Diaclone Television Commercials, 1980 – 1984

Exhibit / April 4, 2018

Object Name: Diaclone television advertisements
Maker and Year: Takara Co., Ltd., 1980-1984
Object Type: Television advertisements
Video Source: thespacebridge/YouTube
Description: (Michael Grasso and Steve Toyoshima)

GRASSO: Having become an aficionado of YouTube compilations of television commercials from the ’70s and ’80s, being introduced to this particular collection was a real treat. And such an uncanny one! Here are the Transformers I played with as a kid—Optimus Prime, Wheeljack, Ratchet, Sideswipe—in their original context as members of the Diaclone (ダイアクロン Daiakuron) line of toys from Japan. Diaclone, introduced in 1980, was a toy series created to take advantage of the ’70s Japanese fad for transforming mecha. By 1982, they’d introduced the transforming car models that would eventually become part of Hasbro’s American line of “robots in disguise.”

These commercials are just fantastic. I think the thing that strikes me most about them is that they balance kids actively manipulating the toys with “hands-free” stop-action animations showing the robots and vehicles being propelled “on their own.” One thing I always hated about American ’80s toy commercials as a kid was how obviously cheesy the scenarios of kids playing with them seemed. The line reads were cringeworthy and, on some level, I knew that even as a 10-year-old in 1985. Here the toys get to move, fly, drive on their own. They let you, the viewer, project yourself into their adventures. Even the kids in these commercials don’t engage in too much imaginative play; they simply demonstrate the transformation mechanisms in a staid way. The toys here just seem so much grander, flying or driving in massive fleets. There’s a sense of profusion here, which fires up a desire to “collect them all” that wasn’t present in the same form in similar American Transformers ads from the mid-’80s.

TOYOSHIMA: There are definitely some strong production values in these commercials; some of them resemble the Gerry Anderson Supermarionation shows that were and are popular in Japan. These commercials are pretty interesting because Diaclone is a toy line that didn’t have an associated TV show, which would be nearly unheard of in the States during the 1980s. Because of that, there isn’t footage of characters or story that you can cut into the commercial. Though the American toy commercials were pretty cheesy, the kids were constantly shouting out dialog from the show or imitating popular characters. Definitely it was “I get to play as Duke or Cobra Commander” and less “I have a giant robot to stomp around with.”

I was pretty puzzled by the name, but in pretty typical fashion for a Japanese product, the theory is that it’s an amalgamation of two English words. The fansite Spacebridge 2000 puts forward a few of these:

The popular theory about the name “Diaclone” is that it is based upon the name of its competitor series, “Chogokin”. “Chogokin” translated to “Super Alloy Z”; both a comment on the special material from which these robots were supposedly forged, and on the highly attractive die-cast content in the toys. Most fans of Diaclone, therefore, assume that “Diaclone” is a combination of the English words “Diecast” and “Cyclone”, suggesting a powerful onslaught of die-cast metal. What this theory fails to take into account is that neither The Great Robot Base, nor first few toys designed after it, contained any diecast at all. In my opinion, “Dia” more likely refers to the English prefix meaning “two”. Great Robot Base had two modes. So did virtually every Diaclone toy that followed it.

Like Gojira being a combination of “gorilla” and the Japanese word for whale, “kujira,” the theory is entirely plausible to explain the dual mode whirlwind of transformation we see in these commercials.

GRASSO: The die-cast metal—now that’s something I want to talk about. I mentioned in our earlier Transformers G1 piece how different the first couple of years of American Transformers felt to the kinds of cheap plastic American toys that were being made in the early 1980s. Autobot cars like Wheeljack, Jazz, and Trailbreaker, who appeared in American toy stores “virtually unchanged” from their Diaclone versions, were solid, hefty pieces of work! Even as a kid, I could sense the quality and craft that went into them. (A quick side note: Takara also made the popular line of “Penny Racer” toysthe line was called “Choro-Q” in Japanand this explains something I always wanted to know: why some of the Penny Racers looked exactly like Autobot mini-cars Bumblebee and Cliffjumper, but were licensed and sold by different American companies!)

I want to talk about the choice of vehicles for some of these Diaclone models. Leaving aside outliers like the future Dinobots (at 9:00 in the video) and the giant merging robots that, as I noted earlier, were de rigueur in 1970s/early ’80s Japan, so many of the cars in these Diaclone lines were aspirational. I may have pegged the Autobots as “blue collar” vehicles in our Transformers piece, but, let’s be honest, a lot of these car models are real luxury items, performance automobiles well out of the range of most consumers. Porsche 935s, Lamborghini Countachs—these are limited-run specialty vehicles. It got me thinking of our earlier look at City Pop in the context of Tatsuro Yamashita’s For You and your comments about the music being inspired by “speeding down a Tokyo freeway on a sunny day,” as well as the soon-to-be urbanized, industrialized, fast-paced lifestyles of ’80s Japan.

And yet, yeah, there are also some workaday vehicles in the Diaclone line: construction vehicles (12:30), big rigs (9:45), and trains (7:14) (which sadly never made it over to the States in Transformers form; I probably would’ve loved these). But I suppose even these humbler industrial vehicles evoke that supercharged ’80s economy in a way, don’t they?

