[Alen Yen's ToyboxDX]
[Eau de Alt]

f you've been at this for any length of time, you're probably aware that Japanese character toys generally come in three main "flavors" of ST, DX, and Jumbo. But I'm a sucker for robot toys in oddball sizes, scales, and materials. I love horribly sculpted mini-vinyls most people wouldn't even rescue from a trashcan, let alone pay money for. And I totally dig sleazy, eye-catching plastic toys that dwarf the diecasts, but languish in obscurity all the same. (I like to convince myself that this is because I'm an aesthete, but I'm probably just a cheapskate.) There really is a lot of great stuff to be found in these, er, nether-regions of collecting.

This little strategy actually pays off sometimes. Like several weeks ago, for instance. The lights were down, the candles lit, the smoking jacket on and brandy snifter in hand, the Ebay list scrolling down the screen. Lo and behold, I found a cheap date for the evening: one of the single ugliest portrayals of Gaiking I'd ever seen. In a box labeled "Mechanized Shogun Warrior Zargon," no less. Whatever the psuedonym, I knew I had a winner on my hands. And the auction ended soon -- real soon. Having an extremely short attention span, perhaps especially so when fortified with cheap brandy, this was looking perfect. After the obligatory last-minute "sniper battle" that resulted in my paying fifty dollars more for the piece than I expected (and twenty more than I wanted), plastic love was all mine. Down the hatch.

Gaiking aficionados know that most portrayals of their favorite character tend to flatten out the skull motif on the chest. Not Zargon, though. The chin protrudes at a spectacularly jaunty angle, robbing Gaiking of his ferocity but replacing it with an equally terrifying underbite. The end result is less "samurai skull" than "bulldog." My curiosity piqued by Gaiking's orthodontic makeover, and with a week or two to kill before I actually got the thing, I decided to do a little research into his background.

The toy industry being about as fad-driven as you can find, Popy went through all sorts of new ideas to keep on top of the character-toy scene of the 1970s. One of these seemed like more of a throwback than a step forward: the "MekaRobo" Combattler, unveiled in 1976. The MekaRobo was a battery-operated walker -- basically, a fourteen inch tall, all-plastic version of the tin robots that had been popular a decade earlier. But Popy balanced the retro concept by making the toy totally modular. Everything from the head to the feet could be removed and re-assembled, either alone or with extra parts, in a variety of combinations. They re-tooled some of the parts and released another character toy with the same gimmick: MekaRobo Gaiking. Combattler never got his green card. But Gaiking would eventually see release Stateside, thanks to our friends Mattel, as the aforementioned "Zargon." As intriguing as the whole modular-robot concept sounds to collectors twenty years later, it didn't, apparently, do much for kids of the day. And there the line stopped.

Or so I thought. Actually, that's only where the POPY line stopped. Once I started poking around, it became obvious that a ragtag army of unlicensed, semi-legit, and character-stripped MekaRobos had lurched and crawled their way into nearly every corner of the robot-toy marketplace. Who woulda thunk it? The lowly MekaRobo experiment turned into an industry unto itself. I love these damn things. Every single one of 'em.

Let's look at the legit ones first. Several years after Popy dropped the series, their parent-company Bandai started churning out stripped-down Mekarobo toys for sale as exports. REALLY stripped down -- sold under the thrillingly evocative names of "Red Fighter" and "Blue Fighter," they look like catalog-padding afterthoughts even as antiques. The bodies are tediously monochromatic re-pops of Combattra's body and Gaiking's chest minus the skull, respectively, and festooned with the chunkiest arms I've ever seen. But the heads... Man, the heads. They might have skimped everywhere else, but Bandai sure as hell scored a touchdown with the heads. They're like a generic take on the super-robot aesthetic without directly copying anything that came before. Nice job.

Far weirder things would sprout from these humble beginnings, however. Never ones to dwell on contract issues when giant robots were at stake, the Italians decided to take the MekaRobo concept and run with it as well. Here's their take: "Galaxy Gladiator." Produced in two distinct sticker variations (and undoubtedly more), it's an absolute triumph of copyright infringement. The chest resembles that of the MekaRobo Combattra -- sort of. And the head looks like that of Red Fighter -- sort of. But it's all gloriously hand-painted, and even more, it's got a pair of shooting fists! Man, they just don't make bootlegs like they used to. Bello! Bello, i miei amici Italiani!

Then the Chinese stepped in. Or at least, I think they did. It's tough to tell where some of these variants came from, as the manufacturers undoubtedly wanted to keep things on the down-low. There's versions of Red and Blue Fighters with disk-like chrome heads, half-sized Fighters with their bodies molded directly atop their feet... Bandai even jumped back into the game several years later with a modified Red Fighter called "Motonic." Whether licensed or not, the list is a veritable orgy of "mechanized" plastic play-value, and a testament to the genius-level adaptability of the base design.

And there you have it. Shortly after completing my survey of all things MekaRobo, my Zargon arrived in the mail, underbite and all. For the life of me, I can't fathom the obscurity of the Mekarobo toys in the US and Japan. They're big, they're colorful, they're sturdy. Perhaps vintage fans simply prefer diecast metal robots over plastic. Whatever the case, the industry sure fell head over heels for the damn things, turning them into an undeniable worldwide phenomenon. So put on your smoking jackets. Fill up your brandy snifters. And fire up your auction-program software: with a little luck, there may well be a MekaRobo in your future. Lord knows the Japanese, Chinese, and Italians cranked out enough of them.

[Email Matt]


Eau De Archive:

09/18/01: Lost And Found Ark
05/06/01: The Daiku Diaries
01/01/01: TOTY: VALKYRIE YF-19
12/24/00: Valkyrie Lust Revisited
08/14/00: Yamato's YF-19 Toy
07/08/00: Ain't Life Gran?
06/27/00: West Coast Summit
06/10/00: TBDX Japan!
05/01/00: Mad Hurricane / Toycom Valks
12/22/99: HG Godzilla Toys
12/21/99: Mandarake Madness
12/15/99: Uni-Five Daikyojin
09/19/99: TOKYO SCENE 1999
01/30/99: Magic Box Blues
01/10/99: Shigoto Hajime
01/01/99: Toy of the Year: the Boss!
11/08/98: Green Arrow Grafitti: VOLTES V!
11/08/98: Translation from Hobby Japan...
11/05/98: Die-cast Rennaissance
11/05/98: Enter the Dragon
10/31/98: Kikaider's Long Wait
10/31/98: It's re-issue time, kids!
10/19/98: BOOTY CALL!

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