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Saturday, July 1, 2017

Transformers: The Headmasters: Dare to Believe That I Won't Make a HeadOn Joke!

I already gave Hironobu Kageyama a general overview up to his first iconic theme song (Dragon Ball Z's "Cha-la Head Cha-la") during JAM Project March in 2014, but it is important to stress that it did take a few years for him to really become a notable singer in Japan. His songs for the likes of Super Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross, Dengeki Sentai Changeman, & Uchuusen Sagittarius didn't become real iconic themes, & his songs for the second half of Saint Seiya TV are generally overlooked in place of Make-Up's series-defining songs. Really, the same can be said for his contributions for the subject of this anime review, but let's not hold that against anything; as long as they're good songs, that's really all that matters in the end. Anyway, this review is double-fitting in terms of timing, because Transformers is once again on some people's minds, what with the latest Michael Bay film (The Last Knight) having just come out in theaters & Shout! Factory having re-released the three Japanese-exclusive anime sequels to the original series as another boxset just a couple of weeks ago (for super cheap at that!). Therefore, let's take a look at the first of these sequels...

So when Season 3 of the original Transformers animated series ended on February 25, 1987 in North America, it was decided that the story would end in a three-part finale titled The Rebirth, which aired across three days later that November... And it was terrible. This isn't even going off of nostalgia or anything, as I watched those episodes for curiosity's sake a few years back & was appalled at how badly Generation 1 (as it's now called) ended. In Japan, however, the series still had enough popularity, so when the Japanese dub of Season 3, called Transformers 2010, ended on June 26, 1987, Takara & Toei decided to simply make their own sequel, as The Rebirth had not debuted yet & they wanted a new show to air the following week. So, on July 3, NTV debuted Transformers: The Headmasters, a 35-episode TV anime that continued the story, completely ignoring whatever plans the American writers were going with. It wouldn't be until 2011 that this series (& it's two sequels) would see official release in North America by Shout! Factory on DVD, but was this really worth the effort? How much better is it, really, compared to The Rebirth?

[Please note that, since Shout! Factory's translation maintains the American names & terminology, I will be using those for this review]

It's 2011 (you know, "the future"), one year following the events of The Return of Optimus Prime (where Optimus was revived to help stop the Hate Plague from destroying the galaxy), & the war between the Autobots & Decepticons is still raging on, with the Autobots having bases on Earth, Athenia, & Cybertron, while the Decepticons operate out of Earth & Chaar. Both sides will be gaining the assistance of a new type of Transformers, the Headmasters. Four million years ago, a group of Cybertronians left their home & eventually wound up on the harsh planet of Master, where they eventually evolved & discovered that they could transform into giant heads; they built transforming bodies called Transtectors to utilize, in turn. With forces lead by Cerebros joining Optimus & Rodimus Prime & warriors lead by Scorponok siding with Galvatron, the war might finally find a crescendo after all this time.

As indicated, The Headmasters acts as a direct continuation of what came before, so this is not really a good jumping in point for newcomers to the franchise; at the very least, watch the 1986 movie & the last two episodes of Season 3 first. Likewise, it actually takes about a third of the show for it truly become all about the new characters, as it starts up with plenty of returning major characters, so it really feels a little too much like more of the same upon starting up. Still, the old guard is slowly removed as these early episodes go on (if not simply appearing in Episode 1 & then mysteriously never seen again, like with Grimlock), starting with Soundwave & Blaster outright killing each in battle (though they are brought back not long later as the newly-rebuilt Soundblaster & Twincast), followed by Optimus sacrificing himself to save Cybertron in Episode 3 (so much for bringing him back, I guess). After that there's Episode 10, which results in the departure of Rodimus Prime, Kup, & Blurr, as well as a temporary disappearance of Galvatron, due to a rather shocking development which I just have to bring up: The destruction of Cybertron.

