Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Kill la Kill

Kill la Kill
Produced by Studio Trigger, directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, written by Kazuki Nakashima, released 2013, available on Crunchyroll

FLCL meets Kill Bill

There’s really no way to concisely describe Kill la Kill without some combination of ‘X meets Y’.  It’s like Looney Tunes meets Street Fighter.  The Brave Little Tailor meets Fist of the North Star.  Brave meets Unforgiven.  Sailor Moon meets Blame.  It is simultaneously hyper-violent and child-like.  It’s overly sexualized and yet also quite tame.  The entire show seems based on polar opposites and the gravity and energy between them.

The story is that our heroine, Ryuko Matoi, has come to Honnouji Academy, to find out who killed her father.  The academy, which is run by the student council, seems to run the entire nation as well.  The student council are all equipped with Goku Uniforms, which grant them idiomatically appropriate superpowers.  Ryuko finds her own super outfit (which she names Senketsu) and sets out on an overly-complicated process to topple the student council.
Story – 3 out of 5
The story is thoroughly formulaic, but it provides the necessary framework to give us a very colorful world.  It’s a paint-by-numbers revenge-by-way-of-martial-arts-tournament sort of tale, but with a spunky female protagonist and a thematic set of enemies that are all four-color enough to feel more like comic book villains than manga enemies.

Art – 3 out of 5
The art is at the same time mediocre and deceptively good.  The characters are illustrated very cartoony and very exaggerated, but it’s done so with an eye towards consistency.  This is a good example of knowing how to break the rules properly.  The hyper-kinetic character designs are done more as parodies of themselves than overcompensation or exaggeration.

Animation – 4 out of 5
This isn’t the best animation out there, but it’s up there.  The movements are smooth and well-executed, giving the drawn figures incredibly believable actions.  Multiple times per episode, there’s a stunning show that blows one’s mind and throughout at beautifully-done shots that are parodies of their own troupes (much like the character designs themselves).

Characters – 2 out of 5
This is, sadly, where things fall apart.  The characters have very little depth.  Even the main character Ryuko is exceptionally two-dimensional.  She seems to only have three emotions: amused (usually by her friend Mako or her family), cocky, or enraged.  Nothing else comes up.  No variation in behavior or situation ever seems to come up for any character and growth is pretty much out of the question.

Acting – 3 out of 5
Listening to the Japanese cast, the best that can be said was that the performances were all adequate.  There were no stellar performances, but then, the script (and the story in general) didn’t give the actors much to work with.  This show is all about the visuals, and that regrettably shows in the acting.

Overall – 3 out of 5
This show is okay, erring on the side of entertaining.  It seems too much of a stretch to call it good, but it is funny (especially for the sharp-eyed fan; there are a lot of little jokes in the background).  It very competently hits all the notes and has just enough richness to the setting to pass for substance in the narrative.  There’s nothing remarkable about the show, but it’s definitely good for quite a few giggles.

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Starscream (War Within)

Transformers War Within Titanium Heroes toyline, by Hasbro, released 2007

The Original Backstabber In His Original Form

In the beginning, Hasbro made their Transformers toys using die-cast steel.  And it was good.  Then, they moved to the cheaper and more manageable plastic.  And it was…meh.  And then, on a glorious day, they released a Transformers line based around using the beloved die-cast construction.  And it was good.  Very, very good.
For the four of you who aren’t familiar with the background of the Transformers (and I am referring to the animated series, not the live-action movies; the live-action movies are generally regarded as, at best, really ambitious fan fiction, with all the preferences and prejudices that go along with that designation), the Autobots and Decepticons were damaged in their crash landing onto Earth and were given the forms of earth vehicles (jets, cars, trucks, etc).  But in the first episode of the animated series, ‘More Than Meets The Eye’, we got a glimpse of a few of the Cybertronian forms that they original held, forms there were quite appropriately alien.

Probably none of these forms has been more popular than the ‘flying pyramids’ (formally called ‘Tetrajets’) that would become the Decepticon jets (formally called ‘Seekers’).  And there is probably no Decepticon, jet or otherwise, more notorious than Starscream.  The eternal opportunist, Starscream’s propensity to run his mouth is rivaled only by either his cowardice or his ability to back up his smack-talking (his abilities varied WIDELY from episode to episode in the animated series).  However, given that he openly and frequently told his superior (Megatron) about he was going to usurp power from him – and still lived to tell about it – it’s considered canon that he could backup his smack more often than not.

