Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination – Synchro

By your powers combined…
Playmates, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, 1994

Even from the early days of toys, toymakers have known that if pieces are interchangeable (if two dolls can wear the same clothes, if two action figures can hold the same accessories, etc), then that will drive sales.  In the 1980s, however, toymakers discovered that they could leverage still more sales by having toys that combine.  Toys like Voltron, the combiners of the Transformers, and a litany of others from that era would become so popular as to almost demand that future toylines incorporate this feature.

Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad did not disappoint.

Servo was the main hero of the show, and Xenon his mighty-if-bulky companion.  However, by initiating the proper program, the two figures could combine into Synchro – Tracto became the legs, Borr became the arms and shoulders, while Vitor would become the torso and head.


Appearance – 5 out of 5
The Servo toy didn’t look quite as agile as the character in the show.  The same was true for Xenon’s toy compared to his show counterpart.  This was not the case with Synchro.  The character looks IDENTICAL to the figure in the show.
Moreover, the figure is visually very balanced.  The repetition of colors is nicely done.  Most combiners have really garish color schemes (much love, Voltron, but I’m looking at you), but Synchro is really heroic yet understated.

Construction – 3 out of 5
The combined parts of Xenon and Servo don’t really detract or add to the stability of Synchro.  Servo’s mobility really isn’t that impinged by adding Xenon’s components onto him like power armor.  Likewise, Xenon was only adequately sturdy, which carries over to Synchro.

Movement – 3 out of 5
Much like the construction, the combined parts don’t really hinder or improve the whole.  Synchro can’t really move anymore than Servo, but his broader feet and thicker legs (thanks to the addition of Tracto) means the character is less likely to tip over (even with the added weight on the shoulders).  The figure loses some mobility in the legs and in the head, but shoulder and arm movements aren’t really impeded.  This isn’t that big of a deal with Synchro as it is with Servo because the purpose of the character is that hand-to-hand fighting is largely over and it’s overkill time.

Extras – 2 out of 5
Because this is a combined form of two other toys, there are no additional pieces that aren’t included in the previous sets of Servo and Xenon.  Servo’s wrist communicator/watch comes off for the transformation and has no place on the Synchro toy.  However, while Xenon’s fists couldn’t hold Servo’s weapons, Synchro can hold swords, axe, and shield alike.

Packaging – 3 out of 5
Because Synchro was never sold as a set, his packaging is largely isolated to what was promoted on Xenon and Servo’s packaging.  A plackard in yellow with black writing appears on the Xenon toy, talking about how Xenon and Servo can ‘samuraize’ (it was the 90s; don’t hate) to become Synchro.  A nice, vivid flourish to otherwise very solid packaging.


Overall – 4 out of 5
Just as Xenon’s 2 felt a little stingy, this feels a little generous, but I just can’t deny how incredibly satisfying this toy is, both to play with and to dismantle and reassemble.  It’s a shame the toy didn’t combine with its counterpart Drago (more on him next week) into a super-superhuman samurai, but Synchro is a solid toy all on its own, an impressive capstone to collecting the series.

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination – Beyond the Boundary

Beyond The Boundary
written by Taichi Ishidate, directed by Jukki Hanada, produced by Kyoto Animation, available on Crunchyroll

Supernatural horror meets teen life

To describe an anime series as ‘a supernatural high school drama’ is sort of like saying ‘the one with the catgirl’ or ‘the one with the robots’.  A whole lot of the medium falls into that very vague category.  And that seems particularly appropriate to describe Beyond the Boundary because, on the surface, nothing about this show is outstanding.  Nothing is particularly original.  In so many ways, this is a rudimentary, plain-face, by-the-numbers anime.  And that’s part of why it’s so good.

Art goes in cycles.  And it always returns to its most lucent core.  In rock & roll, that’s simple garage-band rock.  MC5’s Kick Out the Jams was followed a decade later by What I Like About You by the Romantics, followed a decade later by Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, followed a decade later by Are You Gonna Be My Girl by Jet, and so on.  In the intervening years, a lot of genres and styles come and go, but rock always comes back to simple guitar-drums-vocals.

Anime is the same way.  There are a handful of anime stories are simple, direct, easy, and entertaining.  Boy-finds-mecha is one, but the nigh-superheroic magical protagonist dealing with day-to-day life set against the backdrop of a growing supernatural threat, is just as common.  In the wake of the anime industries struggles at the dawn of the new millennium, it’s no surprise that many studios are returning to classic form to rediscover themselves.  And if Beyond the Boundary is any indication, they’re in good shape.


