TFW2005 staff member SydneyY (with help from Aernaroth, Shin Densetsu and Pravus Prime) has helpfully translated another interview for your enjoyment. Originally presented in Transformers Generations 2011 Volume 1, this interview with the legendary Transformers designers Hideaki Yoke & Koujin Oono touches on the very origins of the Transformers line and the entire history of Generation 1, right down to the modern lines. It is a fascinating look into the design aspects behind some of the most significant choices in the run of the series, such as Headmasters. Read on and check out the translation of the interview with the founding fathers of Transformers toys. TF Who’s Who
Hideaki Yoke and Koujin Oono
who are they? – Mr. Hideaki Yoke (left) joined Takara in 1977, and his toy development work includes Micro Camera Robo (Reflector) and Microscope Robo (Perceptor) from Microman Micro Robot series and G1 Minibots and Scourge from Transformers to name a few. His another interview can be found here.
Mr. Koujin Oono (right) joined Takara in 1980, and his past toy development work includes Walk Insector and Countach LP500S Super Tuning (Sunstreaker) from Diaclone, Acro Satan from Microman series. His another interview can be found here.
“Before The Birth of Transformers”
-What was your role in (the development of) Microman and Diaclone, the forerunners to Transformers?
Oono: After I joined the company, I was trained in the Promotions department for nearly a year. Back in the day, the Microman team, which Yoke belonged to, and the Diaclone team were separate and competed against each other in terms of developing new items. When I was transferred to the Development department, the two teams were merged. As soon as I joined, I got to help with Diaclone by working on silicone molding for Robot Fortress-X. I was also responsible for the new packaging design and recolouring of the New Microman figures, as well as Hobby Team’s Armoured Suits, which were developed under the influence of the “Dougram” and “Votoms” shows’ mecha designs. At the end of the Diaclone era, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime – working on the development of Car Robots. I feel I experienced the best of the Diaclone and Microman lines.
Yoke: At that time, I was working on Micro Robots. They were lower priced merchandise compared to the other Microman items, but we pioneered the transforming and combining features. Microman and Diaclone had different concepts, but both were trying to develop new types of robot products; as robot toys were indeed very popular in the 80s.
Oono: I was very aware of our competition. We could not market expensive products, and that made us aim for creating enjoyable products at a reasonable price.
Yoke: Our workplace back then was very lively, and our ideas took shape as if we were competing against each other. We created without stopping, going on so fast. Our 1980s were bursting with youth, energy, imagination and inspiration.
Oono: At that time, we had to teach ourselves from the start without our seniors helping us step by step. There was always a possibility that something similar to what I was coming up with might well be outsourced, and I had to be competitive even with my seniors to keep my position. On the other hand, I had the freedom of creating what I wanted. Our products were original characters, so I could design them myself, and I knew the joy of seeing them taking shape in the real world. The early designs were done by Studio Nue, and I used to hang around them as if I was their editor…. We were carrying on like; “Are you finished yet?” “Not yet!” (*laughs)
Yoke: We got help from designers from outside the company around the end of Microman series. Mr. Shinji Aramaki (wikipedia link Shinji Aramaki – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia), for example, turned my poorly done concept sketch of Microscope Robo (later used as Perceptor) into something that deserved high praise. Thinking back, we were supported by the ideas and enthusiasm of many outside consultants.
-The Takara products from that time have a unique appeal and original characters. The packaging and booklets conveyed a story and were very memorable.
Yoke: That spirit is still with us. Our senior staff had a strong belief relating to how original products should be, and it seems to have become ingrained in our company’s DNA.
Oono: It is indeed important to have a worldview that enhances the appeal of the toys, and I was very particular about catalogues and packaging – I had repeatedly visited the designer’s office and put a great deal of effort into constructing and photographing our dioramas. I also wrote up an individual bio for each product, and for Dinosaur Robots, I got carried away as far as developing their own storyline. (*laughs) The most important thing is a “key” visual. There are lots of robots drawn on the back of a (G1) Transformers package, and in that drawing is the condensed worldview of Transformers! I consider (having a key visual) very important, and it should be customary in a line like Transformers. That illustration helped us convey our view of the Transformers’ world to Hasbro, too.
Yoke: There was a big gap between Japan and America as to how we looked at toys back then. Fortunately for us, Hasbro was a company that nurtured original characters like Takara did, such as “G.I. Joe” and “My Little Pony”. I think we had a common cultural base.