Starscream has been a perennial favorite, arguably as popular as any other character with the exception of Optimus Prime, and has been a prominent figure in just about every incarnation of the series.  So when the fans had a chance to get a die-cast toy of him in his original Cybertronian form, well, that was just too good to pass up.
Appearance – 2 out of 5
This a visually compelling piece, no doubt about it, but it’s not entirely sure what it’s supposed to be.  Both the robot form and the vehicle form look very little like figure from the show or even like other incarnations of the character.  Really, all we have to go on in knowing this is Starscream is the color scheme.  Likewise, the vehicle mode is especially problematic because, not only does it not look like the flying pyramids from the show, aside from a vague triangular shape in general, it doesn’t even look all that much like a pyramid of any kind.

On top of that, I have one personal complaint and that is the toy’s face.  While the head is nicely detailed and well-sculpted…it just doesn’t look like Starscream.  It looks…I don’t know, like Starscream’s inbred twin brother or something.

Construction – 5 out of 5
The toy is very well put together and, since it’s die-cast, it’s pretty much the very definition of tough.  Seriously, you could sharpen this toy into a knife if you wanted, and if you continued to call it Starscream, it would be the awesomest knife ever.  In all honesty, this toy is practically the yardstick of durability and ruggedness.  It does have a critical flaw, however, which is discussed below.

Movement – 3 out of 5
Scoring the movement category is a little tricky because while the toy is overall quite mobile (elbow and shoulder joints, rotating wrists, hip, knee, leg, and toe joints; hell, even the head turns), the joints don’t really feel too sturdy.  This is because while the toy is constructed of mostly die-cast, some parts (namely the joints) are necessarily made of plastic.  The problem with this is that the plastic is not nearly as strong as the metal and its there that we learn an ugly little truth about mecha in real life.  In order for the joints to support the weight of the limbs, they have to be remarkably strong (read: rigid).  This means that in order to move the joint, a great deal of strength has to be used (read: force).  And that amount of force means that you constantly feel like you could snap a limb off at any time.

Extras – 1 out of 5
The toy comes with a small stand that is identical to every other toy in the series, save for the nameplate that’s unique to each figure. Other than that, there’s nothing.  No clip-on weapons, no handheld weapons (since the hands are closed fists, that probably goes without saying), nothing.

Packaging – 4 out of 5
The packaging for this entire toy line was very well done.  It emphasized the die-cast element and gave us a quick bio for the character.  Franchise and narrative history was lacking, meaning that this toy was clearly meant for collectors and long-time fans, but that does little to detract from the packaging.  Each package as distinctive and it was quite obvious even without seeing the figure inside to tell whom it was that resided within.


Overall – 3 out of 5
This is a really nice toy that is very sturdy, tactilely very satisfying, and is overall just a beautiful product.  Sadly, it only passingly looks like Starscream or a Tetrajet.  The joint strength is also a real problem.  Still, this is a nice toy for fans but they’re about the only ones who will have an interest in it.

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Starscream (Generation One)

Transformers toyline, by Hasbro, released 1984

Backstabber Extraordinaire

Up there with Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, Starscream is one of the most iconic characters in the Transformers franchise.  The perennial ‘dangerous coward’, Starscream is overly ambitious, dangerously self-serving, and just flatout a two-faced liar.  However, he’s also resourceful, deceptively intelligent, and extremely capable at all matters of warfare and carnage.  It’s not surprise that there’s been almost no version of Transformers in the franchise’s 30 year run that hasn’t included Starscream front and center.
He began as a fairly generic F-15 fighter jet that transformed into ‘Jet Robo’ in the Diaclone toyline in Japan.  When he was brought to the US by Hasbro, he went by multiple names initially – including Ulchtar and the Silver Snake – before he was christened Starscream by Bud Budiansky.  The character would come to life when voiced by the nigh-legendary Chris Latta, a performance that has informed and rooted the character’s depiction to this day.