Story – 3 out of 5
Akihito Kanbara, the head of the Literary Club at school, is half-youmu (reflection of human fear, jealousy, greed, blah blah, you get the idea).  Mirai Kuriyama is a shy socially-awkward Spirit Warrior from a cursed and outcast clan.  Mirai attacks the immoral Akihito daily, but that doesn’t stop him for falling for the bespectacled beauty, thanks in part to his glasses fetish.  They call a truce and Akihito walks the seemingly-inept (but powerful) Mirai through life as a Spirit Warrior, including attempts to bring down some youmu that haunt their city.  This leads into a larger plot involving several different super-powerful youmu and the complex inner workings of the Spirit Warrior Society.

There’s really nothing here that will surprise even a casual viewer of anime.  The plot is exceptionally by-the-numbers, down to the episode where the heroes have to form an impromptu pop band and sing a rooftop concert.  But while there are no surprises, it lets the show focus on executing the elements really well.  So while there are no surprises, there is a lot of entertainment and creativity in the otherwise run-of-the-mill story.

Art – 4 out of 5
While the story is by-the-numbers, the art is a cut above.  The characters are all very believable and well-drawn, with more realistic proportions and designs than seen in other anime.  There are no ‘super-deformed, chibi’ comedic breaks and while there’s a lot of humor, it’s in the banter and dialogue, not the imagery.  The backgrounds are gorgeous and, again, the character designs are understated by excellently done.

Animation – 4 out of 5
Like the art, the animation is a cut above the rest.  The movements are smooth, the deceptively-numberous action sequences are very fluid, and the cinematography is well-planned and laid-out.  It’s not truly outstanding, but it’s better-than-average and far above ‘merely adequate’.

Characters – 4 out of 5
Much like the plot, the art, and the animation, the characters aren’t particularly brilliant or innovative, but they are just very well executed.  Akihito is a legitimately and demonstratively nice guy (unlike many anime we’re the protagonist is just referred to as ‘nice’), but isn’t an out-and-out saint.  He gets frustrated with friends, even Mirai who he adorably has a crush on.  Mirai is socially awkward, but has a blog where she gripes about every little thing.  The idiosyncrasies of the characters are all classic anime stuff, but are just executed endearingly and very well.

Acting – 4 out of 5
Based off the Japanese voice cast, the acting is very solid.  There’s very little ‘characterization’ in the voices, meaning the voice actors don’t seem to be striving to create some dynamic and unique sound for the characters.  Instead, the characters sound like normal people, with normal voices, and express their emotions with normal inflections.  There’s no effort to be dynamic and memorable, merely really good.  And the performances are just that: really good.


Overall – 4 out of 5
This show is a good example of what trying to be good, rather than great, can result in.  It’s a solid anime offering that delivers in every aspect.  It isn’t a GREAT anime, but it’s just a really solid and entertaining one that pretty much anyone can enjoy.  Recent anime have tried too hard (see: Kill la Kill) or have gone out of their way to be different for the sake of being different.  Here’s a good example of getting back to basics and delivering a solid hit.

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Magical Girl Madoka

Puella Magi Madoka Magica
written by Gen Urobuchi, directed by Akiyuki Shinbo, produced by Atsuhiro Awakami and Studio Shaft, released 2011, available on Crunchyroll

Sailor Moon meets unmitigated sorrow

Much like Mobile Suit Gundam brought real physics to the mecha genre and Neon Genesis Evangelion brought real gravity to the characters in the sentai genre, so does Magical Girl Madoka bring real weight to the thoughts and actions of the magical girl genre.

Let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way right now: this is an unbelievably sad and depressing story.  Nothing about it is uplifting and every instance where you think good is triumphing, more sorrow hits you like an out-of-control truck.  The world is vivid and gorgeous in a ‘soon shall there be nothing’ sort of way.  The characters are all rich and tangible, which makes their inevitable death – as tragic as they are sudden – all the more gut-wrenching.  It’s nothing but an endless bombardment of sorrow, heartache, and depression.  And it’s so, so good.

Story – 5 out of 5
Madoka Kaname makes a deal with a special, talking cat in order to become a magical girl (see: Moon, Sailor).  In doing so, she becomes a chromatically-distinctive superheroine who is tasked with stopping witches, malevolent beings who try to ensnare the souls of humans.  Right off the bat, things are not what they seem.  There’s dissension among the magical girls in the city of Mitakihara.  Distrust runs rampant as more and more is learned about the witches, and their connection to the magical girls.

