Disclaimer: The reason I provide this translation is solely to help non-Japanese fans who are unable to read this insightful interview in the book they have purchased. Hope you’ll enjoy 🙂
HUGE thanks to Sol Fury for revision and encouragement.Tantou! Staff! Special Talk!?
Who are they?
Takashi Kunihiro: Joined the company in 1984. Has joined the staff since “2010”, in which original “Transformers” toys started. Along with Transformers, he was responsible for the main characters of Brave series figures from “FighBird” to “GaoGaiGar”. His most famous creations include; Hot Rodimus, Six Shot, Star Saber, Victory Leo, Lio Kaiser, Magmatron, Tako Tank, Gigatron, “Super Link” Convoy, Primus, Movie Optimus Prime and Brawl.
Takio Ejima: Joined the company in 1989. His first product was Crazybird from “Flower Rock” series. After that, he was a staff member of Overseas Transformers Product team in the Boys Enterprise department, and single-handedly created the all European Transformers after the American market was pulled until Beast Wars. After Beast Was Metals was concluded (1999) he moved to Girls Toy Department. He came back to Transformers in “Super Link” (2004). According to Mr. Kunihiro, (Mr. Ejima is) “The man who created the most transforming robot toys in the world”.
“It started with the Movie”
Hisashi Yuki: Joined the company in 1992. Worked on the series such as “Gridman” (2003), “J-Decker”~”GaoGaiGar”, and started working on Transformers since Beast Wars II (1998). He worked on Choro-Q for a while then came back to Transformers since the later releases of Binaltechs. His most famous creations include; Lio Convoy, Big Convoy and Fire Convoy.
– Since Hasbro’s “Classics” series is the base of Henkei, will you tell us how the series was developed?
Ejima: It all began with the movie in 2007. At first the series was to be called “Prequel”. While the production of the movie had been announced, we couldn’t reveal the (Transformers) designs, and during that time we started developing products to show how the present (Movie) Convoy (Optimus Prime) had evolved in appearance. That’s why it (Classics Optimus prime figure) still has the same trailer truck look even though it adapted an aeroform.
Yuki: The item had an strategic place that connects the old merchandise to the movie one.
Ejima: Say, there is someone who used to play with a toy called Transformers, and he hears of the new movie and visits the toy aisle. There he finds a toy which takes him back to “Then”.
Yuki: For that purpose, the products had to have a similar look to G1. But they sold much better than expected. So we decided to continue the series as an independent line.
– How many people are there in the Henkei design team? Also, are there certain set tasks to each designer?
Yuki: There are 6 staff members who design overseas products. They also design the Movie and Animated figures and are working on a very hard schedule. They take on a new assignment as they finish their previous one. There’s no “He only does Cybertron” kind of responsibilities. Important products such as Movie Optimus Prime normally go to veteran designers.
Ejima: Designers occasionally request their next assignment like “I call dibs on Starscream!”
Yuki: That does happen. Then he’d be like “I’ll pass this one to you instead”. To tell you the truth, when “Classics” started, there was no plan of domestic release. It had been decided when the series started again as “Universe”. Since then domestic product staff members joined the team as overseas product staff got more workload due to the movie.
Ejima: “Classics”, “Animated” and “The Movie” have their unique design requirements, but when you line them up side by side, they must all look to be of the same quality. That is the hard part.
– Please tell us about the development of Convoy figure.
Ejima: At first, we planned on a deluxe sized Convoy toy. But we couldn’t achieve a satisfying quality within the budget of a deluxe.
Yuki: We never try to meet the budget at the concept stage. We start with a lavish concept, and we try to cut the cost down as we progress. If we only have the budget on mind at the beginning, the quality simply drops too low.
Ejima: In the end, Convoy sized up to “Voyager”. After all we didn’t want to use ball joints for him, but sturdier joints.
Kunihiro: In America, the main characters are not always the expensive merchandise. They in fact treat Deluxe sized figures as their main products because those sell the most.
Ejima: We do have standards when deciding a figure size. We go for the scale in the show. In America, car (Transformers) are disadvantaged when in packaging as they look smaller. Such a shame, because they are packed with parts inside. On the other hand, planes look bigger thanks to the wings. People seem to feel that a plane (TF) and a car (TF) having the same price is unjust.
Yuki: Though when it comes to a figure like Bumblebee that is meant to be smaller, we try to compensate like by adding a trailer.
– It has been a long time since we last saw a Megatron who transforms into a gun.
Kunihiro: He is originally a gun Transformer character, but he had to become a tank due to several regulations. His motif this time partly owe to a request from Hasbro. They were also very keen on re-creating G1 style. We could make it happen by making his gun mode look like American water pistol. “Classics” Megatron’s colour scheme is because of that background.
– “Henkei” version is Silver.
