Japanese Toys and Diecast Robots

on Saturday, October 22, 2005.

Dear Die-cast and Robot fans, and vinyl and Kaiju brothers, Greetings from Steve Agin! Long have I wanted to comment for the record on the amazing world of Japanese Die-cast Character toys of the 1970's and early 1980's but I've just been so busy over the last 15 years it never happened. No time like the present and this is an excellent venue on which to celebrate the Great unsung Japanese Die-cast Character Toy Hobby! Of people, by people, and for people who love these fabulous marvels of the last 40 years and maybe the best toys ever made by anyone.

But I am speaking now of just one part of this great hobby - the diecast! The little brother to Tin and Vinyl giants that have come before and long survived the unique short-lived dynasty of the die-cast (about early 70's to1984) scarcely more than a decade maybe a dozen years - that's all! And in that time the wonders and likes of Popy, Bullmark, Nakajima, Tachemi, Takatoku, Grip, and others produced gems which easily shine in the crown of the greatest toys ever made and, awesomely dwarf virtually all expressions of this form from all other times, cultures, and parts of the world. That is to say, that in my 15 years, I have seen many, many toys and never any die-cast from outside the Japanese realm that could stand on the same shlef with the commonest of
these amazing creations. I will not talk about the specific dating and creato rs of these toys nor will I list each item in the cadre of a particular group, such as listing the Robo-Cons by name or, all the vehicles associated with a Sho-gun Warrior such as Raideen. I mainly want to speak to concept, trend, and nature of these toys that enjoyed such a brief lifespan.
Diapchst Leorob
First, to be specific, there is no other toy with the heft (for its size) of a Japanese character die-cast the sheer pleasure of holding one almost seems a feat of strength and especially joyous in winter deliveries when upon finding a shipment on the back porch they'd retain the chill of the temperature outdoors long after being brought inside. But more important is their functionalism, Tins with there limited mechanical talents are mere toys compared with die-casts and vinyls, noble in their spartan solemnity are about looks and imaginings above all else. But die-cast are toys that are alive, even animated by the promise of hidden attributes and dimensional transformations (even before they were transformable!). Some with swords and other weapons they grasp or, shooting spring-loaded weapons, all with limbs and joints kids could manipulate to better pose them to do battle.

These toys existed in a 'quicksilvery' and mercurial state of flux in which the imagination became corporeal through the dramas they could enact with a little help from a willing accomplice. I have long felt that the Japanese Toy hobby could be divided fairly into 3 main groups: the High-tech Mecha (newest of the 3), these representations mostly in plastic of the more recent series such as Macross and Robotech right up through Gundam and Evangelion are the most influenced by the western technology of the USA since post WWII. Then, the Mythological - the provenance of the superhero robot and somewhat equal parts of western fable (going back to ancient Greek and Roman times) combined with Japanese Samurai tradition fusing together in the best-known anime superhero robots - the Sho-gun Warriors.
And, lastly, (and by no means least but certainly most obscure and least understood in the West) the Whimsical - this is the most purely Japanese, the Japan of isolation from the world in Neolithic and Ancient time when the spiritual, mystical, animistic traditions were strongest and the supernatural was apart of everyday existence - out of these traditions come animated material objects and animals conjoined with inanimate objects like robotic squirrels and kangaroos. Cannonmouth bear and a bulldog that sells newspapers that he prints out of his 'press-mouth' by turning a crank on the side of his head.  These are truly inscrutable oriental beings.