Very little more can be shared about the plot of Madoka because each surprise builds not just on the previous surprise, but also on the emotional impact of each surprise.  Suffice to say, the building darkness you see in the first few episodes is only the tip of the iceberg of the monstrosity to come.

Art – 4 out of 5
Madoka has gorgeous art, to be sure.  But it also includes really creative and deceptively unnerving art sequences when the magical girls encounter the witches.  The ‘witch sequences’ have all the feeling of fractured reality, with cut-and-paste imagery, stop-motion, claymation, etc, all of which the animated magical girls are operating within.

The witches sequences aside, the series of subtle in its melancholic beauty.  Every single frame can practically be a work of art unto itself.

Animation – 4 out of 5
Just as the art is gorgeous, the animation keeps step.  The witches sequences are definitely innovative and visually masterful, but the ‘ordinary world’ segments are just as beautifully drawn, painting the world of Madoka as haunting and quietly unnerving.

Characters – 3 out of 5
The characters in Madoka Magica are all a little underdeveloped, but that’s primarily because they spend most of their time trying to survive the psychological car wreck their world becomes.  As is becoming common in modern anime, the main character is often the least developed, with the supporting cast getting the more colorful and interesting characteristics.  While the characters aren’t quite as rich as other series, they are still firmly developed and will seem real to any and all viewers.

Acting – 4 out of 5
Having watched the Japanese dub, I cannot speak for the American voice actors.  The Japanese voice actors were all very capable and delivered some truly sterling performances.  Chiwa Saito, the voice actress of Homura Akemi, deserves special mention for delivering a stellar performance of a magical girl being driven mad with grief.

Overall – 4 out of 5
This is so close to perfect, I feel bad not giving it a five.  This is a show that needs to be mentioned in the same breath as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Twin Peaks, and the film Children of Men.  If it weren’t for how unabashedly depressing it was, this would qualify as a true masterpiece.  Few shows come along with this level of psychological impact and this level of brilliance.  This is one of the best anime series to come along in a long, long time.  Do yourself a favor and watch it.
Just, for the love of god, don’t watch it alone.

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Grimlock (Generations)


Him No Bozo, Him King

Hasbro, Transformers Generations Toyline, 2006

20100901 - Grimlock


Nope, you’re still not reading that wrong.  And yep, we’re reviewing Grimlock again.  This time, our leader of the Dinobots comes to us in the form of the Generations toyline which was a reimagining of the original line and characters, 25 years later.

I think this evaluation is important because it says a lot about toys have evolved in the last quarter-decade.  If we look at the Transformers as they first arrived and what we have now, it speaks volumes about the fandom and the world said fandom inhabits.




For 25 years, Hasbro has been producing Transformers toys.  Believe it or not, there’s never been a point when Transformer toys haven’t been in production and available.  Through the dark days of the Gen-two era, through the beacon that was Beast Wars and then to the nightmare that was Beast Machines, and into Robots in Disguise and the Unicon Trilogy, and finally to the arrival of the live-action movie, Transformers have remained a part of the fabric of entertainment.

As was en vogue at the time, it was a return to the 80s, with 80s shows, movies, and concepts rising to the forefront of entertainment.  It was an era rife with relaunches and reimaginings.  And Transformers was no different.  And so we got the Generations toyline.



Appearance – 4 out of 5

It’s not going to surprise anyone if I describe this toy is beautiful.  It elegantly captures the original design and appearance of Grimlock – in both robot and dinosaur mode – and then him to the next level.


Construction – 2 out of 5

While there is nothing poor about this toy, it is a little lacking in the materials.  The plastic feels a little light and there are some movements that require a bit of elbow grease which, with the light construction, can give one pause about doing possible damage.  Also, some joints don’t really lock into place so it’s too easy for them to swing open with even the slightest movement.


Movement – 4 out of 5

Speaking of movement, this thing is a charm.  Beautifully done, this figure is (already referenced above) incredibly poseable and comes with an array of joints that correspond with the anatomy.  Both robot and dinosaur modes can move fluidly and naturally.


Extras – 3 out of 5

The toy comes with two extras: a tail/sword weapon of some bizarre design and a gun with a blade (which is absent from the photo above, sorry).  Both of these fit into the character’s hands in robot mode and fit onto the figure in dinosaur mode.