Yes, The Headmasters outright blows up the home world of the Transformers rather early on, which results in two notable things. First is the said departure of most of the remaining recurring characters (though others, like Ultra Magnus & Arcee, stay around in varying importance), which allows the show to finally really feel like its own series. Second is that it instantly establishes Scorponok as a truly vile & important villain, as it was his idea to blow up the planet without Galvatron's knowing. Essentially, Scorponok decides that, instead of simply gathering Energon the old-fashioned & slow way, it will be faster & more efficient to simply blow up planets if need be, as the resulting plasma energy gives them much greater harvesting potential. That's just crazy thinking, & it really creates a major villain that you always think about in the back of your mind, especially after Galvatron returns. Granted, only two planets are actually blown up in this anime, but think about what I just said... Two planets were blown up in a Transformers series, & it wasn't Unicron's fault, either.

Going back to the overall execution of the story, the anime walks the line between being episodic & being serialized, because a majority of the episodes have stories that conceptually feel standalone & don't exactly relate to each other, but at the same time the actual execution makes it so that each new episode does feel like it's going off of what came before it. There are a lot of episodes where the Autobots go to another planet to stave off the Decepticons' plans, which in & of themselves feel like "story-of-the-week" fodder, but the anime gets away with it, because there are lots of little details & moments that do establish them as actually being serialized. In turn, The Headmasters can be split up into a few general arcs: The introduction of the Headmasters (eps 1-10), Scorponok taking command shortly (11-15), Galvatron's final time in spotlight & planet hopping for energy (16-25), & the final battles on Master & Earth (26-35). Compared to most of the prior seasons of Transformers, this makes The Headmasters more like the very first season, which is really the best way to go. Though there would be later Japanese productions, The Headmasters is really meant to be the finale to the original Autobot/Decepticon war started way back in the More Than Meets the Eye pilots from 1984, and in that regard it's a little inconclusive. Sure, the Decepticons leave Earth completely & the Autobots likewise leave to continue protecting the rest of the universe, but there's no definitive final victory here. Still, at least it's better than The Rebirth...

In terms of the characters, they are a mostly unchanging lot, but follow up the Autobots & Decepticons of old rather well. Chromedome is the de facto main character, and though he's visibly shown as having the highest intelligence of his Headmaster compatriots, he's actually rather impetuous & bullheaded, resulting in him normally being the one who learns his lesson more often than not. Daniel Witwicky & Wheelie wind up joining the crew on a regular basis, & while they don't really contribute much of importance (barely a handful of times for the entire show), the constant ragging they do onto each other is at least amusing. Galvatron is just as maniacal as ever, though Scorponok makes for an interesting comparison, as the latter's more calculating & arguably evil than the leader he wants to take the place of; again, he blows up entire planets for profit. Honestly, the massive ensemble cast of a Transformers series makes it really hard to write about individual characters, especially when the anime literally introduces new characters as late as the start of the final "arc", but at least everyone does their required jobs for the show very well, and there is a good amount of personality to make everyone stand out, even if there are so many individual names that it can be a bit much.

Finally, there's the Decepticon Six-Changer Sixshot, a "ninjabot" who occupies an interesting position. For most of the show, he's more or less as blatantly Decepticon as he gets, even killing off characters in front of our heroes, but near the very end he winds up stranded on a planet with Daniel. Because of his own personal code of honor he won't hurt children, and he winds up becoming friends with Daniel, with the human boy feeling that if there wasn't any war, the Decepticon would actually be a friend of the Autobots. To be fair, it's a well done episode & gives Sixshot some good extra development, but I just wish this idea of him being not as evil as he seemed was hinted at throughout the entire show. Instead, he's a pretty obvious villain for most of the show, with one short moment when Galvatron essentially admits that he's going to use Sixshot for his own mad scheme giving the ninja his only prior moment of rebellion, and then the episode with Daniel at the end, which leads into his involvement in the finale itself. I've generally heard of Sixshot's development as being one of the main appeals of The Headmasters, and luckily he's a cool character from the very start, with his "redemption arc" doing its job well, because otherwise I'd have to say that his "development" is rather simple & sudden.

