Nakajima's Psychedelic Astro-Mu Five Series
by Matt Alt
additional pictures courtesy of
Roy Ng's Grace Oriental
Ah, the poetry of mid-Seventies Japanese toy companies on the prowl. Hungry for revenue, they stalked the rapidly-evolving character toy market like predators on the hunt. And every once in a while, when the marketplace seemed as dry and foreboding as the African savanna in the dead of summer, desperation set in. A mighty firm like Popy or Bandai could hope to weather such conditions, subsisting on internal reserves and biding their time like patient lions waiting for prey. But what of those not blessed with the reserves of the lion?
What of the turtle?
Yes, the turtle: the Nakajima Manufacturing Company, to be precise. Or "Nakajima of the Turtle-Mark," as millions of Japanese children knew their toy-manufacturing operation in the 1970s.
The year is 1973. Nakajima had already proven their mettle with a spectacular run of Gatchaman, Rainbow Man, and Tiger Mask figures, having produced what would become some of the most sought-after vinyl toys on the planet. But where to go next? Buying those pesky character licenses cut into the already meager profit margins in the cut-throat character toy marketplace, but kids were hungry for more. Sentai shows were incredibly popular, but Popy had pretty much sewn up the licensing on that little pot o' gold. What to do, what to do...
(I cannot confirm if Nakajima management was actually ON mescaline at the time of their next step. They might have been coming off a three-day drunk. Or had a religious vision. I don't know. It's just that as an aficionado of all toys Japanese, the pure genius of what Nakajima created boggles the puny confines of my toy-addled brain.)
They created their OWN sentai series.
Their own INSANE sentai series. Hell, who needs a TV show? Not Nakajima! In fact, without the constraints of a TV censor to hold them back, Nakajima was able to produce some seriously twisted designs. I'm talking about the all-original, Nakajima-Manufacturing-Company-spawned, totally demented adventures of the one and only ASTRO-MU FIVE team! From their psychedelic clear-sparkly bodies to the unsettling bio-mechanical theme running throughout the entire line, the only thing UN-original about the Astro-Mu Five "action boys" was the fact that they were based on the tried-and-true five-man Sentai team concept. Vaguely. Whoever designed these babies must have been coming down off a SERIOUSLY bad trip, as the designs are so nightmarish that it's really difficult to separate the "bad" guys from the "good."
Having designed and named their team, Nakajima was missing only the fact that their characters had no story. An easily remedied problem: they simply footed the bill for a comic serial to be published in Boken-Oh, a popular boys' comic magazine. They even published a record-single of the "Astro-Mu Five Theme," furthering the charade that this was anything more than a thinly-veiled, ingenious ploy to sell more toys. Once again proving their capitalistic acumen, Nakajima also included tiny pamphlets containing selected comic stories in the packaging of each toy. The black and white comics were hastily-drawn and had plots as thin as a Z-grade porno film, but Nakajima had helpfully stuffed half of each booklet with glorious, full-page color ads for other toys in the line-up. In fact, the ads were FAR MORE INTERESTING THAN THE COMIC ITSELF! Sneaky.
The story: in the year 20XX, the Astro-Mu Five team defends the solar system from the invading Dark Badou Aliens. Using their "secret base located hundreds of meters below the moon's surface," they transform into Ultra-esque heroes and do battle with Devil Badou and his evil minions. Astro-Mu Five consists of (duh) five characters with hokey names: Ultra Earth, Gold Vena, Saturn Ace, Mars Man, and Jupiros. Nakajima produced a "standard" six-inch vinyl for each team member (and one of Devil Badou as well).
The design of the toys was as amazing as the concept itself. Each six-inch figure featured a pipe cleaner skeleton clearly visible through the funky clear-sparkly vinyl body -- a highly underutilized effect in the world of vinyl figures. Coupled with the fact that each figure had removable masks and incorporated a pulley mechanism to allow them to slide along a taut string, you're looking at some seriously cool toys. Nakajima also produced a disturbingly organic-looking, spring-powered, spark-throwing tank called Muta Z (a fire safety hazard the likes of which is probably illegal these days), a "battle set" of half-size vinyls paired up with bad guy figures, and a set of five tiny vinyl team members with friction-powered sparking vehicles (what IS it with these guys and fire, anyway?)
This is all fine and dandy, but what self-respecting sentai team would dare venture forth into the world without a super-robot? Enter Capsule Robo G, the Jumbo Machinder of the series. Although somewhat minimalist, it's a striking piece: a rivet-mottled body with a head reminiscent of a Mexican wrestler's mask and bristling with missile launchers. Nobody made 'em like Nakajima, and Capsule Robo is an instant stand-out in any lineup of Jumbo toys. But that's not all. Not only did it come with a pair of Jumbo-stompable bad guy figures, but it doubled as a powered suit for the team members! Any of the six-inch Astro-Mu Five vinyl figures can be inserted into Capsule Robo by simply removing and replacing his head. (Hence the "capsule" in the "robo.") Talk about visionary! This was a first in the world of Jumbo Machinder toys, and it hasn't been duplicated since.
In keeping with Jumbo tradition, Nakajima faithfully produced a single arm attachment for Capsule Robo, the not-so-imaginatively named Gun Hand. Capsule Robo's arms were also standardized so as to accept Popy XX and ZZ-series Jumbo Machinder arm attachments as well, doubling the owner's pleasure. And to round out the satisfaction, Nakajima sold a missile-firing vinyl Capsule Robo Junior, too. Man, these guys were PROLIFIC!
Alas, it's a Darwinian struggle for survival in the wild jungle that is the Japanese toy marketplace. Only the largest and fittest toy-producers continued to thrive until modern times, and despite their drive and vision, the toy division of Nakajima went the way of the dinosaur. It's really a shame that a firm as visionary as Nakajima didn't make it, but what they left behind rank as some of the most beautiful pieces in the toy history of ANY country.
The surprising thing is that, with the exception of Capsule Robo G, these toys are about as obscure as they come. Although they're not particularly rare, they're not easy to find, either: mentioning "Astro-Mu Five" to the average collector is likely to be greeted with a hollow stare (actually, that's probably due to their mortgaging their personality to afford more toys.) Whatever the case, there's no question that the nightmarish world of Astro-Mu Five made quite an impression on Japanese kids -- and there's no denying the fact that some of the most original toy pieces were made by tiny, desperate firms like "Nakajima of the Turtle-mark." The toys are out there -- find 'em if you can!
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