From the start, Starscream was going to be trouble.  In ‘More Than Meets The Eye’ (the first episode of Transformers), Starscream tells Megatron to his face on three distinct occasions that he’ll usurp power from him.  It becomes so common that one begins to question if this is just Starscream’s form of polite greeting.  But unbridled ambition aside, Starscream is undoubedly one of the most feared of all the Decepticons, rivaled perhaps only by Megatron himself.  The show would demonstrate Starscream to be a scientist as well as a warrior: he’s shown to be an early explorer of Earth before the arrival of the Ark, inventing a machine that brainwashes humans, and even creating the combiner team the Combaticons.  Non-animated depictions of the character would build on his dangerousness and intelligence.  The US comics especially would portray Megatron as pitting Starscream against Soundwave and Shockwave, essentially trying to use them to counterbalance the danger each one represented to his rule.

The toy of Starscream remains iconic as one of the original Transformer toys.  The Starscream/Jet Robo mold was used as the basis for seven different characters in Gen 1 (beyond Starscream, it was used for Skywarp, Thundercracker, and Sunstorm as well as the basis for Ramjet, Thrust, and Dirge) and it’s also been reproduced/rereleased largely unchanged more than a dozen times in the past thirty years, making it one of the most enduring toy designs in modern history.
Appearance – 3 out of 5
The toy looks more appropriate as a jet than it does in robot mode.  The robot mode looks well enough like the character from the show and the comics, but feels very stiff.  The jet mode, however, is an excellent reproduction of an F-15.  This would be a common trend with the original Transformer toys, in that the vehicles were spot-on while the robot forms would look a little off (the result of the characters’ designs changing (sometimes radically) for the animated series).

Construction – 4 out of 5
Two words: Diecast.  Steel.
That’s right, this badboy was made out of metal.  And while it is true that parts of it were plastic, specifically the wings and the tailfins, it’s hard not to be impressed with the heft and weight of this toy.  This wasn’t a toy you had to worry about hurting; this was a toy you had to worry about hurting you.  It was solid, strong, and incredibly tough.  They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Movement – 1 out of 5
And we hit the big letdown.  For as much as I/we/everybody loves Transformers, and for as much as I/we/everybody idolizes Gen-1, it’s very easy to forget these were not very good toys.  The vehicle mode was fantastic, make no mistake.  The problem was the robot mode could barely move.  There were two joints: two shoulder joints that rotated and turned (and the turning was meant more as a function of the transformation process).  That’s it.  No rotating head, no hips, no knees, nothing.

Extras – 2 out of 5
The figure comes with two fists (needed for robot mode), two spring-powered rockets (usable in either mode), wings (usable in either mode), and tailfins (usable in either mode; in robot mode as stabilizers because, without them, the figure would fall over).  It’s unfortunate that there’s no storage space or the like for the fists in jet mode, since this makes losing them very easy.  It’s also unfortunate that the fists cannot hold anything, such as allowing them to hold weapons from other Transformers figures.

Packaging – 5 out of 5
Hasbro has set the standard for excellent packaging pretty much from Day One.  Dynamic and vivid, the packaging showed us the figure and the character art, gave us a breakdown of the story this world is set in, a character card (which gives stats, personal quote, background, and personality of the character), and even points needed to redeem for a mail-away figure.

Overall – 3 out of 5
It’s easy to remember the early Transformers toys with rose-colored glasses, but the truth is that they weren’t all that.  They weren’t amazing toys that vividly recreated our favorite characters from the TV show and the comics.  The truth is that they were just above-average toys that were connected (sometimes loosely) with a really great advertising department.
But in time, these toys would lead to amazing innovations.  Some of the recent incarnations of Starscream, for example, remain some of the most breathtaking toys every made.  And they could only exist because thirty years ago, a little red-and-gray jet had just a bit too much ambition.

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Night Raid 1931

Night Raid 1931
directed by Jun Matsumoto, written by Satoshi Kadokura and Taro Hakase, released 2010, available on Crunchyroll

James Bond meets the X-Men

Anime loves itself some World War II.  With a very idealized and cherry-picked view of the war, there’s a long list of anime series based off of or inspired by World War II (Hetalia, Strike Witches, Space Cruiser Yamato, etc).
And anime loves itself some Meiji Restoration, that fun period where the Samurai period evolved into the modern world.  Rurouni Kenshin is probably the poster child of series and movies set during this time, but it’s the tip of the ice berg.
The thing is, there’s a thirty year period in there – nestled in between the Meiji Restoration & World War I and World War II – where a lot of really crazy stuff happened.  And as for the eastern half of the world, a lot of that really crazy stuff was connected to Japan.  And yet, there aren’t too many anime that deal with that time period.  Well, Night Raid 1931 aims to change that.

