Judge Mike Rubino applies Head On! directly to the forehead.
"Head on! Head on! Head on!
After Hasbro and Sunbow finished the first generation of Transformers cartoons in America, it left an 18-wheeler-that-turns-into-a-robot-sized hole in the hearts of children everywhere. That yearning for more shape shifting action lead to the creation of Transformers: Headmasters, a series that has never (legally) been seen in the United States.
That is, until Shout! Factory's release of Transformers Japanese Collection: Headmasters.
Facts of the Case
Transformers: Headmasters is a direct continuation of Transformers: Generation One (aka The Transformers), but ignores some of the events at the end of that original series. Picking up after the return of Optimus Prime, this series ignores "The Rebirth" and carves its own alternate history for the robots of Cybertron.
The premise to the 35-episode series will be familiar if you've ever seen any other Transformers cartoon: the Decepticons, led by Galvatron and Scorponok, are trying to take over the universe. This involves various schemes to steal Energon, the robots' life force; destroy Earth or Cybertron; and to kill the Autobots. Standing in their way are the likes of Optimus Prime, Rodimus Prime, Ultra Magnus, etc.
The main addition to this series, aside from the continuous smattering of new toys—I mean "characters"—are the Headmasters. Siding with both the Decepticons and the Autobots, the Headmasters are transformers with heads that pop off. Usually their heads are tiny robots that pilot the vehicles they turn into. While the tactical advantage may be moot, the Headmasters do have punny names like Chromedome, Brainstorm, Highbrow, and Weirdwolf.
For decades, Transformers: Headmasters lingered in the bootleg VHS bins at annual comic book conventions. Occasionally, back when I used to go to those things, I would stroll by one of the booths and see the English-subtitled cartoon that looked pretty similar to the American version I grew up with playing on a small TV. It looking interesting, but reading blurry subtitles on the 317th copy of an old cartoon didn't sound very appealing. Now, after a long wait, curious passersby will wonder about this Transformers anomaly no longer. Shout! Factory has packaged all 35 episodes into a single set, with new, crisp captioning.
Is it worth the wait? For fans of the Transformers, certainly. The series, which picks up kind of where the original left off, introduces scads of new characters, plenty of new off-beat mythology, and isn't afraid to let some heads roll. The series, while retaining much of the same look as the original Sunbow cartoon, is very much an '80s anime. The episodes are filled with strategy and discussion. The characters shift from stoic and honorable to goofy slapstick. There's a narrator holding our hand through every scene change. Transformers: Headmasters also has a soap opera-style approach to death.
Transformers: Headmasters isn't afraid to kill off a few characters here and there. I won't spoil anything, but odds are if they are an important fixture in your childhood toy line up, there's a good chance they are going to be turning gray pretty quick—that's not to say they won't get reincarnated a few episodes later with a new coat of paint and a fancy fender. As these shows are wont to do, the cast has a core group of characters and some constantly rotating extras. The new folks that show up, the series' titular "Headmasters," are generally uninteresting; while some of them have special powers, most of them are just extra guys to smack around. Throughout the show's run, the scope of the Transformers universe becomes fairly expansive with giant Autobots that transport little Autobots, Decepticons that combine into giants, and even the ghost of Alpha Trion. Suffice it to say, these 35 episodes never get too stale.
Transformers: Headmasters follows a fairly straightforward story arc. As characters come and go and return, and power changes hands between folks like Galvatron and Scorponok or Rodimus Prime and Cerebos, the overall battle between the two sides never gets too daring or weird—except for that episode with the animal-people led by an eye-patched lion. The mini-series throughout the run are all paced fairly well, especially "Planet Cybertron is in Grave Danger" and the series finale "The Final Showdown on Earth." If you haven't figured it out, the show's translated titles leave little to the imagination: "Fight to the Death on Planet Beehive," "Head Formation of Friendship," and "The Emperor of Destruction Vanishes on an Iceberg" are some of the best.
Shout! Factory has done an admirable job of giving this obscure release a makeover. The show has been re-translated with more accurate (but still not perfect) text, rendering those snowy VHS bootlegs obsolete. Unfortunately, the picture quality still isn't that great. The slick animation is marred by blurry lines, dirt, and that old '80s coloration. The original Japanese audio fares much better, however, and the series' dramatic soundtrack and voice acting sounds crisp.
The only supplement in the set is a series of art galleries for the series. Fans will have to provide their own commentary track.
While it may sound a little silly and formulaic, Transformers The Japanese Collection: Headmasters is a genuinely good addition to the series' lore. It's decidedly darker and more dramatic than some of the American stuff, and features some quality animation and fun anime stylings. The subtitles may throw some off, but for fans this is definitely worth a look.
Head on! Not guilty!
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