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The Takara interview (translation)

Taken from the book The Transformers Binaltech & TF Collection Complete Guide, published by Aspect, originally released March 2005, price 2,800 Yen, ISBN 4-7572-1111-2. Read a review of the book here.

This translation is explicity not meant to serve as a "substitute" for buying the actual product. The book contains a lot of high quality photos, concept designs and blueprints. This interview is merely meant to serve as an incentive to buy the book, so people who don't happen to understand Japanese will finally know what's being revealed in the interview.

Original translation by SydneyY, revisions and improved phrasing by DrSpengler, additional corrections and suggestions by Binal Convoy, supervision and coordination by Nevermore.

From left; Mr. Shirakami, Mr. Kobayashi and Mr. Washizu. Pictured on the desk are the "Alternators" series, released overseas, along with their domestic counterparts.

The Track to Binaltech Creation

On the Eve of the New Development

Among the numerous Transformer toylines, Binaltechs stand out prominently thanks to their realistic appearance and complicated designs. From their initial release in 2003 to today, a wide range of products have been released. Yet, despite being more expensive than other toys, the line has maintained impressive sales figures.
During developement of the new series, there were some conflicts of interest, yet gradually they settled on a single course of action: The decision to obtain licenses from actual automobile manufacturers, complicated transformations never before imagined, and a set of characters to go with them. We asked those employees of Takara if they would tell us about these various factors as well as the origin of the series, the events that transpired, the hardships of development and the production of the toyline.

- Takara Inc., Aoto, Tokyo, December 27, 2004.

The project began with differing intentions between Japan and America.

The new Binaltech series was born out of a combination of Japanese and American ideas. Of course, not all the ideas meshed well with one another at first. Mr. Kobayashi, who is in charge of development, describes the process in which they reached a compromise.

Kobayashi: Our company [Takara] co-develops with Hasbro Inc. in the United States (Hasbro henceforth), and they first contacted us with the desire to create a line aimed at a generation between children and adults. Hasbro's original idea at that time was that realistic-looking cars would be an instant success, so why not obtain licenses from the actual car manufacturers?
Our company, on the other hand, also had a long-standing idea; to remake the toys from our early days. The challenge for Takara was that we wanted to design them with precise reproductions of the car's interior, and with a complicated transformation. Both Hasbro's and Takara's ideas and wishes came together nicely, and we decided to begin the development of the new series.
However, Hasbro's initial concept was for something along the size of the "Transformers Car Robot" series that ran in 2000, with simpler transformations. So we relayed our ideas to them, and Binaltech was the result of our discussion.

The first Transformer Mr. Kobayashi undertook was a character named "Speedbreaker", who appeared in the "Car Robot" series. Speedbreaker was one of the "Car Robo Trio" (the three Car Robot Brothers); a realistic car, not unlike a Dodge Viper, that transformed into a fully articulated robot. Speedbreaker's size was approximately 1/32 scale, and while being compact, was popular as a well-proportioned toy in both vehicle and robot modes. However, Kobayashi himself says it was an item which left him with some regrets.

Kobayashi: The characters who turn into cars are many times more difficult to create than characters who turn in animals, because they need to have distinct appearances. I had no option but to create Speedbreaker with an asymmetrical design, and I continually doubted whether that would make his robot mode look appealing. I had always thought that a symmetrical design would have been much cooler. So, I for one was very excited to finally turn that into a reality with the Binaltechs.

Thus the project began around 2001 and 2002. The first thing to accomplish was to calculate costs. After that, discussions were begun over the approximate size of the toys, number of parts and their materials. In regards to development and costs, there were more restrictions than with earlier lines; in fact, there were many hardships.

Kobayashi: First and foremost, our people calculated the essential costs. Hasbro also had their own estimated costs, and as we talked it over, we eventually settled on a 1/24 scale; which is a standard scale for model cars.
After years of experience with products like these, we had a pretty good grasp on the relationship between size and cost. [Beginning of page 114] So initially, we thought that the 1/24 scale would not be possible. However, Hasbro had already been planning for the cost of a 1/24 scale, so that left us to take a completely different view; to think up clever transformations as well as reproductions of the interiors with the least essential number of parts. We thought of potential problems and how to solve them.

