TRANSFORMERS: SUPER-GOD MASTERFORCE Cert: PG Dir: Tetsuo Imazawa Starring: Hiroshi Takemura, Keiichi Noda, Katsuji Mori, Hidekatsu Shibata FEATURE Released in 1988, Transformers: Super-God Masterforce is the second Japanese-exclusive Transformers animated series, and hence the second instalment in Metrodome’s “Takara Series” of boxsets, finally released today (July 3rd), nearly a year after its predecessor, Transformers: Headmasters. Although set in the same continuity as the previous Transformers cartoons, there is a very clear effort by head writer Masumi Kaneda to make a “fresh start” with Masterforce – whereas Headmasters followed directly on from the third American season, using older characters and introducing new ones, allowing them to interact before pushing the old aside, Masterforce is all new from the get-go. Set a few years after the conclusion of Headmasters, the Autobot and Decepticon armies are currently warring in space, and while Earth appears to have left the conflict at last, a group of Autobot Pretenders remain in residence on the planet, using their powers of disguise to hide in plain sight as human beings. The Pretenders, led by Metalhawk (Mori) have been hidden this way for thousands of years, quietly guiding the evolution of human society, but in the modern day, when their formerly-defeated Decepticon foes suddenly reappear in the service of the mysterious entity, Devil Z (Shibata), the Autobots are forced to return to battle once more. But this is merely the beginning of a new kind of Transformer war... in which human beings themselves must rise to the defence of their own planet as it comes under attack from their own kind. Imbued with the power of the Masterforce, groups of young people find themselves drawn into the conflict on both sides, merging their minds and bodies with Transtectors to become Transformers themselves, leading to the creation of the most powerful super-robot lifeform yet – the Godmasters! The vast majority of toys released in the Masterforce line also graced toy shelves in the west in 1988, albeit some with altered colour schemes, but the characters, concepts and storylines behind them were often wildly different - most specifically, the Headmasters and Powermasters, who became the “Headmaster Juniors” and “Godmasters” in Japan. While the head and engine components of these toys were aliens from the planet Nebulos who bonded with Transformers in western fiction, in Japan, they are human beings, and – just as the small robots that form the heads in Headmasters were the only mind involved in that process – these humans are the only minds involved here. Although true robots are in no way in short supply in Masterforce, human beings dominate the series, which is immediately off-putting to fans who are… well, I don’t want to say “close-minded,” but I honestly can’t think of another word. The recent preponderance of scene-stealing humans in modern Transformers cartoons has engendered a deep dislike of the presence of fleshlings in the minds of some Transfans, so Masterforce immediately sounds like anathema to them. In some ways, though, I feel this stems from a misconception that these human beings in some way “pilot” the robots from a “Rebirth”-like cockpit, in some sort of “Power Rangers” style, but this is not accurate – the humans merge absolutely with the Transtectors. They ARE the Transtectors. They ARE Transformers. The Transformers in Masterforce are as alive as in any other series – it is just that the soul within them is that of a being from Earth, not Cybertron. It would be pointless to deny, however, that as the series progresses and more Godmasters are introduced that they DO begin to steal the show away from the Pretenders, who are sadly left to languish on the sidelines, receiving no real focus in the latter portion of the series. What makes this especially disappointing is that they’re all really good characters. Well, except maybe Phoenix, he does very little in general, you don’t get a good sense of him as a character. But the other Pretenders are all particularly well characterised and enjoyable to watch in the series – so to see colourful individuals like ladies-man Lander and arrogant Dauros shoved to the sidelines in favour of personality-free non-characters like Ranger and Road King is grating at the best of times. In a way, Ginrai (Takemura) epitomises this shift from quality characters to bland ones on his own – we are introduced to him as a loner, a Japanese emigrant who moved to America to work as a trucker due to the solitary nature of the job. When he suddenly finds himself with a Transtector, he faces some tough choices that really shake up the way he views and treats his life, and the progression of the character makes for good viewing. However, when he is suddenly (even arbitrarily) appointed leader of the Autobots, he immediately falls into the same group as most other Japanese-written Autobot leaders – the complete and total cardboard cut-out. Say what you will about Optimus Prime, but while he might have been a by-the-numbers leader, he had a gentleness and sense of humour that distinguished him. Japanese Autobot leaders… do not. Indeed, A LOT of Japanese-written Autobots fall into this stiff, generic soldier cookie-cutter archetype, always speaking in very formal sentences and using titles for their comrades (Victory is especially bad for this), which was simply not the way things were done in the US G1 series. But, anyway, I’m getting off the point… Ginrai suddenly shifts from being an unwilling combatant, shedding his personality and falling into this stiff military cut-out group, droning on endlessly about the “beauty of the blue Earth” and the “wonder in the soul of humanity” and all that other flowery rubbish. When he