Yuki: Originally I was in charge of (“Classics”) domestic release and I chose the Henkei figure colours. After all we were over one year behind overseas market, and were aware of the fact that (Japanese) people who wanted those figures had purchased them already. To make them buy our products, we added extra paint applications and chrome while being conscious of the cost. We knew that we’d be able to release Megatron with old-fashioned colour scheme, so frankly I knew he’d sell.
– Please tell us which of you were responsible of which figure.
Kunihiro: I did Astrotrain, Skyfire, Silverbolt, Onslaught and Cyclonus.
Ejima: I was responsible for Convoy, Megatron, Grimlock, Powerglide and Cheetas.
Yuki: I did Sunstreaker, Prowl, Lambor, Galvatron, Inferno and Dinobot. Sunstreaker and Lambor is like 2 for one, though.
– What was the aim of this series?
Kunihiro: Basically, we tried to achieve what couldn’t be done then (G1 era) and make the best of the good (of the G1 figures).
Yuki: This series’ uniqueness is that “There is no gimmick”.
-What do you mean by that?
Yuki: Transformers are supposed to change their forms, so we on the development side do not consider transformation as a gimmick. In this case, when I say gimmick, I mean things like a missile projectile mechanism.
Ejima: In fact, by eliminating gimmicks we were able to raise the product standard. For example, even a simple gimmick such as Force Chips in “Galaxy Force” restricted designs and structures. So with this series, we concentrated on only transformation mechanism and that clear direction produced a good result.
– To think of it, Transformers have had various gimmicks for a long time.
Yuki: Hasbro does not like an absence of a gimmick. That is why higher priced products include gimmicks such as missiles and sound.
Ejima: This time we presented the beauty of the figures rather than gimmicks. Hasbro said to us that those were fantastic. We answered, “It’s because they are without gimmicks”.
– I assume creating G1 homages was a challenging and fun task in a way?
Yuki: I did not get involved with the production of the originals, so it was more or less sentiment only.
Ejima: Of course we referred to the original figures, but it was to think of a different approach.
Yuki: When you look at a product which was the best and the latest 20 years ago, you can’t help but think, “Is this the best they could?”. I guess this series will be looked at in the same way in some decades’ time.
Kunihiro: The originals were phenomenal back then and left great impressions on the children, and it motivated us to provoke the equally great impression with the latest standard.
Yuki: Though had we gone with the original car designs, it would have been considered as classic cars, so we altered the vehicle modes to match what children now see as stylish. The merchandise are for children, but children prefer something a bit grown-up looking. That is why we aim for products which look cool even to the parents. If the parents see a product as ugly, their children will not want it. This is more so now that Transformers is something both parents and children can talk about.
– There are some figures with drastically different transformation (from the originals), such as Grimlock and Galvatron.
Yuki: As for Grimlock, since the perceived image of tyrannosaurus has been changed, I refined the design without much regard to the original. Galvatron adapted a modern tank form due to a request from Hasbro. The original SF style gun worked only because it came with the sound and light gimmicks. Actually I started with Galvatron as a tank and walker-tank triple-changer, but his release overlapped with “Animated” Laserwave, which is also a triple-changer, so we settled with the way Galvatron is now. Because the change was made halfway through the designing process, he still has the remains of the intended walker transformation mechanism.
Kunihiro: Was it Hasbro who asked us not to make Astrotrain a SL?
Ejima: It was you. You said, “How can we make a SL now!”
Kunihiro: I don’t remember that!
Yuki: Unlike back then, space shuttles are not very popular among children, so we did not hesitate to paint it purple as seen in the cartoon.
– Lambor and Sunstreaker transformations are just genius.
Yuki: Hasbro wanted those 2 characters, and they had exactly the same bodies except for the head sculptures and the colours in Hasbro’s original concept documents. I just couldn’t agree on that and suggested to turn the robot’s upper body. In vehicle modes, I tried to make them look even more different by the presence/absence of the air ducts, though for some reason Hasbro Sideswipe come with those, too….
– How come Powerglide became so big?
Yuki: Since “Universe” line, we did not simply stick to the homages, but also added some different ideas. We dared to omit the combiner mechanism from Silverbolt and Onslaught, and made minibot Powerglide huge. Powerglide is meant to be a ground attack bomber to begin with, so I think he should be big.
Ejima: The heart on his chest is of course based on G1 episode 37 “The Girl Who Loved Powerglide” (Note; Regarding the Japanese episode numbers, they were shown in a different order in Japan. The Ultimate Doom, a three parter very early in the series in the US, is placed around about episode 60 in Japan. The Girl who Loved Powerglide was moved to an earlier point in the series just as those episodes came much later – Sol Fury). I intended to put a heart there even before I designed the toy. I wanted some characteristics from the cartoon, too.
Yuki: Prowl can achieve his anime proportion by attaching his shoulder missile launcher on the back. As for Cyclonus, he can carry his Targetmaster not only in his hand but also on his arm as seen in “The Headmasters”. Such minor gimmicks could be done without any extra cost, and we thought that the fans who followed the cartoons back then would enjoy them.