Shirakami: Binaltechs are larger in size than our earlier toys, and the standards of toy production are different now than they were at the time; considerably more strict. There is less freedom in what we can recreate with this scale. You might think that ensuring the clearance, durability, and such is easier than before, since [a toy is] bigger, but in fact, it's more difficult.

Kobayashi: I remember what the employee who made the prototype said; that he couldn't have made it if it wasn't that size. Apparently, that size was the smallest possible scale to reproduce the clearance of each part.

Shirakami: I, myself, was worried over how I could put Kobayashi's ideas and prototypes into actual production. I heard that the vendors in China who were in charge of production let out a cry of frustration.

Kobayashi: And from Takara's point of view, there was the idea that a smaller scale might be a better option. We suggested to Hasbro a 1/32 scale, but by that time, they told us that unless it were a 1/24 scale at the very least, it wouldn't garner much attention among other merchandise on American shelves. That was the final reason we needed to settle on that size. That also had bearing on later decisions, like using die-cast parts in Japan.
The first prototype utilized several ball-joints in order to allow a very complex transformation and create a cool-looking robot. The inalterable portions of the vehicle mode, such as the width of the car or the tires, were taken into consideration to achieve our goal of the best-looking robot mode possible. We even attempted to fit a glittering Spark, the soul of a Transformer, into the hood as one of our details. However, that didn't align with Hasbro's estimated costs and was thus the first thing to be taken off to secure clearance for the transformation.

Shirakami: Hasbro has always been keeping a stance of "the cost is the priority". There is a set price first, then we need to produce a toy within the range of that budget. In Japan, we might consider increasing the budget a bit, as we believe a better product will yield better sales. However, in America, they do not think that way. So to meet that standard, we made several sacrifices, such as lessening the parts and simplifying the structures.

Mr. Hironori Kobayashi
Head of Hero Character Team
BOYS Enterprise Department, Marketing Division
Takara Inc.

Selection of Car Models and Permission of License

The first prototype Mr. Kobayashi produced for the Binaltech line was based on the character "Meister" [Jazz]. Mr. Kobayashi preferred to begin by making a design of what he personally would like to produce, but his plans hit a brick wall when it came to obtaining license permission from that actual car manufacturer. We asked him how he went about the product development; selecting car models and obtaining their licenses.

Kobayashi: Meister was made as an example for our discussion about manufacturing costs. We had applied for license permission just in case, but basically it was never meant to be. The Corvette we made next was under the supervision of Takashi Kunihiro, and we continued its development under the assumption we would be granted the license. However, at the very last stage, we were denied permission and were forced to store it away for the time being.
Bumble [Bumblebee] was the character we made after that. We had planned for it to be both Bumble and Cliff [Cliffjumper], and even drew up blueprints and character designs. Unfortunately, by that stage we could not get the license as smoothly as we were hoping and had to store that design away too.
For us, we had wanted to choose models according to the designs of the earlier lines, but in reality, we often weren't able to. We understand that many of the fans were disappointed, but then, so were we. There was even a case where we were given permission verbally but were told "No" at the very last minute, right after we'd finished the prototype. There were numerous difficulties.

This is the first Transformer Mr. Kobayashi produced; "Speedbreaker", one of the Car Robo Brothers from "Car Robots". It was widely praised for being a realistic-looking car that also transformed into a fully articulated and well-proportioned robot.