explains the power of mankind to Sixknight before his promotion to commander, his words ring true... in his role as commander, he simply goes on about it so much that it loses meaning. In stark contrast to this, however, the Decepticon Overlord (Noda), moves in precisely the OPPOSITE direction. When we are introduced to them, and for much of their role in the series, Giga and Mega – the two humans who form Overlord – come across as little more than depth-free cackling super-villains (there is some attempt to cast them in a “mother and father” role to the other Decepticons, but it is scarcely touched). Then, slowly, another side of their characters is explored – as Devil Z’s hatred of humanity comes out and he desires the extermination of the race, Giga and Mega reveal their own desire to CELEBRATE their humanity, adding a new dimension to their characters and actions that makes you appreciate them in a new way, unexpected so late in the series. And when THEY advocate the qualities of humanity, for some reason, the concept seems much more palatable than when post-promotion Ginrai launches into his little speeches. Throughout all this, the constants are most definitely the Headmaster Juniors of both factions. They are the heart of the show, the young characters with whom the kids at home can identify, but who are not limited to cheering on the sidelines – they truly enter the battles, and fight for their own reasons and goals, with their own hang-ups and limitations. While on the one hand, you really feel that you get to know the kids, at the same time, the situation that Cancer of the Decepticons is placed in as the series progresses leaves you unsure of how he will act, and how his story – and by extension, that of his fellow Decepticon Juniors – will resolve itself. Although the basic outcome is not shocking or unpredictable, it is the individual, emotional character-based reactions that keep things at their most interesting. Masterforce’s story is in a constant state of moving forward – while Headmasters lacked any real sense of an ultimate direction, operating instead in a series of small bunches of episodes that reached their own resolutions before carrying the story on in a different direction, Masterforce is a story that begins with a smattering of single-episode stories, gradually introducing the cast members, then carrying on gradually into a building story arc that, in truth, has rather begun before you even realise it. While it is the halfway mark of the series which truly marks the beginning of the greater story which runs to the conclusion of the show, everything that has gone before has assembled the players and established concepts, questions and conflicts that play important parts and contribute all the way up to the end. It does, on occasion, hurt itself through an unusual failing – a total failure to explain, in-story, some of the most important concepts of the series, such as the origin of the Godmaster Transtectors and what Devil Z is. These were later dealt with in a clip episode produced for video, but the fact that they could not work them into the show is baffling – made all the worse by the fact that the one origin story the show DOES offer for the Godmasters is the contorted version served up by Giga, filled with the lies and half-truths told to him by Devil Z. The audio commentary on the set, however, deals heavily in these and other untouched concepts, hopefully helping to clarify as much as possible for the viewers. On the audio side of things, Masterforce is also easily the superior of Headmasters – whereas in that series, the limited range of characterisation left many characters sounding overly similar and uninteresting (excepting Banjo Ginga’s sinister Zarak), the cast of Masterforce, or at least those members that are well defined (lookin’ at you, Ranger, Road King), distinguish themselves well with unique, well-chosen voices that stand out amongst each other. The background music, meanwhile, starts out sounding like recycled Headmasters, but soon develops its own tunes and style, and whereas Headmasters had a grand total of two insert songs, which were barely distinguishable from each other, Masterforce has twice that number, each quite unique, from the gentle melody of “We Believe Tomorrow” to my personal favourite, the energetic, pumping “Super Ginrai’s Theme.” In summary, if it wasn’t obvious, Super-God Masterforce really is a top-quality show. Although some characters have trouble sustaining themselves, or being sustained by the story, throughout the show, and the approach may be too “Japanese” for fans to traditional western animation to take (the animation, incidentally, is entirely anime-styled at this point, and of a consistently good quality), the depth of story, concept and character puts it head-and-shoulders above a goodly-sized chunk of other TF fiction. It is a terrible pity, then, that its wildly different and unusual approach leaves it as a series that is... well, heck, even Masumi Kaneda fully admits that, if you were basically to remove “Autobot” and “Decepticon” from the script, you would have a show that is BARELY Transformers. It is disheartening that this is likely to dissuade a certain type of fan, leaving them deprived of one of the better animated series under the Transformers banner. It is, by a wide margin, certainly the best Japanese-written Transformers series there is. DISC SPECS In a surprise move, this five-disc set has turned out to be Region 2 – not region free, as previously expected, given that Headmasters was. So any Americans wanting to play this will require a multi-region DVD player. The 42 episodes of the series are split across the discs in groups of 8, 9, 8, 9 and 8, with one audio track – the original Japanese – and