Even though this anime was made only for Japanese audiences, it still maintains a lot of the feel of the Transformers series that preceded it. Characters have all sorts of naming sense, from the rather literal (Hardhead, Brainstorm, Mindwipe, Sureshot) to the thematically fitting (Raiden is the combined form of the Japan-built Trainbots, for example) to the downright bizarre but memorable (Weirdwolf, anyone?); hell, the giant Fortress Maximus has a literal "Master Sword". It even keeps the inherent weirdness & headscratchers the show is lovingly poked fun at sometimes for. For example, the Trainbots are big enough in train mode to house both humans & other Transformers, yet when they transform into humanoid form, they're only slightly larger than their fellow Autobots, if even that. Another particularly amusing bit is that the outright destruction of both planets during the story gets treated as nothing more than giant inconveniences than anything of major life importance. Hell, the episode after Cybertron is destroyed starts with the Autobots having a party to celebrate Cerebros being promoted to Supreme Commander, complete with Chromedome drunkenly singing karaoke via Twincast! Don't misunderstand, though, because these aren't taken as negatives by me, but rather I appreciate that Toei & Takara understood what helped make Transformers so enjoyable, even in the small ways.

By the power of Greyskull, I have the.... Oops, wrong 80s show!

Obviously, a big part of this was due to the staff behind the show, which was headed up by the late Katsutoshi Sasaki (Future Robo Daltanious, Saikyo Robo Daiohja). Alongside character designer Ban Magami, who drew all of the manga adaptations for the franchise at the time, the anime really does look visually like the prior three seasons that Sunbow produced, right down to the humans looking more "western" than most anime tend to go for. That being said, The Headmasters looks heads & shoulders (no pun intended?) better than anything Sunbow produced, and it all comes down to consistency. I rewatched the last two episodes of Season 3 to be properly acclimated with what this anime continues off of, & I just saw animation error after continuity flaw after coloring mistake throughout both episodes, which was a notable aspect of Sunbow's work. Toei's animation, though not without its own rare mistakes here & there, is honestly just the better-looking & more consistently animated product. They still added in one or two "anime" touches, though, like Fortress Maximus' combination sequence. The writing headed up by Keisuke Fujikawa (God Mars, Shin Seiki Den Mars) is also solid, if simple, and helps maintain the feel of the American-produced shows that came before; Takara & Toei wouldn't really start doing their own thing with the franchise until the later sequels. A few notable names also made their early appearances in the anime industry with this show, like Hidetoshi Oomori (Zaizen Jotaro director) doing key animation & animation direction, or Keiji Gotoh (Kiddy Grade director) being a simple in-betweener here. There is also word that Shoji Kawamori did the original mech designs, but I can't find distinct proof of that; at the very least, he's not credited anywhere for it, not even on Wikipedia Japan.

The music was done by Katsunori Ishida, a man known more for live-action soundtracks & theme song arrangements. In that regard, it's actually a pretty small soundtrack for The Headmasters, totaling only about six songs or so, and therefore you hear the same songs all the time in every single episode. Thankfully, they are actually really damn catchy & never get on your nerves. In a nice touch, though, the iconic transition jingle & footage is also used almost every episode, helping lend a sense of honest-to-god continuity. As for Hironobu Kageyama's contributions for this anime, he sang both theme songs & the two insert songs used within the show itself. Opening theme "The Headmasters" is an instantly memorable & addictive song, giving with it a message of hope that the blood & lives lost in this war will result in peace for those in the future; it could very well be Kageyama's first truly addictive anison. Ending theme "Kimi wa Transformer" is a fun little ditty about what the various Headmasters can transform into, but nothing much more than a silly song for kids; still, Kageyama's delivery makes it memorable enough. Finally, Kageyama also sung seven of the eight extra songs produced for The Headmasters, though only two of them actually wound up getting used in the anime itself. Said duo, "Tate! Ikari no Headmaster" & "Destron Sanka", are both really cool songs used during some battles across six episodes in the second half, with each giving a different feel. The former is a fast-paced theme for the Autobot Headmasters, right up there with the OP in terms of instant memorability, & the latter is a slower-paced "hymn" for the Decepticons. While he wouldn't start becoming the icon that he is now for a few more years, Kageyama more than proved his worth at this early point.