Set in Shanghai during 1931, Night Raid 1931 follows a team of modestly superpowered spies working for the Japanese government who controlled a good portion of China during this time.  They uncover a radical plot to end colonialism in the east and the majority of the show follows the unfolding of said plot.  There are a lot of the typical betrayals and doublecrosses that occur in noir fiction, all wrapped up in an anime bow.



Story – 3 out of 5
If you know anything about history, you probably know that Japan wasn’t the best caretaker of China during the first decades of the century.  In the early episodes, it looks like the show might address these very issues and pull back the curtain on Japan’s stewardship of China, but there are only a few token references to some of the horrors the Chinese faced under Japanese rule.


Later episodes become wrapped up in an increasingly complex plot to extort the western colonial powers into releasing their hold on eastern countries.  This plot involves the construction and detonation of a nuclear bomb, but does so in a manner that seems to radically counter most historical timelines of the bomb’s development.

In fact, that’s a major problem for the story.  It begins with some real efforts to remain grounded in historical fact, but as the plot progresses, it begins to veer radically.  This isn’t a problem necessarily, but the increasingly fictionalized (and implausible) plot points may not jive with viewers who enjoyed the earlier episodes.

Art – 4 out of 5
While not truly amazing, the art is definitely better than average.  It strikes a comfortable balance between anime and realism.  A notable characteristic is the distinctiveness of different Asian ethnicities.  Many anime shows are lucky to distinguish between Asian and White, much less the subtly of different Asian ethnic groups but in Night Raid, Chinese and Japanese are subtly distinctive.  This helps to add to the visual wealth of crowd scenes and helps establish a sense of the cosmopolitan nature of Shanghai (versus the Chinese-dense rural countryside or the Japanese-intensive military camps).

Animation – 3 out of 5
Much like the art, the animation if good but unremarkably so.  Scenery has a tendency to be a little flat and uninspired, but the action sequences move nicely.  The added benefit of realistic action sequences helps to ground the show and adds some real intensity when guns get pulled.

Characters – 3 out of 5
The characters in the show are all extremely predictable and rote.  You’ve got the hotheaded second-in-command; the stoic steeped-in-classic-Japanese-military-ways leader who is slightly older; the younger woman who is kept apart from the action; the big and gruff goon who is inexplicably loyal to the younger woman.  The main bad guy has ties to just about every member of the group which is discovered very slowly through the course of the show.  There’s a token adorable younger character who makes more than a few appearances.  Nothing out of the ordinary but it all works and is done quite well.

Acting – 4 out of 5
The acting would be unremarkably good except for one novelty of the different languages.  Because the show is anime (and thus has a Japanese cast), much of the dialogue is in Japanese.  However, the show takes place in Shanghai (a Chinese city), so many episodes feature more than a few characters talking in Chinese.  And the actors actually do!  Not being fluent in Chinese, I can’t attest to how well they speak it, but there’s no denying how cool it is to hear the voice actor switching languages.

On top of Chinese, several European languages are spoken (German and French at least, though I think Russian appears a couple of times).  English does too and it’s fun to hear the Japanese voice actors talking in English (because some of them clearly understand English and some of them clearly don’t).  In a lot of ways, the multi-language element alone makes the show worth watching, if just how neat it is to hear.

Overall – 3 out of 5
Night Raid 1931 is a really solid anime show.  It’s worst traits are only just so-so and it’s got a lot of really neat elements that elevate the show as a whole.  It’s not great and has more potential than is realized, but it’s a fun show that’s worth checking out.

Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Veritech Alpha

Veritech Alpha VFA-6Z
by Toynami, released 2003

The Third-Generation Robotech Fighter Makes Good


It seems only natural to go from the forgotten Destroids to the unloved Alphas.  Robotech, being the cobbled-together Frankenstein’s monster of an animated series, is most famous for the first portion, known as the First Generation, which was actually a rewritten version of the wildly-popular and successful Macross series from Japan.  However, Robotech had a Second and Third Generation whom have typically not fared as well in the public consciousness.  Nevertheless, the fans are out there and every once in a while, a toy will come along that will make them proud.
The Third Generation of Robotech, based off the Japanese show Genesis Climber Mospeada, had a strong emphasis of evolutionary development.  As such, it only made sense that the Veritech Alpha be seen as the descendant of the Veritech Fighter made famous during the First Generation of the series.  It is a transformable aircraft that is smaller and generally considered more powerful.  The multiple variations are mostly cosmetic and they generally play a support role to the Cyclones; Transformable motorcycles that act as Ironman-esque power armor.