Die-casts are mostly in the latter two categories of toys. Best known by far are the sho-guns, much less known in the west are toy series of Robo-Con, 8-Chan, and Robo-Maru to name a few from the "Whimsical" group. Nowhere is it easier to get a sense of what lovers of these toys feel than by looking at great and milestone examples. Here are some. The toy characters of the 1970's represent characters in both live-action and animation TV series, in some cases, both! Astroboy and Gigantor both best known as cartoon series were both made earlier as live-action TV series (albeit pretty primitive ones) and Tigermask was one that enjoyed both formats very successfully. But the superhero robots of the 70's are mostly anime presentations and as I've said we know the Sho-guns best. Never the less, One of the best character sets or groups ever made into toys was actually made by 2 different companies of less fame than Popy with its Sho-guns, and that was Techaman (aka Tekkaman).
Mech_Robogrs PICT0008 

The great miniature die-cast company Grip made many beautiful toys including some of the sweetest die-cast vehicles in all of sci-fidom but their Techaman toys were eclipsed by two other companies, Tachemi with it's giant (approx.11") hulking Pegas (blue) robot that came with a spring-loaded pilot techaman, shooting flying saucers (from the robot's catapult mouth) AND, a 5" VINYL alien kaiju revealed when opening the Robots legs! Without doubt one of the coolest and most unique robots (or figure toys for that matter) ever made by anyone. The other fantastic company, Nakajima to produce an equally fantastic die-cast Techaman toy did so, in the form of a villain - itself incredibly rare. You can count the number of die-cast villains on one hand and still smoke a cigarette (if you like). "Ganira" is superb! About 5" tall and the only figure toy I remember that is made of die-cast with plastic AND Tin Litho-ed parts! He's a roundish squat affair with "Wolverine" claws that are spring-loaded and extend at the push of buttons. He is two-faced and when you press forward on the back of his head you reveal his tin litho-ed 'other' face. Add to this that he has angelic wings (of plastic) that operate in tandem via gearwork to open and close and you have a nifty hunk of metal in your hand. MuteKing was another animated series - this one combining decidedly zooamorphic (animal) creatures with robotic designs and tendancies in die-cast like, a dog, a fish, and a beetle that were infinitely more nimble and could be manipulated into more positions and guises than a carnival contortionist illustrating tantric antics from the kama-sutra.

But no commentary on the arcane history of Japanese die-cast would be worth anything without mention of two more of the most prodigiously imaginative, inventive, creative, and impacting toy series of this time or any other. One was by Bullmark maybe the single most celebrated name in all of vintage Japanese character toys. It was the the 3 robots known as Diapollon (again from anime). How many of you who know these robots have wondered at the name which undoubtedly heralds and echoes one of the greatest names of all ancient western gods - "Apollo"? The DX (deluxe /ultimate) versions of these three beefy hulking robots (looking quite like linebackers) come apart and re-assemble in the keenest tradition of Japanese "teamwork" as portrayed (as a moral imperative) in almost every Japanese TV superhero robot show. They shed various parts and combine always to form a superior unified entity capable of vanquishing the most terrible opponents. By the way, as an aside, I must salute my favorite die-cast (Popy's) Godaikin Voltes-V who is a national hero in the Philippines owing not only to the ferocious loyalty of filipino kids who were addicted to the TV series but also and mainly because Ferdinand Marcos had the show taken off the air and banned all such Voltes-V toys as he feared that the character would inspire these kids with the revolutionary fervor that might eventually topple his government. Yup, it's a fact!
Anyway, this Diapollon trio august in stature and weight and a true testament to design qualities of the past "bigness" among them, is a true forerunner to the great age of combining and transforming robots and toys still to come, waiting in the future, 5-7 years away,Godaikins chief among them.

And now we come to what might be the seminal and greatest creation in die-cast toy history certainly combining the best design and imagination elements and giving the freest range and encouragement to kids at play. The Ark die-cast series. I have long thought that Ark an obcure if not downright mysterious company was an offshoot, division, or arm of Bullmark (notice the last 3 letters of Bullmark's name) and the missiles for toys made by both companies were sometimes identical. Anyway, this is a series of 6 die-cast monster-robots (immediately combining monsters and robots - not bad right off the bat) and "combining" is what they did. You could take them apart, re-arrange them (something fairly unique to these toys as, other types that came apart and would in future, could for the most part only be re-assembled in the same way!) and re-combine them! AND, you could INTERCHANGE parts from different characters or conjoin them all into mad mutations never before seen. This IS unique. Most of these characters were from the Live-action Ultra-7 show (very popular in Hawaii!).

