Written by Richard Brown
The Transformers franchise is simple right? Wrong. Every time a new toy line comes out there’s usually at least two sets of media, the Japanese version and the American. Then the comics come into the equation, and the other languages, all telling their own version of the story. In the latter part of the 1980’s when the original Transformers Line was winding down, a Japanese exclusive anime was made, Masterforce. But is it any good?
The Basic Plot
Its been several years since the Decepticon forces were driven off Earth, and relative peace has returned to the planet. However, factions who have remained hidden since the Stone Age are making their presence felt. Known as the “Pretenders”, a small faction of Autobots which have the ability to appear as human, have stood guard over their imprisoned Decepticon counterparts for millennia. However, something has freed the Decepticon Pretenders, who have begun a campaign of terror, forcing the Autobot defenders to take action. Both sides soon recruit humans to bolster their forces, but there’s someone behind the scenes influencing events.
Masterforce, not to put too fine a point on it, gives me headaches. Imagine for a moment that you are house-sitting for someone. It turns out any and all items are oriented for the left-handed, from tin openers to books, and you are right-handed. There’s nothing actually wrong, as all of the items are functional, but you constantly have to go against your own muscle memory to do anything. Once you have visualised how confusing and counter-intuitive this would be, you should have an idea of the paradigm shift I had to make for this series. You see, as a child I owned several of the toys this anime was intended to sell, and read the actually-quite-good Marvel comic series that characterised them in the west. The fact the core cast in this anime is made up almost entirely of humans is a big change. Then there is the somewhat curious habit of characters who carry twin rifles to fight either bare-handed or with force-lightning ala Emperor Palpatine. The series is also something of an oddity within its own Japanese continuity, with a number of elements not referred to before or since. If the Pretenders have been around for most of human history, why didn’t they make their presence felt with Optimus and co. woke up? Why does neither side call in any actual reinforcements from off world? I know the Dinobots would have luurrrved the chance to kill hundreds of mindless drones like the ones the Decepticons field. Or better yet, why has human technology regressed? Please don’t think I’m being hard on this series for being different, as most of the better entries in this franchise are those trying something new, such as Beast Wars. It’s just that Masterforce feels less like an entry in the Transformers franchise, but more like a super robot anime that had been modified during pre-production to fit the setting. This is not a good thing, as there are certain thematic differences between your typical super robot anime and Transformers, such as the concept of an entire civilisation of giant machines. Something fundamental is being diluted, and the anime’s own ideas and merit do not balance this out.
It’s a case of ifs and buts. Objectively, it’s not awful for an 80’s era Japanese toy advert, but mediocre is the best word for it. The idea of humans fighting a proxy war with alien technology isn’t a bad one, although the potential is not exploited as well as I would have liked. The Pretender concept makes more sense in this series than in the western media, though you do wonder why the Decepticons insist on monstrous forms. The technical quality isn’t bad either; Masterforce was made within a few years of the famously inconsistent original series, and while issues of scale remain, its better made. Characterisation is competent, but the anime takes a long time to decide which characters it should be placing the most importance on. At first the focus is on the Pretenders, this is okay but a little dull. Then come the Headmaster Juniors, which introduces giant robots to playground squabbles, and that isn’t as fun as it sounds. Eventually, Optimus Prime’s doppelganger, Ginrai, makes his appearance, effectively becoming the lead character which was absent during the preceding ten episodes, and making everyone else look incompetent by comparison. On the positive side, Ginrai does have the advantage of being likable, by dint of being informal, personable and quite brave. His attempt to gather recruits by appearing on TV was a welcome change from the often serious Autobot leaders. On the antagonist side, I did like the way the Decepticons feature a husband-and-wife team. However, if you discount my initial rant, and all that remains is a very dull series. I could not bring myself to finish it.
Whereas the likes of Gaogaigar prove that there’s nothing inherently terrible about kids anime, this particular example reminds us why they got a bad reputation in the first place. Fanboy migraines aside, Masterforce commits the sin of blandness. There’s no real substance to any of it, it doesn’t have the advantage of nostalgia, or of being comically bad. Avoid.