics, however, so Takara took the initiative to innovate on their sci-fi action figures as they downsized. They elected to make their new figures in a four-inch scale, keeping the concept of translucent plastic humanoids with chrome mechanical parts, using rivets and a central rubber ring to provide joints and mobility for the figures' limbs and body. The new scale allowed development of more elaborate vehicles and playsets with interchangeable parts based on 5mm circular posts, and the line was dubbed Microman. The lore proclaimed that the figures were life-size, but came from a lilliputian alternate universe. They battled with the evil forces of the Acroyears, and each year from 1974 onward received its own unique theme, with new bodies for the figures, and more interchangeable vehicles, playsets, and eventually robots to interact with.

Part 4: Everything Old is New Again

After the second oil crisis of 1979, Hasbro was interested in revitalizing its nearly-defunct G.I. Joe brand, whose popularity had plummeted as a result of resistance to military glorification following the Vietnam War. They elected to use a similar scale (to allow elaborate vehicles) and construction for their new 1982 line, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. In Japan, however, these figures were falling out of favor as kids became more interested in the unique and diverse robot toys available at the time. Microman increasingly focused on its own robotic offerings, though of a distinctly different style and flavor of the Popy Chogokin (super-alloy) die-cast robots.

Characters of Super Dimension Fortress Macross
By 1980, it was all robots, all the time in Japan. "New Microman" was entirely robot-centric, featuring only a couple new human figures. Takara wanted to get in on the market for robots that were less about assembly and interchangeability, and more about robots that changed their bodies into other forms. This was influenced in no small part by the landmark anime Super Dimension Fortress Macross, which featured numerous "mecha" being used as human vehicles that could change between aircraft and robotic forms to battle invading aliens. The line portrayed the robots as a matter-of-fact outgrowth of military technology rather than mystical or magical like Chogokin before. Takara once again scaled their human figures down, now to a mere inch tall, piloting die-cast and plastic robots that changed into aircraft, tanks, and other vehicles. Initially planned as a Microman spinoff called "Inchman", the line instead was introduced with an independent lore as Diaclone. The lore told of evil alien Waruders - sound familiar? - invading Earth for a secret energy source called Freezon, which had just helped humanity fully evolve into the space age. Eventually, the Waruders were driven back, and humans began building their mecha to disguise as normal, recognizable Earth vehicles like cars, trucks, trains, and fighter jets. Microman had since entered its final phase with its own mecha transforming into recognizable earth items, so called "Chameleon Goods" like radios, cassette tapes, and handguns.

Such was the success that Takara even tried to export these complex and fascinating robots abroad, marketing as Diakron (a mis-romanization of Diaclone) and Kronoform in the US, and licensing production as Grandstand Convertors in the UK, as Joustra Diaclone in France, and Gig (pronounced zheeg) Trasformer [sic] in Italy. But wait, you grew up in the 1980s and you've never heard of Kronoform! That's right. Takara missed something important - the Reagan-era deregulation of childrens' television programming allowed cartoons to explicitly serve as toy commercials, something which Mattel first capitalized on with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and Hasbro's new, smaller G.I. Joes took advantage of with their own cartoon. Even Bandai, now dropping their Popy branding, was selling their robot-to-real car toys as GoBots in the US with a cartoon produced by Hanna-Barbera.

Part 5: The Robots in Disguise

Original patent for Optimus Prime
Luckily, Hasbro did not miss this opportunity, with the new Joe line ending a contracting phase for their company. Hasbro executives visiting a Japanese toy industry show spotted the Diaclone and Microman toys from their former partners abroad, and cooked up the idea to bring them to the US market with the same sales strategy of comic books, cartoons, and on-package storylines for each character. They cut a mutual deal with Takara: exclusive rights to Takara transforming robot products outside Japan, and Takara could use Hasbro's marketing materials inside Japan. Takara scaled up production massively for the Western market, but was initially hesitant to market the Transformers lore as crated by Marvel Comics writer Bob Budiansky and others. After the toys were so popular as to cause Black Friday brawls in US toy aisles, Takara finally cancelled Diaclone and Microman to go all-in on the new teams of warring alien robots.

Transformers figures of the '80s bear archaeological fruit, as their expanding popularity subsumed all other toys that affected the arc of their history. From the little handles and seat on Megatron's cannon that allow a Microman figure to take aim, to various color changes between Diaclone and Transformers stemming from the disparate European licensed producers, to featuring the main mecha of Macross, the VF-1S Valkyrie, as Christmas '85 showstopper Jetfire the Autobot Air Guardian, the toys are littered with little clues. As Hasbro's fortunes grew from their 1980s success stories, they began to buy out former competitors, absorbing some of those other toy series into Transformers lore. In Japan, throwbacks to those historic lines are common, such as new Microman-style figures being released in Transformers sets, the incredible adult-oriented and ongoing Diaclone reboot toyline, to far-flung references like a Henshin Cyborg-style figure in King of Braves GaoGaiGar a toyline spun off of Transformers in the 1990s. This germination means Transformers are everywhere now, in Star Wars, Marvel, blockbuster movies, real cars, and you or your friend's toy shelf... hiding in plain sight. There's more to these plastic robots... much more... than meets the eye!

Visit Transformerland for more information and to buy or sell vintage Transformers toys!

About The Author: Ben Meier started collecting transforming robots at the age of 2 or 3, and never stopped. After studying physics and spending some time in the paper industry, Ben finally made his obsession a career by joining the Transformerland team in 2013. He now authors the Toy Wiki and Blog articles on that site, and shares photos of his collection as references for fellow fans to identify and categorize their vintage toys and parts.

All images via Wiki or YouTube
Close Menu