“The Worldview of Transformers”
-Please tell us how “Transformers” began.
Yoke: As Diaclone Car Robot series was quite successful, we presented the products at New York Toy Fair through our American subsidiary. Our booth was small, but we received enough positive responses. However, in order to to market our product we needed a popular media tie in to introduce the background (of the characters), also we did not have the means to compete in the large American market nor the budget to spend on advertising which was much more expensive than in Japan. We weren’t confident enough to take that much risk, and concluded that finding a partner would be a smarter move. We began our partnership with Hasbro by chance, and they wanted other products as well as Diaclones! (*laughs) Our strategy then was the same as now; make a comic 1st, and if it’s successful, produce a cartoon, then a movie. However, when we were working on the story setting for a Transformers comic, we decided it would be best to be made into a TV cartoon right away. According to the time line, the storylines for the comic and cartoon were combined to create a story for the comic, and the cartoon was made next, though the process was almost simultaneous.
Oono: To be honest, I was shocked when I was told Diaclones and Microman series were to be merged. We had been working on those two lines with distinct ideas of how each should be and differentiated the two. Even the scales were different in 1/1 (Microman) and 1/60 (Diaclones). Every member of the team was complaining. (*laughs) But once we saw the new series, it was quite interesting. I thought, “This is awesome!”.
Yoke: Mr. Bob Budiansky put together Transformers’ early character setting and fundamental worldview. I had a chance to meet him for the first time in Botcon last year. We talked about our contributions to Transformers in the waiting room of 2010 Hall of Fame ceremony. He has been active as a writer mainly in Los Angeles, which is the center of the movie industry, but according to him, he majored in architecture. The magnificent story of Transformers he constructed – beginning from where they come from and why they are here, to each character’s distinct personality and role – was written skillfully and consistently because of his architectural way of construction. Considering his age at that time, the amount of work he accomplished is marvelous. He said he was only given 1 week to work on Transformers, and he finished it off without stopping – he told me all this without stopping, too!
Oono: What I was especially impressed was how the enemies were depicted. We designed enemies for Diaclones and Microman, but I admired that the enemies were described in a much cooler way. It was different from Japanese point of view – both sides were equal and even the bad guys were made into products that would be in demand. I really thought it was the most wonderful aspect of the series.
-Did you have any doubts that even though the series might become successful in America, it might not be domestically?
Yoke: We didn’t know the situation back then in detail because at that time, Oono was new in the company and more like an errand boy, and I myself was only in my 3rd year and had just been assigned the position of a section Chief. But I know some were doubtful of selling the same products we had sold as Microman and Diaclone as a new series simply by putting them in different packages. To tell you the truth, I was one of them. (*laughs) On the other hand, a corporation – especially one that sells toys can’t afford to miss an opportunity. Takara’s executives at that time saw the series’ success in America, and judged it would do well in Japan, too, and I think it was proved to be a right decision as a toy seller.
Oono: In my opinion, having been able to invest well on marketing contributed a lot. After all, the molds of the toys were already there, and the company could allocate more (budget) on marketing. We even made Convoy shaped household goods to display at department stores and a Convoy costume!
-I assume the “Big Mission: Scramble” was well received, too?
Yoke: The combiners were from a project originally intended for a next series of Diaclone.
Oono: The scramble combination* was the sales point. It wasn’t shown much in the cartoon, but we introduced it as another way of enjoying the toys. (*note by Pravus Prime: the ability to move the configuration of the limbs.) Also, I can recall my presentation of Metroplex. When I said, “The city becomes a robot”, the president commented that it was excellent! I can still remember his words.
Yoke: Presentations back then were not digitally done like now and more fun.
Oono: The floor used to get so messy with various things we brought in. (*laughs) Metroplex was planned as one of the 3 cities – small, medium and large – that we called “City Concepts”. At first, we intended to give the toy more substance, but unfortunately ended up with less because of the cost issue. Apologies to people who were deluded with Studio Ox’s illustrations. (*laughs) I thought that image was cool, too!
“Thick Language Barrier”
-The following series, “2010” (G1 season 3) mainly featured futuristic machines, did Hasbro take the initiative in development around that time?