Since there are so many (oh so many) characters in this series, I'll just focus on the more stand-out & memorable performances from the voice cast. Chromedome is played by Hideyuki Hori, who I actually didn't identify immediately, because outside of a few moments where he delivers his iconic scream, he really sounded more natural in his delivery; he definitely didn't play up his "usual" voice. Similarly, I didn't notice that Ryouichi Tanaka was voicing Brainstorm at first, as his easily identifiable cadence was underplayed here. Cerebros & Scorponok were performed by Ikuya Sawaki & Banjou Ginga, respectively, & the two's deeper voices actually made them work well as seeming rivals in the war. Aside from the other new characters for this show, the rest of the cast is reprised by those who already had established roles, like Tessho Genda as Optimus, the late Seizo Katou as Galvatron, Hiroya Ishimaru as Rodimus, Issei Masamune as Soundblaster & the Narrator (his last time as the latter), Masashi Ebara as Spike Witwicky, etc. Due to sheer size of the cast, a lot of the seiyuu also had plenty of secondary roles, like Houchu Ohtsuka (Ultra Magnus, Crosshairs, Predaking), Ken Yamaguchi (Blurr, SlugSlinger, Laserbeak), & even Ebara (Scattershot, Ravage) & Tanaka (Bruticus, Wreck-Gar), among many others.

There is also an infamous English dub for all three of the Japan-exclusive Transformers G1 series, produced by Hong Kong's Omni Productions, for original use in Malaysian & Singaporean TV broadcasts, before being included in the UK DVD releases from Madman in 2008 & even in the UK on AnimeCentral. While I haven't heard any of these dubs, I'd be remiss if I didn't bring them up. Anyway, the Omni dubs are generally considered some of the absolute worst anime dubs even produced, and I'll just let the Wikipedia description explain it all:
"[The dub is] full of mistranslations and incorrect names (Blaster becomes "Billy", Blurr becomes known as "Wally", Jazz is "Marshall", Hot Rod is "Rodimus", pronounced "Roadimus", the Matrix becomes "the Power Pack", Spike is "Sparkle", Soundblaster is "New Soundwave", Metroplex is called "Phillip", Cerebros is "Fortress", and Fortress Maximus is known as "Spaceship Bruce"), and stilted dialog such as "I'll send you express to hell", and "Fortress Maximus has come himself". Also, Wheelie does not speak in rhyme (but seems to have a slight Scottish accent), the Dinobots speak normally (Grimlock does not say his famous "Me Grimlock" at all), Raiden is known as Grimlock, and Blurr speaks abnormally slow, though this can be chalked up to the difficulty of imitating John Moschitta's fast-talking."
Man, that just sounds ridiculously terrible, and the Omni dubs are often considered "So Bad It's Good". Unfortunately, Shout! Factory's DVD are sub-only, and the translation is overall fine. There are a few odd bits of timing & the like, and (as mentioned early on) it uses all of the original names instead of any Japanese alterations, but they do the job well.

As a child growing up, I was a fan of Transformers, & I do recall watching re-runs of the Generation 1 cartoon. The one I grew up with was Beast Wars during the 90s, but I did watch the first season of G1 eventually via the old Rhino set, & felt that it held up nicely. Luckily, G1 is so chock full of constantly introduced characters & crazy plots that serialization wound up being less of a focus for Seasons 2 & 3, so it's not hard to jump straight to the excellent 1986 movie (still infinitely better than any of Bay's films & the last two episodes of Season 3 to properly watch The Headmasters. As I indicated before I finally got to the synopsis, it would be nigh-impossible to deliver a worse product than The Rebirth, at least in my opinion, and The Headmasters not only blows away what we got as "Season 4" here in North America, but is honestly an enjoyable product on its own merit. The new characters are fitting for the franchise, the story is just serialized enough to have an overarching plot, & as a finale to the original Autobot/Decepticon war it's still better than what Sunbow came up with.
In fact, I even rewatched The Rebirth after finishing The Headmasters, & the sheer difference in quality is mind-blowing. Sunbow's animation can't hold a candle to Toei's, the new Headmasters characters are just there with no proper introduction, and a number of them don't even look like how they "should" (what the hell did they do to you, Cerebros?). Seriously, just ignore "Season 4" & consider Toei & Takara's series the proper continuation.

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