Because the Third Generation has largely been forgotten about by all but the most ardent of fans, it’s pretty rare for there to be toys for the story.  In fact, it fell to Harmony Gold, the holders of the Robotech license, to co-produce the toys.  The result is a set of four action figures that largely came from out of nowhere and disappeared pretty much without a trace, leaving behind only rumors of how awesome they were.
Appearance – 3 out of 5
The VFA-6Z, like all the Alphas in the series, is nicely colored with a decent range of paints used.  While the colors aren’t terribly extravagant, they are very indicative of the mecha from the show and do a good job of looking straight from the cartoon.  Everything is appropriately colored, no matter how small the space or subtle the attention needed.

Construction – 4 out of 5
This is a beautiful toy that is well constructed out of very high quality plastic.  The arms and joints feel very sturdy and the plastic has a good heft to it, making it feel very solid.  The one flaw in the construction is, unfortunately, a notable one.  The interchangeable hands have to be physically forced out of their docks and the pegs that attach them can break all too easily.

Movement – 3 out of 5
This is a straight-up action figure, which for robots, can be somewhat rare.  This figure has significantly more maneuverability than the Excalibur discussed previously.  And while the range of motion for many of the joints are a touch limited (especially the hip joints), overall the toy is still extremely maneuverable.
The one short-coming, though, and what keeps this from having a higher score is the toy’s inability to transform.  As one of the most memorable aspects of the Veritech fighters, not being able to even partially reconfigure (as they have a middle transformation between robot and jet, known as Guardian in Robotech and Gerwalk in the Japanese series) is a really damning strike that keeps its rating from being any higher.

Extras – 3 out of 5
The Alphas each come with a series of interchangeable hands (a trigger hand for the right arm, two fists, and two open hands) and one gunpod with removable ammo magazine.  Unfortunately, there are no light-up elements or firing missiles (which would be appropriate as the Alphas in the show were bristling with missile bays).  What’s unfortunate is the lack of anything to do with the extra hands.  While it makes sense that there’d be nowhere to put them on the mecha, it still means that you’re left with three hands lying around at any given time.  Also, the lack of a left-handed trigger hand means that if you do buy a second toy, you can’t exactly go all John Woo style.  Which, come on, is a real shame.

Packaging – 2 out of 5
The packaging is devoid of anything but the most basic of features.  The back is completely identical between all four toys, and the front only distinguishes between them with the name written on the bottom from of the plastic. Fortunately, the plastic is quite sturdy and the windows on the front and sides give you a good view of the toy and its additional pieces.  Clearly meant for collectors, there is no diorama to play with and no explanation as to the story or the characteristics of the individual mecha whatsoever.
One place where the packaging is noteworthy is the inclusion of credits.  It’s pretty rare to know the names of the design team behind the toy, but the back packaging gives you the names of the Project Director (George Sohn, because directors always come first), the Sculptor (Shin Tanabe, who did a fantastic job), the Mold Tech and Paint Designer (Daisuke Fukuda, who is probably the most unsung hero of this toy), the Package Concept and Designer (Nitai Kearney, who needs to be talked to), and the Quality Control (Scott Tipton, who deserves a raise).  I’m not saying every toy needs to credit every person responsible for the development, but having a few names to thank in our prayers for good toys is a nice addition to the usual packaging fare.

Overall – 3 out of 5
Three out of five seems a little harsh for an otherwise wonderful toy.  After all, the quality of work that went into its construction simply cannot be praised enough.  This is a very well put-together toy that is a lot of fun to play with, but is just this side of conservative.  There are plenty of elements that could have been done to make the toy more memorable and stand out as truly legendary, but at the end of the day, it seems like adding things like transformable features, firing missiles, or opening compartments, would have just subtracted from the quality construction which is, without a doubt, this toy’s biggest selling feature.