When reviewing a DVD release such as Transformers: the Japanese Collection -- Headmasters, I feel somewhat obligated to first offer up my own personal history with the robots in disguise -- partly because it’s fun yet also to let you know where I stand in regards to my obsession or, depending on your level of devotion, lack thereof.
Like any child of the ‘80s, I grew up with and loved the Transformers. I played with the toys and enjoyed the half-hour animated commercials keenly disguised as a television program. I knew the names, I attempted to memorize the stats on the back of the package and I even made the “kee-kchooo –- koo-koo-choo” noise when I transformed my toys in an attempt to emulate one of the greatest sound effects my young mind had ever known. While the Transformers would never occupy a top slot in my personal Holy Trinity of ‘80s Toys (those were reserved for G.I. Joe and He-Man), they attained a solid #3, edging out MASK, Thundercats, and possibly even Star Wars. But it’s not Star Wars’ fault these three toy lines kept on truckin’ long after George Lucas’ cash cow began to slow down after the release of Return of the Jedi.
Anyway, after the Transformers movie hit theaters in 1986 and the third season of the animated series wrapped up, I was more-or-less done with them. I might’ve picked up the occasional toy here and there, but once the initial run of the American cartoon was over, I wasn’t really into it any more. I never followed the Marvel Comics version and in all honesty even my memories of the third season of the show are pretty vague. The incredibly long-winded point I’m trying to make is that while the displaced denizens of Cybertron will always occupy a very special place in my heart, I’ve never been a hardcore fan who refers to them by their various generations, roams the aisles at comic conventions looking for loose weapons or accessories to complete my collection or scours the Internet for bootlegs of the series that I’m reviewing right now.
Now, if you are one of those hardcore fans, perhaps you will find the following commentary to be less than satisfactory. On the other hand, if you’ve read this far, you might as well just go ahead and finish the review, right? It’s a review written by a casual fan that first discovered the Headmasters series a few years ago on YouTube and considers it something of a Holy Grail -- a lost continuation of the original series and a rare chance to relive my youth while witnessing something completely new at the same time. Indeed, I suspect that even the hardcorest of the hardcore would likely agree with that last assessment, as these DVDs have been long awaited and will no doubt be the cause of much rejoicing among Transformers fans. But if you’re looking for an expert on anime or a walking Transformers encyclopedia offering his educated opinion on this long awaited release, you won’t find it here. I’m just a guy who likes cartoons.
Enough rambling and reminiscing, let’s get to the actual review, shall we? According to the blurb on the back of the DVD packaging, Transformers: the Japanese Collection – Headmasters is the first part of a massive Japanese trilogy. This four-disc set contains 35 episodes and clocks in at around 13 hours. The aspect ratio is 4:3, the audio is in stereo, and it’s all in Japanese with English subtitles. With a suggested retail price of $29.93, that’s a pretty good bargain. But is it actually any good?
It was Thomas Wolfe who said “You can’t go home again” and while I have no definitive proof I’m pretty sure he was talking about ‘80s cartoons when making that claim. Those of you who have attempted to watch the animated adventures of your youth know what I’m talking about. Sure, it’s fun to watch a few episodes and even better when you’re with old friends, enjoying whatever recreational or medicinal substances you might utilize to enhance such a program. But it doesn’t take long before fatigue sets in and you wonder how the hell you even managed to sit through these shows in the first place. Banal plots and pointless violence abound as characters are introduced not to enhance the plot or underscore the objectives of the protagonist, but simply to sell another toy or in the case of the Transformers, combine with five other robots to make an even bigger robot able to cause even more destruction. And believe me, there are a lot of those in Headmasters.
Remember when the Constructicons were introduced? Six evil robots that turned into vehicles or, when the situation called for it, could combine to create Devastator, undoubtedly the greatest threat the Autobots could ever face. Remember how awesome the Constructacons were? While the idea of combining robots wasn’t anything entirely new, it was unique to the Transformers; at least, it was at that point in time. This iteration of the show features no less than FIVE such combiners, including a group of animals and a group of trains. Yes, trains -- trains that need no tracks in order to travel over any terrain, be it the metallic surfaces of the Transformers’ home world of Cybertron or the rocky terrain of... well, whatever planet they were on. I can’t even remember. The point is, a group of construction vehicles are cool, as are airplanes and even a team comprised of ambulances, fire trucks and police cars. But trains? TRAINS?!? That’s the point at which the concept has been diluted into realms of lunacy.
There’s a lot of posturing in this series. Characters love to introduce themselves (often accompanied by a banner bearing their name) before challenging adversaries to do battle, which often just means “standing about five feet away from each other on the battlefield while blasting each other with lasers.” Perhaps there’s just something lost in translation (did I mention the show is in Japanese with English subtitles?) but the majority of the dialogue feels as though it was written by a seven-year old. It’s hard to say which is more mindless and juvenile, this cartoon series or the Michael Bay films which have tarnished the good name of the Transformers beyond all recovery.
Then again, no it isn’t. Transformers: the Japanese Collection – Headmasters, for all its faults, does have a few shining moments of greatness. A perfect example of this are the characters from which the show takes its name: the Headmasters. Long story short, they’re a group of Cybertronians who deserted the planet many years ago, before the Transformers developed the ability to alter their form. Following a different evolutionary path than the Transformers we know and love, these creatures instead developed the ability to transform into giant heads. Heads which would then be perched upon the giant robot bodies which possessed the ability to turn into vehicles which were then piloted by the heads while in robot form. Did that make any sense to you? It didn’t really make sense to me either, but I found the absurdity of the whole thing rather appealing so I chose to just go with it rather than complain.
The storyline on the whole takes a decidedly darker and much more violent tone than American Transformers fans might be used to. Apparently, Japanese animators don’t have as big of a problem as we do with informing children that people (or in this case, robots) do occasionally perish in war, as several characters meet their demise in the course of this series. Of course, some of them come back because when you’re a robot, you can just be rebuilt. But there’s no doubt that the stakes seem much higher in this show due to their willingness to actually depict the realities of combat. It also doesn’t hurt that there’s a bit more character development in this series than we’ve seen in its American counterpart. While it might be a stretch to call any Autobot or Decepticon three-dimensional, there is actually some level of growth displayed throughout the arc of the season. Not a lot, but it’s there.
At the end of the day, despite all my complaining, I have to admit that I did enjoy my time spent with Transformers: the Japanese Collection – Headmasters. I can argue that it’s little more than a series of 30-minute toy commercials, or that it has no heart, no soul, and a mindless plot. But I knew exactly what I was in for when I signed up. In fact, it’s exactly why I signed up! As I noted earlier, it’s a rare chance to experience those golden years of childhood once again. It’s a lost track from your favorite band when they were in their heyday, or a deleted scene from a classic film. It’s the opportunity to discover something old for the very first time. Is it worth the $30? Not for me, no. But then, I’m not exactly the target audience; I’m the casual fan who gets a tear in his eye when he sees an old toy commercial or hears the theme song from an old TV show. I’m not the hardcore fan for whom this series is intended.
But despite being a casual fan, I still had a ball with this series. I can only imagine what a true Transformers aficionado would think of it. So if you happen to count yourself among those dedicated folks, go ahead and pick it up – I guarantee that both the picture and sound quality are a whole lot better than those bootlegs you picked up at the comic convention last year and it’s worth every penny. Casual fans can probably wait for a rental or just borrow their buddies’ copy when he picks it up. Better yet, watch it with him while playing with your old toys to fully immerse yourself in the experience.