The reasons they are denied licenses differ depending on the manufacturers. For starters, they often do not understand the concept of the Transformers. Despite Mr. Kobayashi's confidence, the points which the car manufacturers took into consideration were apparently far stricter. [Beginning of page 115]

Kobayashi: When we show them a model we have made, we receive some very minute advice, such as "the shape here looks different" or "the curve there is wrong". After all, they make the real cars, inspect their styles and details very closely and consider those important; so I understand that even though we think we've done everything we can to reproduce the car, there are still some details that they won't be satisfied with.
In some cases, we have asked them to take a look at our prototypes after we've corrected their fenderlines and such. Sometimes we received approval after the alterations, other times we receive yet another rejection. Once we were rejected because of a small plug-hole on the roof; though, once we explained that it was crucial for a transformation gimmick, they understood. There are various measures we take, and various reactions from them.

Mr. Keisuke Shirakami
Development Technology Team Chief
Production Supervision Room
Takara Inc.

The prototype line-ups continued from Meister, to the Corvette, and then to Bumble. Fuji Heavy Industries' Impreza came onto the scene next. With the first Binaltech release set to be in September 2003, they had to get to work on its production at a rapid pace, as they were given the go-ahead with barely enough time.

Kobayashi: One by one, Takara contacted Japanese automobile manufacturers that we considered likeliest [to give us a license]. As it happened, we spoke with Fuji Heavy Industries first, and fortunately, they gave us permission with very positive support.
I can't distinctly recall exactly how it happened, but I remember we decided on the Impreza model because of a recommendation from Fuji Heavy Industries. Also, there was a suggestion to build two models, each with some different parts, to make the most out of our production. So we settled on the WRC model, which was active in rallys, and the mass product model.
At the time we were thinking of releasing the mass product version first and hoping to release the rally version later. In the end, our marketing department decided that the first release should have more [visual] impact, so we chose to release the rally version first.

Different Measures Taken for Domestic and Overseas Versions

When you have the actual product in your hands, you certainly can feel the solid finish of die-cast parts. However, this is only available for domestic versions. Overseas versions use resins for the entire body, and there are some packaging differences as well. It is easy to understand that various options must be considered when it comes to developing a product for worldwide release. We asked for some concrete examples.

Shirakami: We use different materials; die-cast for domestic versions and polycarbonate for overseas versions. There is the obvious weight difference between those materials, but we use plastic parts to support them in both versions, so how we strengthen them without affecting the appearance or the function is very important. We discuss and experiment on a daily basis; such as trying to find places for some pieces where they can be hidden from view.
In Japan, we make them durable by using hard die-cast parts, though polycarbonate is used in the overseas versions for the same parts, so the durability needs to be enhanced by the entire structure. Based on these variables, we work on the overall structure and the designs of each part to be used to their limit.

Kobayashi: We considered several cost-cutting ideas, such as making the interior part of the door and the clear part of the window a single piece. We have to share all the molds with Hasbro, save for the ones for die-cast pieces, so the matter of durability is vitally important.
The ones I make in the trial stage are merely prototypes with many possibilities. You might say that they are full of a developer's hopefullness that they might be produced somehow. It's all thanks to Shirakami that they are made into the products we can release to the market.

Shirakami: For Kobayashi, Binaltechs are a "beautiful dream", but a person in charge at the factory is said to have called them "a nightmare". This is a well-known episode at the factory. Of course, it was said half-jokingly, but the people who actually manufacture [the toys] come across an extraordinary amount of problems.

Kobayashi: Personally, it's not always fun to create these toys, either. [Beginning of page 116] You could say that I have to reach deep inside my mind to create one; I have to reach my limit. I try my hardest and I ask that my production line does the same, hoping that we can both achieve the very best.

Mr. Satoru Washizu
Part One Inc.

Firstly, why do domestic and overseas versions use different materials for the toy's body? The "grass always looks greener on the other side" phenomenon is in motion, as overseas fans purchase the domestic versions because they adore the solid look and the feel of its coating, while domestic fans go after overseas versions because they can be transformed and played with casually without the fear of paint-chipping and other damages. We asked for the reasons behind the alternate materials.