Packaging – 4 out of 5

I know; I have a love affair with Hasbro and its Transformers packaging.  And you know what, the Generation’s line didn’t let us down.  Beautifully illustrated, this accentuated the newness of the toys’ designs while still harkening back to the original line.



Overall – 4 out of 5

This is a fun toy to play with that’s well-built and pretty sturdy.  Combine with that its familiarity to the fans that have loved the franchise since the start and you’ve got a great toy.  If there was any mistake to level against this toy, it should be obvious: it should be bigger.  It’s Grimlock, afterall!

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Grimlock (Animated)


Him No Bozo, Him King

Hasbro, Transformers Animated Toyline, 2007



In the wake of the live-action Transformers movie, Hasbro had a real problem.  On the one hand, they had a very popular and very successful movie on their hands.  On the other hand, they had a lot of jilted fans that were a little annoyed at the liberties taken with their favorite franchise.  Never ones to look back, Hasbro launched their Transformers Animated line in conjunction with their new animated series that drew from every source prior as well as becoming its own entity.  However, as has been stated before, Hasbro knows where its bread is buttered and they went to great lengths to make sure the fans didn’t feel left out on this one.




            Transformers Animated was a colorful and somewhat more kid-friendly version of the original Transformers series.  The characters are a little bit more outlandish and extreme than their Gen-1 counterparts, but they also benefited from superior character development, event progression, and all the overall progress that cartoons and animation have enjoyed in the intervening decades.  And while the plots of most of the individual episodes tended to be a little on the simple side, the overarching season and series plots were more ambitious and powerful, partly due to the anime invasion in the late 1990s and 2000s.  As a result, Grimlock in Animated is like a caricature of his Gen-1 self; louder in almost every sense of the word.  However, like all good art, through this exaggeration we see even more clearly elements of the character we know and love.



Appearance – 4 out of 5

The Grimlock figure is very well made and beautifully represents the character from the show.  Like the character from the show, it clearly harkens back to the original character from Gen-One, all the way down to the nigh-identical transformation sequence.  The character is nicely colored and manages to capture the somewhat whimsical look of the character from the series.  The only real complaint I have is that seams and screws are way too obvious.  There’s pretty much no way for the character to stand that you don’t see at least a few reminders of how the toy was put together.


Construction – 3 out of 5

The figure is relatively solid in its construction and the plastic is a bit on the weighty side, though I wouldn’t be too quick to apply the adjective ‘rugged’.  All the joints are sturdy, but there’s still a certain sense of fragility to the figure that isn’t as common to Transformers as one would first suspect.  It feels a little light in the hands and the limbs feel a little too disproportionate for their weight distribution.  There’s no clear issue with the construction, but it’s just not quite there to make it solid and well done.


Movement – 5 out of 5

This figure is beautifully mobile.  It’s got every joint you need and none of the ones you don’t.  There isn’t a pose this figure can’t take.  The head turns, the jaw of the T-Rex head opens and closes, the shoulders are ball-joints, there’s a waist, and more.  The only thing it’s lacking are ankles and you really won’t miss them.  Seriously, both forms are extremely mobile and natural to move.  The toy even has opposable thumbs for crying out loud!


Extras – 2 out of 5

Grimlock comes with only one extra, but it’s a doozy.  He comes with a flaming sword that (in theory) doubles as a gust of flames from his mouth.  The sword is appropriately large for a thug like Grimlock and it even has little sprouting flames that pop out by putting it in his hand.  In dinosaur form, the sword is supposed to stick into his mouth to simulate his fiery breath.  The reality is not so cool as the sword barely fits in his mouth and when it does, it still looks like a sword stuck in his mouth.  A for effort, but a D- for execution.


Packaging – 3 out of 5

The Transformers Animated packaging was quiet nice and bordered on excellent, but it just didn’t quite make it.  Each package came with a picture of the figure on the front, a plastic window to see the figure inside, and an explanation of the character’s powers and personality on the back.  Unfortunately, the explanation was a little sparse and there was no real explanation of the story itself.  Other characters were presented, but they seemed haphazardly chosen and represented only a fraction of the available line.  Overall, it was good packaging and well-done, but not anything to write home about.



Overall – 4 out of 5

This is a fine example of a very decent toy.  While it’s definitely lacking in some notable areas, overall it’s still a well-made toy that’s a lot of fun to play with.  The transformation movements are smooth and make sense, the figure is very easy to pose and will hold poses without much effort.  I don’t think this is the most sterling example of a Four, but it’s simply too well made and too much fun to play with to reside with the mediocrity of a Three.