27 March 2019
Having spent the best part of a decade finding its feet, in the last five years Japanese manufacturer Takara has rapidly evolved its collector-orientated Masterpiece line.
Transformers: A evolution of a modern masterpiece
Having slowly developed through a handful of scattershot releases between 2003 and 2009, 2011 was the year everything changed for Takara’s Masterpiece line.
Building on the success of MP-8 Grimlock and MP-9 Rodimus Prime, 2011 saw Takara returning to Optimus Prime for a redesign. MP-10 was smaller than the original release, but now worked in scale with the rest of the Masterpiece series, bar Megatron. Until this point, each Masterpiece had been developed according to its individual merits, but it was designer Shogo Hasui who realised the importance of scale and consistency to collectors, and how this would help grow a consumer attachment to the ongoing series.
Furthermore, MP-10’s design was leaps and bounds ahead of MP-1 in both technical and accuracy terms, with an anime themed robot and a perfectly formed truck mode. It arguably still stands as the best Transformer ever made.
Sizes may have been reduced but the focus had multiplied. MP-10 kickstarted a whole new era of rapid releases boasting an incredible level of cartoon accuracy. Starscream was next in line for a redesign, with MP-11 doing away with the cartoon inaccurate leg kibble and introducing a more screen accurate white finish. It was the next release that really blew things wide open, however.
Having grabbed the license for the Lamborghini Countach, Takara turned to its large cast of Autobot cars for MP-12. Arriving in 2012, Sideswipe again offered a remarkable level of cartoon authenticity in both modes. It’s easy to take for granted now, but at the time this was a completely revolutionary design. Importantly, as was necessitated by the need to scale with MP-10, MP-12 was smaller – and crucially, cheaper – than previous Masterpieces. It was recognised within Takara that for Masterpieces to thrive, the cost of (at least) some of the line would need to be driven down. Sideswipe was a smash hit both in Takara’s native Japan and all over the world. With a price tag that was far more accessible, a larger number of fans felt able to buy into Masterpieces for the first time - and Takara was ready to take full advantage.
Following a quick Lamborghini repaint in the form of MP-14 Red Alert, 2013 saw another screen perfect adaptation of a major cult character hit the shelves. Designer Shogo Hasui has since admitted that the idea of releasing a Masterpiece Soundwave was around long before the Masterpiece car boom, but seniors at Takara were reluctant to sign off on a robot that transformed into a cassette player, for fears that young audiences wouldn’t even know what cassettes were any more. Indeed, Soundwave was at one staged designed to be MP-11, before Takara decided it would have an easier time selling jet fighter Starscream.
However, following the wild success of MP-12, bosses capitulated, and MP-13 was a revelation. His release was followed by a quickfire run of more Autobot cars – MP-17 Prowl, MP-18 Bluestreak, MP-19 Smokescreen and MP-20 Wheeljack. 2014 finished with a fantastic double whammy for Masterpiece collectors – MP-21 Bumblebee, who sported an officially licensed VW Beetle alt mode, and MP-22 Ultra Magnus, who unlike MP-2 saw a screen accurate version of the hulking Autobot commander brought to life.
A huge number of key characters have arrived in the three years since, including MP-22, MP-27 Ironhide, another Rodimus for MP-28, MP-29 Shockwave and MP-33 Inferno. We are also on the cusp of Takara righting its previous wrong and bringing us a redesigned and correctly scaled MP-36 Megatron, which should be out by the time you read this.
In total we saw 16 Masterpieces between 2003 and 2011, and just six unique moulds. Since 2012 there have been 52 additional Masterpiece releases. In total, however, only 18 Masterpieces have been released by Hasbro in the West, where their success has been far more limited. It seems unlikely that this is due to consumer apathy, as online retailers such as Kapow and TFS Express have made huge businesses out of importing Takara Masterpieces to the UK and Europe, while an even greater number of companies have done the same in the US.
Instead, Hasbro’s scattershot support and high pricing for the line is seen as the most likely culprit. Its most recent release, MP-08 Bumblebee (Hasbro uses its own numbering system), was a Toys R Us exclusive priced at £79.99. The original Takara version, released in 2014, cost around £40-50 to import from Japan. It seems bizarre to limit a collector-orientated series to the aisles of the country’s biggest toy chain, but the strategy persists.
Such has been the success of the Masterpiece line that a whole industry of unlicensed third party Masterpiece manufacturers has cropped up in China and Japan. Indeed, many believe that it is the success of third parties that has spurred Takara to increase the rate at which it releases its figures. Either way, the high-end Transformer market has never offered more choice – for those willing to pay the post-Brexit import prices.