Late last summer, I interviewed famed mecha-designer Shinji Aramaki about his new film, "Appleseed Ex Machina," which just opened in Japan this weekend. Perhaps "interview" isn't the right word; it was more like a freewheeling discussion in a back-alley yakitori joint. The resulting text was so long it had to be split into two parts, both of which will appear in Otaku USA magazine. The first half is in issue 3, which is on sale now.
Over the course of the conversation, we occasionally plunged so deeply into nerd obscurity that even a "protaku" like editor-in-chief Patrick Macias felt the need to edit the text down in a desparate effort to keep his readers' heads from imploding. Here's the only significant part that didn't make the final cut: an interlude about an obscure '80s toy series called "Beetras." Let me set the stage: the lights were dimmed, enka music is playing in the background, the scent of soy sauce and yakitori is in the air, and I'm about to prove what a total frickin' toy-nerd I am once and for all...
Aramaki: In the early days a lot of robots transformed into crazy things that didn’t look like planes or anything in real life. For me, it’s more fun to take something everyone knows and making it transform into a robot.
Matt: Is that penchant for observing the world around you where you got the idea for “Beetras”? Those are robots that transform into realistic-looking insects.
M: Takara produced a similar series of toys that were sold as the “Insecticons” in America. Your “Beetras” designs were eventually sold in the U.S. as “Deluxe Insecticons,” upping the ante a little. Was there a sense of friendly rivalry with the Takara designers there?
A: At the time, definitely. The original Insecticons are wonderful toys, but they don’t really look like insects.
M: Here, I brought this to jog your memory. (Slides Beetras “Beet-Gugal” out of bag)
A: Where do you FIND this stuff!? This brings back memories... Wow. The president of Artmic illustrated this package too.
M: Was it based in some sort of television show proposal?
A: No, nothing like that. A toy company called Takatoku approached Artmic and asked if we had any interesting designs that they could merchandise. We asked them if they were interested in something insect-themed. They liked it and asked us to go with it. I designed them. I remember the color schemes being totally different in the United States. Bright and wild.
A: (Laughs) I’d always wondered about that. Actually, on that note, we planned out a second series, and there was an actual hornet in that.
M: A second series of Beetras toys!?
A: They were never actually produced as toys, but there were prototypes. One of them was a hornet. There was also a spider, and a dragonfly, and another one. I designed those, too. Since it was a second series, it was decided to give them a new gimmick in addition to transforming, and so they incorporated little wind-up motors that would carry them across a taut piece of string.
A: The toy company produced prototypes, but the series never came out.
M: That’s a crying shame.
A: It is.
M: Uh... You wouldn’t happen to still have those, would you? Or the design documents?
M: (Begins weeping quietly into his beer)