Lazy Luddite Log



There has been way too much politics on this blog lately. So here is something a bit nerdy for a change...

I have seen and enjoyed the live-action Transformers a number of times now. There are things I would change but I find that one only bothers thinking these things if a movie is worthwhile to begin with. Its positives definitely overcome its negatives. This involvement in the retelling of the Transformers story has got me looking at the toys (both old and new) and at the history of this consumer and pop-culture phenomenon. I have been pondering both its origins and its longevity.

The original Transformers were a re-branding for an American audience of a number of separate and pre-existing lines of Japanese toys (particularly from the Diaclone and MicroChange ranges). Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Anime or Manga will know that the Japanese have a fascination with robots including robots that convert into other kinds of machines. In the case of transforming toys specifically I have a hunch as to why they became so popular...

You are a parent in the crowded and booming Japan of the 1970s. You have a growing but limited household budget. You have very limited storage space to put a growing number of modern conveniences into. Your child wants both a toy robot and a toy gun for his birthday. What do you do? Well Takara Co have just started selling toys that are both robot and gun in one!

So with a Transformer you have two or sometimes three toys in one product. But it is the transforming process itself that gives the toys much of their fascination. Some of the best-loved Transformers are those with interesting and elegant transformations. Many fans will never look at instruction booklets and insist on deciphering the process of a new toy themselves. In this sense the robot and car is also a puzzle of sorts.

A Transformer exists to be transformed and I look on the practice of keeping toys pristine-in-box with derision. Transforming the toy is stimulating but I also find can be relaxing. For some time now we have had Transformers designed specifically for adult collectors (e.g. 'classic' re-imaginings of original characters) so I think the next development could be 'Transformers: Executive' toys to supplant stress balls and other executive toys in offices.

Another aspect of the attraction of the Transformers was the characters which correspond to the toys. Originally the characters were based on toys but since then sometimes toys are based on characters (as with several from the animated Transformers The Movie of 1986). And there have been many re-imaginings of the characters and story since the original cartoon of 1984-87.

One mistake of critics is in assuming the characters are just robots. In function they are comic-book characters and have human characteristics (even those associated with gender).

They are of alien origin and yet look and act a lot like us? Why? If I had anything to do with backstory development I would love to suggest that it was in fact humans who had been genetically engineered (possibly by the Quintessons) in the image of the Autobots and Decepticons!

Except humans cannot transform. Or can we? We do things to alter how we look and feel all the time. We tell tales of those with the power to seem different or truly be different: Mutants, Polymorphs, Animaguses. The divine spirits described by religions can take on many forms (possibly relevant here is the animism of Shinto). We are in love with notions of exceeding the limitations of who and what we are and these fictions are simply a blatant and fantastic way of expressing such desires. Other more mundane expressions of it take the form of spy movies (in which characters assume alternate personae) or rags-to-riches adventures (in which characters transform the circumstances in which they live).

Change fascinates us whether we love it or fear it. The Transformers is just one modern form of our fascination with change. Once our protagonists could turn into lions or eagles. Now they can transform into sports cars and jet fighters. How much of a change is that?

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  • You might also include plastic surgery and radical weight-loss television shows in the physical human transformation genre.

    Executive transformer toys, should they come into being an a decade or so, could be seen to represent the transformation sought by people in the throes of a mid-life crisis.

    By Blogger Jac, At 25 August, 2007  

  • This sort of touches on a favourite theory of mine about the nature of fantasy fiction as the fiction of philosophy. If you remove or reimagine the physical laws, if there's nothing in the physical world to stop you from magicking mountains upside down and your enemies into toads, what does stop you from doing it? In fantasy fiction, you can do anything (as long as it's literarily plausible) so what makes people who they are when the physical constraints of the "real" world are off? And in Transformer terms, when you have huge transformable robot aliens, what makes them "good" or "evil" or "human" when they could do anything they really wanted, and don't really have any obvious responsibility to humans, and could crush us like bugs? What are the upper limits of transformer-kind and what do they say about us as human beings? ...Or something like that.

    Plus, they're really cool.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 26 August, 2007  

  • To Jac

    How droll. I suppose there is a downside to transformation...

    To Emily

    Hmmm... fantasy may well (often) be the fiction of philosophy but I think other genres could also fit that description too (as long as philosophical considerations challenge the characters or even the reader).

    The Autobots are (arguably) as powerful as the Decepticons yet they set all sorts of limitations on themselves as to what actions they can take. Prime talks of the universal rights of sentience. Why do they feel compelled to do this?

    In the backstory they say that abuse of power destroyed their world so maybe they do have limitations and they are recognising the consequences of that.

    We also see that even the Decepticons have limitations - they know they can (with some effort) be harmed by even humans and so employ stealth as well as violence. But it is Autobots who deliberately hold back from harming those weaker than themselves.

    Course we can squash bugs but frequently refrain. I guess we have better things to do with our time.

    For more moral musings see here

    By Blogger Daniel, At 04 September, 2007  

  • Here is one more comment on this: You know how walking is described as a sequence of 'controlled falls'? Well the process of transforming a Transformer is like 'controlled breaking of a toy'.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 19 September, 2007  

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