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I Think I'm Turning Japanese...
...or: "So, Fortress Maximus has come himself."
by Inflatable Dalek

I'll send you express to hell.

Back in the dim and distant past of the last century when a still just-about-teenage version of me was first exploring the internet in his local library, my remaining interest in Transformers in general and the comic in particular saw me googling (though we didn't call it by that particular verb then, it likely wasn't even Google) various names associated with the franchise and seeing what came up.

So imagine my surprise when a search on Nightbeat turned up, halfway down the page, pictures of a white and obviously intended to be female robot seemingly called Minerva from something called Masterforce. The information on the rest of that no doubt long gone site was scanty and possibly not in English, meaning I was left somewhat confused.

Not only was this character blatantly not Nightbeat (who isn't especially known for his curves and sexy hips), but didn't seem to have any obvious connection to what I knew to be Transformers and I regarded myself as knowing my stuff. I knew who Rotorstorm was and had seen as many as three episodes of Beast Wars, surely there couldn't be anything so obscure that I hadn't heard of it? I didn't know it, but I'd stumbled upon something that, though still better known to those who were already well versed in fandom, still had a mystique to it, the strange and magical cartoons the Japanese continued to make after the Americans gave up on the whole thing like a bunch of half arsed slackers.

My second encounter with these shows came with the original brace of British DVD's. This was the point where DVD boxsets were just starting to take off for recent series like the brand new 24, but old cartoons tended to be released in individual volumes with a random grab bag of episodes on. Maverick's Transformers output was somewhat odd in that the episodes were in the right order but the discs themselves were released in the wrong order. With a random Generation 2 DVD containing More Than Meets the Eye before the "proper" version was available thrown in for good measure.

So things were already a tad confused when they released the first six episodes of the Star TV dub of Headmasters without much in the way of context and a big picture of Star Saber on the front despite not being in the series outside of the usurped from a later show title sequence.

Star Saber's happy go lucky attitude has since made
it over into IDW's More Than Meets The Eye comics.

By this point I was more aware of fandom even if I hadn't quite jumped in with both feet but the sheer strangeness of this bizarrely dubbed series was still something of a shock, especially as I didn't even know these episodes were ignoring Rebirth. More glancing online revealed there were actually three entire series made in Japan and the EVIL English dub totally ruined these grand anime epics that were easily the best Transformers ever made. In those pre-wiki days there were also all sorts of rumours, claims and stories (including people confidently claiming there were 100's of unaired episodes of Zone and even the American cartoon laying about in a vault somewhere they had totally seen, honest) that helped to add to the mystique. The film wasn't part of Japanese continuity? Zombie generals? The Decepticons as a totally serious bunch of villains who kill lots of humans and, worst of all, a dog?

Being at a stage in my fandom where I boought everything I could it was inevitable I'd track down all these exotic and almost certainly never to be properly released in the UK series (that one confused attempt at a DVD having done poorly enough to seemingly kill the chance of anymore). This being the days before easy torrenting -- and aren't I making the last decade sound like a primitive place -- it was off to eBay for bootleg boxsets. Still with the Star TV dubs but I felt I could endure it.

Obviously the best thing ever.

Watching all three shows this way was a strange experience. Obviously all the flaws were down to the dub because that was an Excepted Fact, but there seemed to be an awful lot of moments where it was hard to see how they'd have been not bad in the original. Would Fortress pulling his cum face at Daniel in an attempt to cheer him up work in any language?

I'll talk more about my overall impression of the final quality of the three shows at the end, but suffice to say that in 2005 the worst thing that could have even possibly happened to the reputation of the Japanese series, happened. Metrodome, successor to Maverick, started to put them out in neat, sexy series boxsets with the original Japanese audio and (after a bit of a hiccup with Headmasters that amusingly saw many of the same Star TV mistakes pop up, plus new ones such as putting the wrong subtitles entirely on one episode) carefully constructed fan-made subtitles that put lots of thought into Getting Things Right.

This had the terrible side effect of removing the protective shield the Star TV dub had provided. Suddenly it turned out that the hockey plots, dull characterisation of the Autobots, completely bizarre-if-you're-not-raised-in-Japanese-culture mystical energy themes and Fort Max's cum face, were in fact all exactly the same.

Indeed, if you were to put the Star TV dub and the new subtitles on at the same time for any random episode of Headmasters (the only British release to include both as well as the original Japanese) the slow, terrible realisation would sink in that both were, with the odd exception of complete insanity, 95% exactly the same. Star TV hadn't ruined the Japanese shows, they'd been as faithful as a bunch of people who clearly weren't given much reference material were ever going to be, and those moments of complete and utter batshit insanity ("Spaceship Bruce") were often much more entertaining that the content of the "Real" episodes.

Post the shambolic Energon dub it's harder and harder to try and pretend Star TV's adaptation and acting wasn't of a professional standard. Though that probably says more about Energon than anything else.

There's probably not been a greater turnaround in the opinions of fans of what may be considered "Cult" things since followers of Doctor Who born after 1975 actually got to see some Jon Pertwee rather than reading his adventures in the excellent Target books. The Japanese shows were no longer cool mysterious and exotic, they were a bit crap. As releases followed in Australia and American all around the world could be heard a big collective "Meh". The net result of them being made more accessible is almost no one talks about them anymore.

This is perhaps a bit unfair. Though there's a lot that's plain odd or just flat out bad about the three shows, there's also a lot of enjoyable (though sometimes silly, as if everyone thought they were making a show for children, the crazy fools) things to be found in them as well. Which is pretty much in keeping with the American series they try to follow on from.

Okay, what if we got some blue paint and
he turned into a truck?

General highlights for me include most of the last half of Masterforce, which despite a ropey start actually manages the best climax and pay off to its big story arc; the character of Star Saber (in a series where the Autobots are so dull the fact he's constantly pissed off with everything makes him oddly charming); the destruction of Cybertron in Headmasters and every single thing Hellbat does. Overall, I'd say Victory is the most watchable of the three shows, despite not trying so hard to do something new as Masterforce.

These shows certainly aren't the place to start and anyone coming into them shouldn't be expecting Akira, but for the curious who come in with an open mind and reasonable expectations of quality (i.e.: an 80's Transformers cartoon) should still get some enjoyment from them.

Of course, the irony is that, whilst Western fans were treating the Japanese material as the mysterious pinnacle of the entire franchise, Japanese fans couldn't give less of a toss about it and are only interested in Optimus Prime and the "good" period of the cartoon before they started buggering about with the name and characters. As Terry Pratchett said, wisdom really does seem so much wiser the further away it comes from.

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