Kunihiro: (Original) Cyclonus was not a bad toy considering the standard back then, but the robot mode was very different from the anime character. This time I managed to recreate his proportion just like in the show, even the positioning of the wings, and the plane nose hides when in robot mode.
Yuki: The original toys can’t be generally purchased, but it is possible to watch the anime. We do hope these (Henkei) toys will be played with while DVDs (of the old cartoon) are watched.
– Did any of you design both the original and Henkei?
Kunihiro: I would have if I did (Henkei) Hot Rodimus. I regret it.
Ejima: I did both Cheetas. Though I was so busy back then that I hardly remember anything (about original BW Cheetas design). I did not refer to the original or compared the old and new versions side by side.
Yuki: Why didn’t you at least loot at them side by side?
Ejima: I should have. The original Cheetas’ face is not CG cartoon accurate, so I only referred to the show. I was going for the creation of the show accurate Cheetas.
Yuki: Dinobot was the same. He is such a great character in the show, but the toy was not like him in the show, face and everything. I would have liked him to be a larger size class, bigger than Convoy.
– Do you develop the products now in a different way from the past?
Ejima: The safety standard now is stricter than before. But that is how it should be. I remember being sad when I was little with a broken toy. But recent Transformers are harder to break partly thanks to the articulation. Actually, I had an idea of Transformers articulation even before “G2”. They required lots of parts because of the transformation, and I thought I could use them for the (joint) movement. So I presented the idea to Hasbro, and we decided to go ahead with it from Laser Rods. By making the joints articulate, it became easier to pass the safety regulation. For example, there’s a rule that states, “The toy is not to be broken when being pulled with 20 pounds force”, and we call it “The Dreaded Crotch Tear” because the legs are pulled apart with the said force. If the legs are simply connected in upside-down U shape, they are broken off easily. That is why many older toys have fused legs, to pass the test. But if they are meant to open up, there’s no problem, since they don’t break.
Yuki: Ejima is the one who introduced ball-joints to Transformers. “G2” has become the series which opened the new market of “Robot toys with articulations”.
– Is there any trouble characteristic of this era?
Ejima: The high cost of oil really hurt us. The technology keeps on developing, but we can’t make the best of it because of the high cost.
Yuki: We still need to minutely calculate “the parts number”, “the product weight” and such to adhere to the set budget while working.
Kunihiro: Even so, as we work, the oil price continues to rise. It changes every week, and the cost of a prototype rise a few percent by the time we complete one.
Ejima: To be honest, I do feel “We could have created a better product for this price” sometimes.
– Any item you want to remake in Henkei line?
Kunihiro: Rodimus Convoy. There were few suggestions in the past, but none never came true. I wonder why, because he had such a presence. His younger self (Hot Rodimus) has various versions.
Yuki: With the technology now, we can probably make that “old man face” good-looking.
Ejima: Not a particular character, but I would like to do a Jet Transformer. Among the ones I designed, the one I am most proud of is “G2” Smokescreen. I like jet planes, but I hardly have occasion (to design one).
Yuki: In fact plane ones are simpler!
Ejima: No, no, it’s not that I am trying to be lazy!
Yuki: I want to try my hands on a Japanese original item like Star Saber. Or how about articulated Fortress Maximus or Soundwave. But I have no idea what Soundwave can transform into this time and age.
Ejima: About 10 years ago, I also had an idea of a product which ejects from Soundwave’s chest then auto-transform. But I didn’t know what to do with Soundwave himself. It already wasn’t a time of cassette players, and we couldn’t release something children couldn’t relate to.
Yuki: It should be a memory card nowadays, but such origami-like transformation is impossible.
– Lastly, please send your messages to the fans.
Kunihiro: Transformers still continue to evolve, please keep on lending us your support.
Ejima: We continue on inventing more fun gimmicks, so please look forward to them. Our future task is to include the gimmicks without dropping the product quality. Also, what I am aiming for is not “intricate transformation”, but “interesting transformation”. In reality, an over-intricate transformation is a put off and children wouldn’t want to transform the toy again. It is a shame if (a Transformer) is never transformed back to the vehicle. So, while keeping the transformation simple, I want to raise the quality. Not something with very difficult transformation, but one people enjoy transforming again and again. We will be revolutionary, please look forward to it.
Yuki: We will create products which will amaze you. After all, Transformers are “More Than Meets the Eye”, toys that are more than they seem to be. You need to actually handle them to know them. Please take them out of the box, and play.
Convoy Line Up: The left is domestic Henkei Convoy, and the right is overseas “Classics” version. The colour scheme was changed to match the cartoon for the domestic release, with additional tampo prints and chrome. The one in the centre is a prototype of deluxe size Convoy. Beside the size difference, the knee parts are fixed on.