TOYOSHIMA: I am a big fan of those train Diaclones. Over in Japan there’s a special affection for these people movers, especially for the original 1964 Shinkansen bullet train. Cutting the time to travel between Tokyo and Osaka by hours, the Shinkansen became a symbol (along with the Tokyo Olympics from that same year) of Japan’s postwar recovery. This was one of the proudest achievements of the Japanese National Railways before privatization in the late 1980s. Unlike some of the more exotic luxury vehicles from the car Diaclone line, the trains were based on models that would be seen in Japan on an everyday basis.

One thing that is pretty interesting about the Takara transforming toys is the sheer variety of transformer types on display. In addition to the cars and household objects (if you happen to keep a Walther pistol around), there are dinosaurs and stranger science fiction giant robots to transform (11:16). I’m particularly fond of the matchup between the Waldross and Guts Blocker giant robots (5:56). This is all dancing around my favorite part of the entire video: Battle Convoy.

The Convoy (Optimus Prime) commercials are especially striking. It’s interesting to see the film imagery of the trucker convoy that was part of a unique moment in American culture filtered down into kids’ toys in the ’80s. Japan had its own fling with trucker culture and heavily customized rigs, immortalized in the Truck Yaro (Truck Bastard) series. These commercials also explain something I never understood as a kid: why Optimus Prime’s trailer had all kinds of tech stuff inside when I never remembered it ever being used in the animated show. There’s a great video taking a close look at the packaging and play features of Battle Convoy. It actually shows the tiny Diaclone humanoid miniature figures that could sit in the dune buggy that was a part of the transformed tractor trailer base!

GRASSO: When I was playing with American Transformers as a kid, I noticed all the little seats and cabs and cockpits built into the various vehicles and always wondered why they were there! I always wanted a Spike Witwicky action figure to put inside Optimus Prime’s cab, even if I probably would’ve lost such a tiny figurine repeatedly.

So it’s probably time to tell the tale of how these Diaclone vehicles came to American shores in their new Transformers packaging. As Diaclone and other Japanese toymakers experienced the impact of a recession (probably the same one worldwide that helped along the Video Game Crash of 1983), they reached out to American distributors to get their products into the world’s biggest toy market: the US. In the case of Diaclone, it was Hasbro of Providence, Rhode Island, which had been suffering sales-wise throughout the 1970s (their “Javelin Darts” had been banned in the wave of consumer safety activism in the 1970s, and G.I. Joe’s popularity plummeted as the Vietnam War took the shine off of militaristic toys) . Hasbro execs saw the Diaclone cars and Takara’s Micro Change line (which provided the models for “object” Transformers like the original Megatron and Soundwave, as well as the aforementioned mini-cars) at the 1983 Tokyo Toy Show, and exploited the opportunity to bring a completely new toy paradigm to the West. Marvel Comics writers and editors, including Jim Shooter, Dennis O’Neil, and ultimately Bob Budiansky, were brought on to create names, characters, and personalities for the toys (Hasbro was already working with writer Larry Hama on the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero toys and comics, producing, among other things, those great G.I. Joe dossier cards). In 1984, Transformers G1 debuted, and the rest is history.

Mostly, though, it’s such a thrill to look at these Diaclone TV ads and not only see an artifact of toy sales and marketing from a different country, but to see iconic objects of my childhood placed in their original cultural context. Seeing Grimlock fight real dinosaurs, a fleet of Optimus Primes, Constructicons alongside a bullet train—it really just blows apart the horizons of what my late Gen-X childhood memories can admit!

TOYOSHIMA: When I was growing up, there was a toy/hobby store in the big Japanese mall in Los Angeles’ South Bay area (the Mitsuwa Marketplace). Even as a kid, the toys from Japan seemed way cooler (and much more expensive) than what you’d find at the local KB Toys at the mall. I definitely remember transforming toys like the Japanese Transformers and Macross being a big part of that perception. This is no coincidence, as the same designers were responsible for the mecha designs of many of the Diaclone toys that became the Transformers’ G1 Cybertronians. In the early ’80s, Takara contracted Kazutaka Miyatake and Shoji Kawamori from anime production house Studio Nue (which produced shows like Macross, Space Battleship Yamato and later Escaflowne) to design the new line of Diaclone toys. As a kid, I had assumed that Transformers had just taken the designs for characters like Jetfire from Macross, but I hadn’t realized the lineage before reading up on Diaclone.

These commercials are a fun look into a whole other world of Japanese toys, and the the missing link to what made the Transformers of our youth so cool.

One thought on “Diaclone Television Commercials, 1980 – 1984

  1. The Takara Japanese precursors to Transformers – Microman (Micronauts in North America and Europe) also had excellent stop action commercials in Japan while the North American commercials were usually an adult explaining to the parents watching how much their child’s imagination will be stimulated by these interchangeable toys.
    Transformers were just at the very end of my toy life so I never had any or played with them. My younger brother did though. Micronauts, on the other hand, hit me at just the right time and even surpassed Star Wars toys as my favourite toys from childhood. Micronauts were extremely popular here in Canada. It’s funny how just a few years can change how toys were marketed and thus remembered. The Micronauts never had a cartoon (they did get a Marvel comic 3-4 years after the toy’s North American release) so the play was never constrained to prescribed roles beyond short sentences on the packaging – something I appreciated even as a child. I wonder though, if the Micronauts had a cartoon would they be as well remembered as Transformers? My friends and I certainly freaked out about them with as much intensity as my younger brother and his freinds did with Transformers.

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