An interesting, if slightly odd, take on the Transformers mythos, Headmasters was a Japanese take on the 'robots in disguise' that, until recently, was only available in its original form in Asia. The UK's Metronome were the first to bring the series to a proper English DVD release and now Shout! Factory has done the same for North American audiences.
The series basically picks up after the 'Return of Optimus Prime' storyline and ignores the fourth US season's 'Rebirth' storyline, instead taking us back in time millions of years to the war on Cybertron where the Autobots fled, lead by a robot named Fortress who helped them settle on a planet called Master. In order to adapt to the harsh living conditions on the planet, the Autobots wisely decided to build themselves some inanimate bodies which they then called Transtectors and with that complete, made changes to their own forms so that they could basically swap their heads from their bodies to their Transtectors and back again. Fortress was able to take things on big step further and by using an ultra-powerful weapon called the Master Sword, he was actually able to merge with the battle ship Maximus and form the incredibly powerful robot Fortress Maxiumus.
At any rate, it'll come to no surprise to any fan of the series, American of Japanese, that there are some Decepticons lurking about lead by main bad guy Scorponok, who is, you guessed it, blessed with the ability to turn into a giant robot scorpion. Optimus Prime eventually makes it back and leads the Autobots against the Decepticons for pretty much the entire thirty five episodes. The series proper takes place in the future of 2011 where Scorponok has joined Galvatron in his attack on Cyberton where Prime and his Autobots are trying to defend. The Headmasters, having evolved and perfected their Transtectors, arrive and while Fortress, Chromedome, Highbrow, Hardhead and Brainstorm agree to help the Autobots, a few of them, namely Skullcruncher, Mindwipe and Weirdwolf, side with the Decepticons - the war wages on, and on and on.
The uniquely Japanese slant makes this more than just a rehash of what American viewers saw in the eighties. The series is noticeably darker and a fair bit more violent than the American series was (characters do actually die in this series), and the animation style obviously done in a Japanese style and not in an American style. The visuals are the highlight here, as the storytelling isn't always all that original or interesting and much of it is simply robots fighting and more robots fighting. Thankfully the animation does go a long way towards making up for this with some admittedly very impressive and creative character design work.
While it's interesting to see the Japanese take on established Transformers characters, the real fun from the show comes from the new characters, more specifically the Headmasters themselves. The way they are able to basically change bodies is something a little different than the standard 'robot turns into a car or Walkman or dinosaur' thing that the American series had been limiting itself to in the years prior. If the storytelling tends to rely far too heavily on robot fights and absolutely dreadful comic relief from a few supporting characters, at least the fact that some of the central characters here do something a little different is a serious plus for the show.
The thirty five episodes that make up the entire series are spread out over the four discs in this set as follows:
Four Warriors From Outer Space / The Mystery Of Planet Master / Behold the Birth of Double Prime / The Autobot Cassette Operation / Rebellion On Planet Beast / Approach Of The Demon Meteorite / The Four-Million-Year-Old Veil Of Mystery / Terror Of The Six Shadows / Planet Cybertron Is In Grave Danger Part One
Planet Cybertron Is In Grave Danger Part Two / Zarak- The Shadow Emperor / The Dormant Volcano Mysteriously Erupts / Head On! Fortress Maximus / Explosion on Mars! Maximus is in Danger / Explosion on Mars! Scorponok Appears / Return Of The Immortal Emperor / SOS From Planet Sandra / Daniel Faces His Biggest Crisis Ever
Fight To the Death On Planet Beehive / Battle For Defense Of The False Planet / Find Scorponok's Weak Spot / Head Formation Of Friendship / Mystery Of The Space Pirate Ship / The Death Of Ultra Magnus / The Emperor Of Destruction Vanishes On An Iceberg / I Risk My Life For Earth / The Miracle Warriors - The Targetmasters Part One
The Miracle Warriors - The Targetmasters Part Two / The Master Sword Is In Danger / The Zarak Shield Turns The Tide / Operation: Destroy The Decepticons / My Friend Sixshot! / Duel On The Asteroid / The Final Showdown On Earth: Part One / The Final Showdown On Earth: Part Two
Ultimately it's hard to say that Headmasters is essential viewing for the casual fan - to be honest, the casual fan probably won't get a whole lot out of it and as the storytelling is so repetitive, that's understandable. Established and die-hard fans of the franchise, however, will probably enjoy this quite a bit so long as they keep their expectations in check and realize that this is very much an exercise in animated style over substance. While it's certainly true that more modern anime series has passed this show by leaps and bounds in terms of visual flair, there's still plenty of enjoyment to be had here for those able to appreciate the series' novelty and charm, however fleeting sometimes it may be. Two further series would be produced following this one - they being Masterforce and Victory - ideally those series' will follow.
The fullframe transfers contained in this collection generally look pretty good. The colors are appropriately bright and bold without looking too overcooked while the black levels stay strong throughout the duration of the series. Detail levels look about as good as can be expected - the animation style employed on this series is a little more minimalist than newer anime series or more recent Transformers animated series - but generally, everything looks quite nice here and the episodes probably look just as good if not better than they did when originally broadcast on Japanese television a quarter century ago. There are also certainly a noted improvement over the grey market tapes that have made the rounds over the years, most of which looked awful.
Audio options are supplied in Japanese langauge 2.0 Stereo tracks for each of the episodes in this collection with optional subtitles (which, unfortunately, occasionally go slightly out of synch). While a 5.1 mix would have made the action scenes a little more fun, it wouldn't have made it sound like the eighties TV series that it is so this is easily forgiven. The stereo tracks get the job done nicely even if they obviously don't have as much depth and channel separation is infrequent. Dialogue stays clean and clear and there aren't any problems at all with hiss or distortion. Sound effects and the musical score are mixed in with the dialogue nicely and never overpower anything they shouldn't. This isn't reference quality material, but again, the show sounds quite good. The notoriously horrible English dubs that were making the rounds for this series has not been included on this release.
Disc four contains a still gallery of conceptual art, but aside from that, we get some nice animated menus and episode selection - but nothing more. The UK releases had a commentary track or two, but there's nothing of that sort included on this set.
Transformers Japanese Collection - Headmasters: The Complete Series certainly could have used a bit more love in the extra features department and some interviews or commentary to help put all of this in context alongside the better known American series would have been a nice plus. That said, it's nice to have the entire series in one set and the presentation, in terms of quality, is pretty decent. Recommended for big time fans of the 'robots in disguise' but not for the casual viewer as the show is pretty repetitive - as such, let's meet half way and consider this one a worthy rental.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.