accompanying English subtitles. The infamous “StarTV” English dub is NOT included on this set for reasons of cost. The subtitles will be essentially familiar to some fans, as the translations are the work of Jordan “Buster Darkwings” Derber and previously appeared on TV-Nihon’s online fansubs of the series. They are not EXACTLY the same, however, having been modified by my hand in certain ways – although the characters have retained their Japanese names throughout (don’t worry, Ginrai’s not Optimus Prime!), the western “Autobot” and “Decepticon” terms have been used to promote familiarity and continuity with previous releases (and hardly ill-fitting, as the word “Decepticon” actually appears in text in the animation at one point). Additional changes include the removal of the vast majority of explanatory notes (a few still remain, as does the dual-language format of subs for the assorted songs in the series), and general Anglicisation of the text - replacing the various untranslated curses from the original subs (Onore, yatsu-ra, kisama, etc) and amending the text to English spellings. Even as I observe the subs once more while writing this review, though, I see that a few American spellings have slipped through the cracks – I never professed to be a talented proof-reader, and I guess my frequent exposure to Yank spellings through my regular Inter-nettery blinded me to a few. I doubt they’ll prove in anyway distracting, and it merely serves to galvanise me to do a better job on Victory. The video of the episodes are not remastered in any way, but are still perfectly watchable. They are complete this time around, with all pre-title-card sequences (which is an especially good thing, as all Masterforce episodes have them, and they are essential parts of the stories), and all next-episode previews. PACKAGING AND PACK-INS (Although his review is based on the unpackaged check discs, since I’ve yet to get my finished packaged copies, this description should be accurate.) The discs are mounted on a card tray, decorated with re-drawn screenshots from the series, with the discs themselves forming parts of the background images. The tray folds up to slide inside a cardboard sleeve, designed in the same style as the Headmasters set with the “Takara Collection” and original Japanese series logo - the cover depicts God Ginrai and Overlord clashing in the centre, with Grand Maximus, BlackZarak and Devil Z in the background while Metalhawk and the Autobot and Decepticon Headmaster Juniors (in human form) run across the bottom. The art is the work of fellow Irishman Nick Roche, a name that will be familiar to members of the UK fan community as a regular artist for the Transmasters group, convention magazines and more – US fans are getting exposure to Nick’s work through his covers to IDW’s Transformers Generations, and he’ll be pencilling the upcoming Spotlight series of one-shots. Nick’s illustration also adorns the cover of the accompanying 16-page booklet, written by me. An introduction to the series and a quick table to explain which western character corresponds to which Masterforce character kicks things off, and the rest of the booklet contains an episode guide for the series (separated out per disc this time). SPECIAL FEATURES As with Headmasters before it, Masterforce is light on extras – the only features included are three audio commentaries on episodes 1, 27 and 35. Once again, as on Headmasters, I am the commentary voice, and I’m really very happy with these ones, if I do say so myself. They’re wall-to-wall chatter – I’m never stuck for anything to say, and Masterforce is a series with plenty to talk about, thanks to articles that have found their way online like the interview with Masumi Kaneda from the Japanese Transformers: Generations book. Episode 1 covers Pretenders, Seacons and other basic series concepts, episode 27 is mainly about Japanese-exclusive toys, and episode 35 is about Godmasters and “everything else.” I think – I hope, at least – that these will actually prove informative even to Transfans – although I think I sound a bit too “earnest” in my manner of speech sometimes, and I did goof my words up a couple of times, saying “season” where I meant “episode” once, calling Dreadwind and Darkwing “Pretenders” instead of “Powermasters,” and mixing the mispronounced “Devil ZEE” (damn my Sesame Street upbringing!) and “Gin-RAY” (should be “Gin-RYE”) in with the correct way. Y’all can ignore the bit where I gripe about how much I want an Overlord, though, since I got m’self one last week. Hurray! Nick’s illustration gets a little more mileage as part of the Extras menu, bolstered with pieces of background music from the series. The main menu itself plays “Burn! Transformer,” the show’s closing theme, though it’s got a very basic design with a slightly misplaced “Volume 2,” which refers to its place in the Takara Collection, but which made me think I’d just put the second disc in the first time I saw it. The set’s easter egg, however, offers you an opportunity to see another way it could have been – on any of the five discs, go to the extras menu, highlight “main menu,” and on discs 1, 3 and 5, press right twice, and on discs 2 and 4, press left twice. This activates the egg, which is a string of alternate menu designs – which, quite frankly, I prefer! And that, chaps and chappettes, is Super-God Masterforce – a UK release of a Japanese version of an American concept, translated by an American living in Japan with contributions by two Irish blokes. You couldn’t get any more multi-cultural if you tried. And now, a little reward for enduring the last four pages – Nick Roche’s cover art for the third and final Takara Collection boxset, Transformers: Victory, due out in two short months, this September!