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DVD Review: Transformers Japanese Collection: Headmasters

by Erin Hatch, Editor-At-Large

If there is one show that primed me for a life of geeky interests, that show would be Transformers. Looking at my current tastes, there is a direct lineage between what I like today and the classic 80s cartoon. My appreciation for anime, for example, started with Transformers and moved onward from there. What? Not anime, you say? Well… You are mostly right. The original Transformers TV series, despite being a co-production between American and Japanese companies, was very much Americanized. But those slight Japanese design elements were still there, and my appreciation for those aesthetic choices grew over time. Which brings me to Transformers: Headmasters, a new release from Shout! Factory that brings over the fourth season of Transformers cartoons from Japan that continued long after the American TV show ended. This Japanese version of Transformers is weird – It is cheesy, it is a little rough around the edges, and is structured very differently from the show that many American children knew and loved in the 80’s. But, if you are familiar with the first generation of Transformers and have an appreciation for Japanese animation, Transformers: Headmasters offers an interesting look at what could have been.

The show picks up where season three of American Transformers left off, not including the “fourth season” miniseries, “The Rebirth” that ended the show for American audiences. Actually, the first few episodes of Headmasters follows the same basic plot as “The Rebirth”, only viewed through the twisted sensibilities of the Japanese show, which features different character designs and a plot that is focused on beginning a show, not ending it. The biggest difference is the origin of the Headmasters themselves: In the US, the Headmasters were Autobots who used the help of an alien species to redesign themselves to accommodate human pilots. In Japan, the Headmasters are a separate tribe of Autobots who, like Optimus and crew in the original Transformers, left Cybertron and lived separately from the rest of the Transformers for four million years. Unlike Prime and the original cast, the Headmasters evolved to have new abilities…Namely the ability to switch heads with each other if the situation demands it. Honestly, the Headmasters abilities are fairly useless, aside from the fact that everybody says they are awesome, and they are just magically better than everybody else.

The real appeal of Headmasters is two-fold. One: You see what happens to Optimus Prime, Hot Rod, Galvatron, Soundwave, and the rest of the Transformers that you know from the first three seasons of the show. Two: You see the show become so ridiculous so as to approach self parody with the stylistic changes, specifically the addition of more slapstick humor in the characters of Wheelie, Daniel, Cyclonus and Scourge. The entire thing is ludicrous at moments, to the point that it might turn off some serious-minded viewers. Personally, I loved the silliness, and it kept me intrigued in individual episodes much more than the Plot of the Week.

Along that line of thought: the show isn’t without problems, and is, in fact, quite rough. The show is a little light on characterization, and a lot of the action is repeatedly summarized by an omniscient narrator, more so than in the American series. That makes the stories for each individual episode weaker, though ultimately the plot is stretched out over several episodes, giving specific themes much longer to develop, and evolving the story slowly over time. Basically, the show is very “anime” in its storytelling style. Also, while the subtitles are drastically preferable to whatever could have been done with a dub, there are still a lot of mistakes in the production of those subtitles: poorly worded translations, and missing and misspelled words, are scattered throughout the subtitles. The animation quality isn’t great either – but this was the eighties, so if you are willing to watch these things you should probably expect a slight drop in quality.

Highlights:

I didn’t really find specific episodes to bring out and show off as exemplary of the show, so here are some aspect of the series in general that I found were particularly entertaining.

-The Ending Credits: Really, the music in general. There is something about the cheesy 80’s Japanese Rock that is totally hilarious, and the ending credits set up this tone of absurdity that made the series so much more enjoyable for me. Basically, the animation covers Daniel and Spike as they mimic the transformations of the Headmasters.

-The Episode Titles: OK, my list of Top Ten Transformers: Headmasters Episodes (Sorted by Ridiculousness of Title)

10: “Battle For Defence of the False Planet”
9: “Rebellion on Planet Beast”
8: “The Dormant Volcano Mysteriously Erupts,”
7: “The Four-Million Year-Old Veil of Mystery”
6: “Approach of the Demon Metorite” [sic] 5: “Fight to the Death on Planet Beehive”
4: “Head Formation of Friendship”
3: “Daniel Faces His Biggest Crisis Ever”
2: “Operation: Destroy the Decepticons” (Was this not the plan all along, guys?)
1: “The Emperor of Destruction Vanishes on an Iceberg”

– The Train Bots: Now, Americans had already experienced the ridiculousness of a train that transforms into a space shuttle with Astrotrain, the Decepticon who appeared in the movie and earlier seasons in the show, but the trains bots are six Autobots who transform into a train. Their first appearance is ridiculous enough, as they transform and speed off across untracked ground while dodging fire from a Decepticon ambush, but as the series goes on, the Trainbots are revealed to have the power to fly, including space flight. There is something joyfully absurd about seeing a train lift off and wriggle its way skyward like a snake/dragon thing…And the Trainbots never seem to make much more sense after those first few appearances…Oh wait? A vehicle with six cars means you can sell six toys to kids? OK, I think I see the reasoning behind the Trainbots now.

Bonus Feature:

-Art Gallery: An art gallery with black and white charts depicting the star characters of Headmasters in various stages of transformation. It is fun to see some static images of the characters in their different forms, but there is not too much replay value in this feature.

Overall:
I had some problems with Transformers: Headmasters. The quality of animation isn’t great, and that is understandable, given the show’s age. But the multiple mistranslations of the subtitles? That is bad form. While the show will impress long time fans of Transformers: Generation 1, only the fans with a tolerance for anime will be able to really appreciate the show, and even then it will be mostly tongue-in-cheek. The plot of the individual episodes leave a lot to be desired, and the characters are less developed than their North American counterparts… Still, the show seems to do a lot of interesting things over the course of the series, delivering major plot points every couple of episodes that completely change the continuity of the Transformers universe. Characters will die and be rebuilt! Important planets will explode! New technologies will be discovered or unveiled! And throughout it all, there is a trend of humor that seems uncharacteristic with the rest of the show, and especially foreign to somebody accustomed to childhood memories of the American version.

Headmasters can be a lot of fun for the right fan, but unless you are that fan who loves Transformers and enjoys anime, the show might not be for you.

ComicsOnline gives Transformers: Headmasters 3 out of 5 hilariously bad episode translations.

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About Erin Hatch

Erin Hatch has a girly first name, but he's a manly man, as evidenced by his beard growing prowess. Buy him drinks and he may sing you sweet songs.

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