They are: Red King, Black King, Gomorra, King Joe, the very famous Baltin Seijin, and Mecha-Kong (I have no idea how he got in here). The Kong itself is my favorite just in terms of toyness as he came with the makings of a large cardboard airplane (origami anyone?) which once assembled could be launched from his mid-section via a rubberband. Now, how inasane (or whimsical should I say?) is this? That Kong, that creature beleaguered and finally harried to distraction and destruction from atop the Empire State Building by planes should launch one from his belly? Too Cool.

These toys of consumate design and engineering brilliance finally led to an over-arching ultimate line of die-cast, inflated to gargantuan proportions with the help of plastic infusions like so much silicone implantation but they (unlike their counterparts in breast augmentation) looked good! Great even! What became known as Bandai's (the General Motors of japanese toy companies) Godaikin line is today the best known line of super die-cast robot toys - incorporating robots (about 24 of 'em) from Sentai team shows (like Power Rangers), Sho-gun Warriors, Space Sheriff shows and EVEN Spiderman (as in Japan Spiderman had a robot to help him - ah, technology.

At least until some hardcore Spidey fans, repulsed and angered by the addition of a robot to the original character story line broke into the TV studio and stole the Robot's costume - at least so the legend goes) whose robot's name was "Leopardon" (he transformed from a Leopard type form, zooamorphic stuff again). Unfortunately, owing to the facts that in the early 80's America was suffering terribly from a recession making it impossible to afford toys costing up to almost $100. (T-28), letting alone that we identified Japan's beating our brains out in our auto industry (with superior, less expensive cars) as the reason for our troubles thereby making anything in a Japanese box a least likely candidate for purchase in an American store, the Godaikin line was doomed to failure at least from a financial point of view. That's okay, the Japanese changed it all into plastic, got a somewhat cohesive storyline with new characters, and sold it through Hasbro (an American co.) at a 1/4 of the price and it was dynamite called "Transformers"!

This little ramble is by no means a history or perhaps even any kind of introduction but it is some commentary from the inside. I have been dealing in Japanese Character toys of all kinds and vintages for almost 15 years and have been astounded that the encapsulation of the Die-cast hobby seems to last only 10-12 years and even now with the homage of the Soul of Cho-go-kin line by Bandai, as beautiful as it is, it seems to place this age in the past by creating not at all what was the SOUL of Cho-go-kin (die-cast toys) but rather objets d'arte that enshrine the originals in their own primal innnocence and genius by contrasting these monuments of technical excellence with them. At the same time the Hot Wheels co. has just ended an association with Bandai in which it produced about 60 Japanese character Hot Wheels editions and just like in the Japanese tradition they include everything from live-action and anine (Ultraman & Kamen Rider to SpeedRacer, et. al. all the way to 3 Gerry Anderson pieces as well as the U.S. T.V. AirWolf helicopter and the T.V. KnightRider2000 Pontiac TransAm) to TV Puppetry.

It confounds me that a world toy hobby (Die-cast) of most of a century pursues: Corgi, Matchbox, Hotwheels, Lesney and others with passionate abandon and yet is blissfully unaware of POPY and the whole 70's mad experiment in their chosen medium. I say blissfully because I have dreams of ardent and devoted collectors of this mundane stuff dicovering a commonplace Popy / Mattel edition of Getta-G1 / "Dragun" someday and slitting their wrists when they find out that that is just the lowliest expression of a die-cast subculture that would blow-away easily, the entire rest of the die-cast toys produced throughout the 20th century! Ah well, more for the rest of us. As EBay divides what is left of this little hobby amongst the greedy and starving minions of die-cast lovers around the world I encourage and exhort you all who have not partaken of the sweetness of the heavy metal intoxicant to get some before it is only, "the stuff that dreams are made of".

I hope you like the pics, thanks to Ed [Robot-Japan] and all of you who read through this trudging, and feel free to contact me anytime you have a question, a tale to tell or just need a toy fix. You can check my growing website at www.agintoys.com.

All the best,

908 475-1796

Japanese Toys and Diecast Robots

Share Article