Shirakami: Simply put, it's a matter of cost. They [Hasbro] had a strategy to sell this item for under $20 and could not go over their budget. Also, overseas, solid-looking and expensive items aren't really expected from this sort of toyline. Their primary target age-group is usually grade school children, so I imagine that they considered plastic to be sufficient.

Kobayashi: I've already mentioned that we share our molds with Hasbro, which also means that how loose or tight a joint can be is often determined by Hasbro's standards. If it was exclusively for Takara we could make it [tight enough] so that it doesn't come apart easily, but by overseas standards, a joint has to come off when excess force is applied to it. Due to our co-development, there are some points which we have to employ their way.

Selection and Consideration of Characters

The other half of the Binaltech line are the characters selected for the robot modes. As the Binaltech series' line-up grew larger, characters that used to transform into forms other than cars have started to appear. How do they select these characters?

Kobayashi: We consider this series to be something we want to foster [as a long-term toy line]. So we don't rush into releasing all the well-known [characters], but instead consider the balance of the whole line-up. Even in the original toy line, there wasn't a very wide selection of different cars. It would be strange if the vehicle looked very different than the original motif, and we believe it would ruin the character's image if we relied on their name value too much. We try to select the line-up based on the number of original car models.
We went ahead with characters that were not originally cars, like Grimlock and Ravage, after nearly a year had passed since the series began and we became capable of foreseeing future developement. We did this because the line was expensive, and we feared that fans might lose their enthusiasm if we kept with the same pattern over and over again. So we're hoping for a change of direction in regards to the variety of characters and to add items with new appeal and an element of surprise in the second year and onwards.

The "Three Car Robo Brothers", mentioned at the beginning of this interview; Mach Alert (2 of the left) and Wild Ride (2 on the right). Both toys have the distinction of a realistic-looking vehicle which can transform into a fully articulated robot.

The character's story set-up, the introduction of the actual car model and the transformation instructions are placed together in the instruction manual. Mr. Washizu from Part One, who designs the instruction manuals and the packaging, told us about the process of producing them.

Washizu: First, I put hundreds of pictures of various stages of the toy's transformation, taken by Mr. Kobayashi, in front of me. Then, I start to work on the order of the instructions and design the illustrations. The hardest part of toy production is creating the instruction manual. Binaltechs are particularly complicated, so the creation [of the instruction manual] is trial and error every single time.
Occasionally, the prototype and the actual product have a different transforming process, so it is important to reflect that. It takes about a month just to finish drawing the outlines. I try to make them as easy to understand as I can, but it isn't that simple. Sometimes we just can't explain a point well enough with pictures and words, so once I suggested to Mr. Kobayashi that he should make a video, starring himself, demonstrating the transformation and include it as a DVD with the toy. I also designed the packaging. I put an effort into creating something new, such as putting windows in the front and back of the box to give the impression of a futuristic garage. I think I did a good job displaying the quality of the item. For the first toy, I had intended to create the effect of half-opened shutters with the front and back windows, but for the second one, in order to give a better view of the contents, we opened the shutters all the way up. [Beginning of page 117] After all, we are making realistic-looking miniature cars, so I felt we should show off as much as possible.

Aiming Even Higher

Kobayashi: For the coating, we use epoxy-type paint, often used for die-cast miniature cars. We receive a sample of the car's actual color, but those can sometimes be hard to obtain. In that case, we consult a panelbeater. A panelbeater knows the proper rate of blending paints, so we can ask them for a color sample of a certain model's particular shade. Then we send it to our factory to match the colors.

Shirakami: We are always hoping for higher quality. In fact, we are already pushing it to the very limit, and even when one meets the standard of our production level, Kobayashi might still reject it. We try to raise the quality with several smaller adjustments. Sometimes, even after exchanging e-mails, phone calls and photographs to try and solve a problem with the factory, we're still unable to sort it out. In that instance, I actually go over there, myself, and issue direct instructions.

Kobayashi: Overseas, it seems to be surprisingly easy to obtain color samples from car manufacturers via Hasbro. It can take longer for domestic manufacturers, so we often make our plans beforehand and do the basic preparation. In order to obtain higher quality, we want to do as much as we can.