Yoke: The product took on different appearances, but the way we conducted our work had not changed at all. At the very beginning (of Transformers) we teamed up with Hasbro very well, and the lineup for this series had already been decided. It usually takes nearly 2 years from the initial planning to the manufacturing of products. The early lineup gave an impression of strong Takara influence because it consisted of many existing products. I assume many people were surprised at the change to futuristic vehicles, but it would have become very complicated had we stuck to releasing products based on real vehicles every year. For example, how would we distinguish between this year’s Camaro and the last year’s model? Also, economy cars and mini vans are popular nowadays, but I doubt they can be made into popular products no matter how realistic they are re-created. Considering that, the switch to the futuristic vehicles was inevitable. Though designing futuristic vehicles was difficult.
Oono: There is also a recent trend of young people not being interested in automobiles in general. Back then, I made certain that children would be able to distinguish the vehicles as cars in spite of their science fiction-like appearance. I wanted to avoid a design that couldn’t be distinguished between a car or a flying saucer. Also, this must have been (Hasbro’s) character designer’s particularity, but “2010” featured many characters looking like middle-aged men. I was astounded when I first saw Rodimus Convoy – “Who is this old man?!” (*laughs)
Yoke: That was a bigger shock than the Microman/Diaclone merge. (*laughs) I did attempt to complain to the female boss from Hasbro. I couldn’t speak English so I had to ask the chief of Enterprise division to interpret for me. Sadly, the interpretation was inconsequential. I thought those were the robot versions of young and strong warriors who would never hesitate to risk their own lives – how come they looked like some pale old men who might drop dead any moment anyway? I simply could not accept it. After some negotiations, we got permission to make the toys’ faces different from their character designs.
Oono: That is why those toys have smoother faces with less lines than the initial character design drawings. The cartoon character designs referred to the toys. The earlier designs were too much, they even had dark circles under their eyes for some reason, while Hot Rodimus (Hot Rod) was so neat. (*laughs) Also, there was a highly priced product called “Predaking”, but I was thinking of something much smaller. I never expected each (Animatron/Predacon) would cost 2,200yen! (*laughs)
“The Legend was created in That Moment”
-Tell us about how The “Headmasters” series was born.
Oono: The combination of transformation with another gimmick was a new concept. In fact, Hasbro wanted us to provide them with something new at every meeting, but it was difficult to add more multiple modes than a triple changer, and there was a limit as to how many different combiner variations we could come up with on a regular basis.
Yoke: The idea for Headmasters happened when we had a meeting regarding product development with Hasbro in Tokyo – we had spent many days preparing, and we presented an enormous number of projects. However, it happened that after we had already used up all these ideas, none of the projects we presented was good enough be considered a breakthrough. We eventually ran out of material that day, and some of our superiors told us to gather more ideas by the next day before leaving for dinner. Many of us toughed it out all night, and one of the result was Oono’s Headmasters.
Oono: I was inspired by “Koutetsu Jeeg” (“Steel Jeeg”). The head was always the most noticeable part, and I thought of using that fact. I feared the detachable head might not be a popular characteristic, and suggested a gimmick that a head could turn into an independent figure. Then….
Yoke: The reaction was, “This is amazing!” – he got an instant approval. That was the moment Koujin Oono became legendary. (laughs) I was impressed with his ability as well. Thanks to him, the whole team was spared.
Oono: The indicator gimmick on the chest also worked well. I went as far as making a test mould using our own factory, and when I saw the prototype, I was convinced it was going to be good. Since then, we always name a project that we really want to push “~master”, and that was the case for 10 years or so. (laughs) Targetmasters followed, and a “key” was the motif in its successor, Godmasters (Powermasters) – the problem of the concept was that you couldn’t transform the toy without the Godmaster figure, but I made it unlockable with the release button. The “key” feature was more a part of the background story.
-The Extra large-sized base Transformer Fortress Maximus was a very memorable character from the “Headmasters” series.
Oono: We had gathered some momentum and just ran with it with that one. The momentum is indeed important. (laughs) We couldn’t have made it without the co-operation of Hasbro. Its size and the price were extraordinary and I never expected the domestic release, but my superior had decided to go ahead. It sold quite well in Japan, and I was honoured to have been in charge of such a big product.
Yoke: Fortress Maximus was in fact a part of the same project as Metroplex. It was the large one of the “City Concepts”, in which Metroplex was the smaller example.
-In the next series, “Chojin Masterforce” introduced innovative characters – Pretenders.
Oono: I was astonished at Pretenders. By then, I had already lost count of the shocks I went through since I started working on Transformers. (laughs) I do think it was a great concept, but it was very difficult to realize as toys. Also, there was not an recognized principal character among the lineup and Takara put its own money in for Metalhawk. Unfortunately, Pretenders did not sell well in Japan, and we changed the direction toward robots such as Super Ginrai.
