text: Matt Alt
The last days of disco ushered in a period of tumultuous change for the Japanese toy industry. In the early Seventies, a whole array of small firms had sprung up to service the growing, insatiable hunger for diecast toys of animated and live-action characters. By 1983, however, nearly every single one of these bit players Ė Takatoku, Takemi, Bullmark, Nakajima, and even the once-mighty Popy itself Ė had either folded or been absorbed into other companies. The culprit, fittingly enough, was a giant robot warrior known as "Mobile Suit Gundam." And Clover, the toy firm who had played a large part in unleashing the Gundam craze on an unsuspecting industry, would soon be living out the rest of their short corporate life in financial agony for their troubles. Clover was founded in January 1973 by a former section chief of Tsukuda Hobby. Their first toys were vinyl figures based on characters from childrenís educational television shows. Clover wouldn't take on the role of full-fledged sponsor until the 1977 super robot series "Zanbot III," the first independent production by a fledgling animation studio called Nippon Sunrise. The designs for Zanbot III were unmistakably Japanese, featuring a title character that bore a striking resemblance to a suit of samurai armor. Perhaps because of the overall complexity of design, Clover relied on the expertise of a third party, Takara Industries, to help them pull off the complicated engineering required for their first endeavor into the world of diecast character toys. Takara Industries was a manufacturing concern affiliated with world-famous Takara Toys that occasionally "freelanced" their design skills and factory space to outside parties. The show and toys (in particular, the groundbreakingly large "Zanbot Combination Box" deluxe set) were smash hits, and Clover went on to produce a whole host of series with a similar theme, including "Daitarn 3," "Daiojya," and "Tryder G-7". With a series of successes under their belt, it was only natural that Clover would sign on for the sponsorship of yet another show centered around a giant robot: a series tentatively entitled "Gunboy." The designs for Gunboy followed the general trend of Zanbot and Daitarn 3, featuring a giant combining robot with a distinct samurai flavor. Figuring they had another winner on their hands, Clover began designing toys based on these early pre-production drawings. But this time, animation director Yoshiyuki Tomino had grander plans in store for his animated creation. Rather than the standard fare created simply for the purpose of selling toys to young viewers, Tomino planned to push the limits of the genre with an epic "space opera" that focused on human drama and relegated the robots to a sideline role as simple vehicles. By the time the title of the series was finally changed to "Mobile Suit Gundam" late in production, the look of the mechanical characters had evolved quite a bit as well. However, for whatever reason -- probably because work on the molds had already commenced -- Clover elected to stick with their "Gunboy"-based toys. Although they couldn't possibly have known at the time, this would prove to be a major miscalculation. Gundam's (eventual) success centered around the loving realism with which its human and mechanical characters were portrayed, and Clover's clumsy-looking, chrome-plated designs just didn't match what viewers were seeing on-screen. Another problem was becoming rapidly apparent as well. Although previous Sunrise giant-robot shows had been quite successful, Gundam's ratings were average at best. Desperate to revive their investment in the show, Clover began insisting on the insertion of various elements into the Gundam world, such as the combining G-Armor system, that would allow them to more effectively market their toys. Nevertheless, ratings continued to sag -- or so it seemed. An interesting effect was at work in the Gundam fan-base, a brand-new trend that would influence the face of animation and character toy licensing for years to come. As sponsor, Clover measured the success or failure of a show based only in terms of how many toys they had sold. Unlike its predecessors Zanbot and Daitarn, however, Gundam's emphasis on plot over action was attracting a totally new type of animation viewer: older fans. In spite of the fact that Gundamís popularity continued to grow, it was growing in an audience comprised mainly of junior and senior high school students who didnít have much interest in Cloverís blocky toys. Unable to justify any further expenditures as sponsor, Clover pulled the plug on the show after only 43 instead of the originally planned 52 episodes in mid-1979. Big mistake. Gundam fans were just getting warmed up, and began a campaign to bring their favorite show back on the air. Eager to cash in on the enthusiasm, Nippon Sunrise re-cut the television series into three theatrical features, each of which became a smash hit in and of itself. And Clover quickly re-released portions of their Gundam toy series, sensing a chance to recoup some of their investment. In spite of the hoopla surrounding the films, however, Clover's sales remained mediocre. Although their flagship item, the feature-packed Deluxe Combination Set, sold well, the rest of Clover's clunky toys stagnated. On the surface, it seemed that Gundam fans weren't particularly interested in toys of their favorite characters. And that's when the first Gundam plastic model kits hit the shelves. Cheap to produce and manufacture, the plastic models from the Gundam series were a surprise hit. Produced in standardized scales that heightened the sense of realism of the robotic warriors, They first hit Japanese stores in early 1980. Shortages quickly created a feeding frenzy that sent several fans to the hospital, injured in riots to purchase the kits at Tokyo department stores. When it came to Gundam, fans demanded attention to detail, and the most realistic portrayals of the characters were only available as plastic models. Unfortunately for Clover, however, only Bandai had had the luck and foresight to acquire the exclusive license to produce them. Bandaiís Gundam models, with their fresh new take on the portrayal of giant-robot characters, would revolutionize the Japanese character-toy industry. Try as they might to adapt, old-school toy companies found it difficult to make the grade anymore. Clover limped along for several years after the Gundam fiasco, but repeatedly failed to adapt their designs to the demands of the discriminating older toy consumer. For example, in comparison to other contemporary toys of the period, such as Takara's dark and military-themed "Dual Model" toys from the "Dougram" series, many of Clover's "Xabungle" pieces seemed to be childish throwbacks to the super robot era. Release times also began to lag; the deluxe Xabungle Irongear toy didn't hit shelves until the television series had nearly ended, crippling potential sales. And compounding the situation were Clover's poor choices with regards to licenses. From a sponsorship standpoint, 1982's "Aura Battler Dunbine" suffered from much the same problems as Gundam had, and 1983's "Srungle" -- well, the less said about Srungle, the better. Times were changing. Super robots were out; realistic "mecha" were in. Clover's sponsorship of Gundam had made the newly-emerging genre a reality, but their failure to adapt to the changing marketplace was tantamount to signing their own death warrant. Clover folded in late 1983, a relic of the bygone days of disco-tized,sparkly super robot creations.
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