Among all the different Transformers toys, the Binaltechs have established themselves as a strong brand of their own, and many fans expect the attractive items to keep on coming in the future. There are restrictions in regards to actual car licenses, of course, but even so, we can feel the enthusiasm of the Takara staff to make this line more impressive. We would particularly like to see what the future holds.
So lastly, we asked what car models they wish to produce, regardless of a license, and how to best look after the toys.

Kobayashi: If the body gets dirty, please polish it with spectacle-cleaning cloth. I've been impressed to hear that some fans buy multiples of the same toy so that they can display it in both vehicle and robot mode.
As for transformation, I think that this difficulty level is just right if you play with them occasionally. I hope you can find a way to transform them on your own while using the instructions for reference. I hope you can find a practiced and skillful approach [to the transformation].
A model I'd like to produce? That would be the Hummer. That huge thing. I always want to try and make a design that will attract people who aren't usually into toys. I'd like the Hummer, because then we would be able to capitalize on its popularity and it would also be fun just to figure out which parts can be transformed and in what way.

Shirakami: I'd like to try a super-car type model, such as a Lamborghini Murcielago. I know obtaining the license would be difficult, but I feel it would be worth it and we should try. When we did the RX-8, we had numerous problems, such as scheduling, but the person in charge over at Hasbro owned an RX-8, and he gave us several requests filled with personal feelings. His car obviously had some custom parts, and he even sent us pictures of them. If my favorite car were to be made into a Binaltech I think I'd certainly make some requests, too.
By the way, the most crucial parts of Binaltech transformation are the arms and the waist; if you can manage those, the rest shouldn't be a problem.

Washizu: Not a car, but I'd like a Harley Davidson to be produced. I think it's big enough to fit all the parts in, somehow. I really want Mr. Kobayashi to make one.

Kobayashi: Motorcycles are difficult, as they are basically only framework, but that's a challenge I'd like to take.
We intend to continue expanding our line-up, and we will not concentrate on one manufacturer, but on variety. Expect not to be disappointed by our future developements.

About the Product Concept

Kobayashi: For the concept of the Binaltechs, we intend to make the gimmicks of the vehicle modes no more inferior to that of miniature model cars. You can open and shut the hood, the trunk and the doors, of course, but we also considered it important to have a steering mechanism to enchance its realism. A Jeep has a suspension mechanism instead of a steering one, so we judge these features based on the characteristics of the car.
As for the Transformer insignias, we decided not to let them show on the vehicle modes as we figured it would be more realistic that way when we were designing the Impreza's decoration. In fact, we had already finished the Viper prototype at the time and couldn't find a way to hide the insignia. So even though we decided to hide the insignias as an initial concept, we had no choice but to leave one visible on the softtop cover. I have this regret about the Viper.
By the way, it was Hasbro's idea to have a small insignia in the character's name on the license plate. So looking back at things, I can say that the Impreza rally model is the only real irregular one.

Differences Between Target Age Groups in Japan and in the US

Mr. Hiroyuki Azuma, Team Manager
Hero Character Team, Marketing Department, BOYS Enterprise Division, Takara Inc.

At the first planning stage, both our people in Japan and overseas agreed that we would target an age group between children and adults, but the specific ages we had in mind were completely different. We had the same user group in mind, which were people between viewers of the cartoon and adult collectors, but their idea of an intermediate group was around the age of junior high school students. The group was supposed to be between primary school children and adults beyond the age of high school students. We were aiming at the same target group verbally, but as our discussion progressed, I started to get the feeling that we really weren't talking about the same age group. I asked what their specific age group was intended to be, then I understood.
In contrast with what their target retail price is in North America, we want to develop Binaltechs as higher priced items in the range of the other Transformers merchandise. Those strategy differences and cost-awareness came together and resulted in the distinction that they use plastic overseas, while we use diecast for the feel of high quality.

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