-Around the time that the “Victory” series aired, the Japanese and American markets went completely separate ways.
Yoke: That was decided because of the different directions of marketing.
Oono: In Japan, we are expected to run a TV series for a year in order to market a series, but they can do with only 13 episodes in America. In fact, there were no Transformers TV cartoons in America after “Headmasters”, and we made cartoons exclusively for Japan for 5 years.
Yoke: “Victory” was an unusual TF series with Japanese “heroic robot” flavor.
Oono: Compared to “Masterforce”, which featured a band of warriors, “Victory” was more about one hero. Also, we tried a new packaging style with “Victory”: – in previous series, the toys were packed in vehicle mode and shown in a windowed box, and an illustration of the robot was printed on the box. Star Saber’s packaging had no window and the emphasis was on the illustration of the robot. It was also novel that the commander was not Convoy or Optimus Prime.
-After the TV series finished, what field did you work in?
Oono: The team which was assigned to Transformers was divided into domestic and overseas product teams, but I myself went to work on domestic Yuusha/Brave series products. I came back (to Transformers) during the development of the Movie, and was responsible for a few merchandise.
Yoke: I have continued to work on Transformers. As well as developing with Hasbro, I was also involved in domestic projects.
Oono: I have always enjoyed movies, so when I was brought back to Transformers for the Movie, I felt it was meant to happen. On top of that, I heard the name Spielberg…at first I thought they were kidding me. (*laughs) I was responsible for the 2 protoform figures (TFTM Protoform Optimus Prime and Starscream) and lower priced products, as I was absent from the active desinging side for a long time and thought deluxe class figures might be too much. (*laughs) (note by Sydney: Mr. Oono designed some Bumper Battlers and Fast Action Battlers figures for TFTM 07 line) I was involved until the halfway into the second year.
Yoke: It was very hectic when we were working on the Movie toys. We had just started developing Animated, then the Movie items were added to the task in massive quantities. We brought in every employee who was capable of developing Transformer products, and worked on a pace of one Transformer per week.
-I have heard that you attended some events held abroad such as Botcon. How was the exchange with overseas fans?
Yoke: It was also a personal milestone for me that I could take part in last year’s Botcon in America and Cybertroncon in Shanghai. Though if I stick my head out too often on my own, I fear people would mob me for not bringing Oono along! (*laughs)
“‘More Than Meets the Eye’ Beyond Business”
-I assume people that have grown up with the toys you created are now part of the (product development) team. What is your sentiment on the younger generation?
Yoke: Kobayashi (Hironori Kobayashi) and Hasui (Shogo Hasui) actually mentioned that they loved Transformers and expressed their wish to work on the brand at their job interview. They were the first fans that we recruited to the team. It is not that we intentionally rejected the applicants that liked Transformers until then, but the section did not have any new employees assigned to it. Kobayashi and Hasui were so proud of their “coming out”. (*laughs) However, it just so happened that we recruited Transformer fans at that occasion, and the next time someone who does not like Transformers might be picked. The situation is in fact quite similar at Hasbro, too. All designers and IP group (visuals team) members are now of the Transformers generation and it is impossible to choose (employees) depending on if they like Transformers or not. I hear even many bosses are from the generation that grew up playing with Microman toys.
Oono: I saw Kobayashi’s (MP) Grimlock and Hasui’s new Masterpiece product. They were very proud to show off. (*laughs) Their products were indeed very well made.
-Please tell us your future aspirations.
Yoke: I feel the contents of Transformers have become an existence beyond being merely a business. The wisdom of the many people from different countries who were involved with the brand and the enthusiasm of the fans have given life to Transformers. However, I never even dreamed of Transformers becoming so huge back then. Now that (the brand) has come this far, I believe that it is our mission to answer the fans expectations with even bigger surprises. After all, “More Than Meets the Eye” is the keyword of the brand.
Oono: I joined the company when I was twenty years old and I was always involved in Transformers since then. I consider (Transformers) as a part of my body. I am currently away from the scene, but if there is an opportunity I would like to be a part of it again. Transformers are always on my mind, and even when I am working on a different brand or theme I often imagine it might be more interesting if it transformed. (*laughs*) As Yoke has said now, this (Transformers) needs to keep on evolving further. My ideal is to see the continuous development of new products evolved from the existing Transformers brand as the Transformers franchise continues to grow.