Interview: Kojin Ono

Translated & Interpreted by Jeremy Barlow © Soundwave's Oblivion 2022

Interview from Figure King 293 (June 2022)

Kojin Ono

●Legendary designer Mr Ono developed Raidens predecessor, the “Train Robo” during the Diacone era. Once more he spearheads the Raiden project as a member of the Masterpiece team. Let’s talk about Raiden’s origins.

-First of all, please tell us about the origins of “Train Robo”.
The initial concept was not based on a real vehicles but Sci-Fi trains. The development sketch also showed a train flying through space. However when I revealed the design in our meeting it wasn’t well received…… Around this time a children's survey showed that the Car Robot’s were doing very well so I then thought that it would be fun to create the trains based on the real world versions. When I proposed this idea to the sales people, they loved it (laughs). Everyone would be convinced it was a real train. The rest is a blurr, prototypes were made, presentations went well and sales were great. I was free to do what I wanted.

-How did you choose the vehicles?
I chose the particular trains based on my own preferences, after all they were popular back then. As well as the Shinkansen, the L series Limited Express were so popular a board game was made about them. The Blue Train was also popular. So the choice was down to those three and one more, the Tohoku Joetsu Shinkansen. Of course we had to have a diesel train. The last train I thought about was the Tokai Type 153 Series. When you think of Express Trains, this is the one that comes to mind. It had a pumpkin colour too which was interesting.

-The N Gauge scale seemed a more mature choice.
Model trains are an adult hobby. I wanted to factor that into a toy. That’s why I included rail tracks and why I was allowed to include diorama sheets and papercraft buildings into the 6 train gift set.

-As a result of their popularity, you also released a number of variations.
Thanks to the success of the Train Robo, the next release were the construction vehicles. It was significant that the concept of combiners was so well received. We saw great sales when they were released in the Transformers series. This was exactly what we were hoping for (laughs).

-The sticker project was also your idea wasn’t it Mr Ono?
The cartoon version of Raiden has an all blue chest and I tried to maintain this cartoon design in the MPG series. I had also hoped to release a sticker set as a homage to the original toy somewhere down the line. Red looks great against blue doesn’t it? I think fans of the original toy will love it. The chest parts can also be used as a shield for Shouki and I hope you enjoy using it with Shouki as well. The original blue stickers Figure King designed look great as well.

-I hear MPG Shouki has been well received. What do you think is the appeal of transforming train robots?
I felt the same with Masterpiece Skids. The railroad from back in the day is still fondly remembered. I think the familiar railway and transforming toy robots are an inseparable theme. I was jealous when I saw the “Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion” (laughs), so it was great that I had another chance to design a new set of Trainbots.

Who is G1 Raiden!?
Heavy Series Federation Warrior Raiden, a new Cybertron warrior who is a combination of 6 Trainbots, appeared in the Japanese 1987 series Transformers Headmasters. The toy's origins go back to the Diaclone “Train Robo” released in 1983.
The “Train Robo” comprised of popular trains not only transformed but also combined, soon becoming a big hit. 40 years after its initial creation, we should expect MPG Raiden to have the added retro charm of the Showa era.


Interview from Generations 2022 Mook (July 2022)

Kojin Ono Masterpiece
○ I hope you are all able to complete Raiden.

-Firstly, I’d like to ask you about the Raiden Project. What was the basis behind the new brand name, “MPG”?
The “G” stands for “Gattai”, “Giant” and “Great”. I proposed the name “MPG” as it is both a Masterpiece and a “G”.

-Why was Raiden selected for the first project?
The development of the Masterpieces was evolving and we wanted to both increase the number of Masterpieces as well as attract a new audience. When we were discussing these issues in a meeting one of our younger staff members said “Raiden would be a fantastic idea”. The team was excited about expanding the Masterpiece line as this would be completely different from previous Masterpiece releases. As this was a Japanese character which Hasbro had not developed before, we had a clean slate to create something new in terms of product development. As it was a Masterpiece it had to be a real world train like the previous real world cars so Japanese Rail’s cooperation was essential. We had no idea how they would react so I thought, “we’ll give it our best shot”. I went to Japanese Rail with our proposal, the G1 toy and our licensing department.

-What was their reaction?
We visited them around the time we were developing “Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion” which made it easier for them to relate to transforming robots. When I pitched the idea they were impressed and when I showed them the prototype, they were even more impressed. It made me appreciate the unique charm of the Transformers. Development began once we got their permission. I announced the project early on so I apologise to everyone for keeping you waiting for so long.

-And this is a new initiative to develop it in cooperation with TOMIX’s Tomytec.
As the set of six trains would be expensive we made the decision early on to release them individually. As with the car robots that we have released so far, we wanted to create realistic train models which would also work as a stand-alone piece. When you’re going to do this, you need to make it realistic enough that it is a true representation of the actual train. We also wanted to please the railroad fans. Even if they didn’t buy it, I wanted it to generate conversations and have people say “There’s a great transforming train out there!!” As I’m not too familiar with trains I thought it would be a great idea to speak to people who were so I asked Tomytec for advice before the project took off. As the project moved forwards we decided to collaborate with them which involved supervision and marketing. The supervisor was of the generation that played with the original Trainbots so that was reassuring (laughs) and they loved the project. We collaborated with “GeoColle”, one of their product lines which allowed us to display the MPG prototypes at the Shizuoka Hobby Show.

-What advice did Tomytec offer?
We were told that the track widths for the Shinkansen are very different from the conventional tracks so we changed the widths of the track when we built them. The old Train Robo’s were made with the N-gauge in mind but that was too small so we settled on the HO scale to satisfy railroad fans. We were also advised to recreate the size difference between the Shinkansen and the conventional trains at a scale of 1/87. Honestly, for the Transformer, I made the couplers the same size for both Shinkansen and the regular trains as we need all 6 trains to connect.

-You don’t really think about it but the shinkansen and conventional trains are very different in size.
That’s right. There were also some difficulties as we tried to have the correct scale for the robot mode. Although all the trains are different sizes in vehicle mode, in robot mode they are all the same height. Also, Yukikaze and Getsuei who form the legs therefore need to be a similar volume to do so, despite one being a shinkansen and the other a conventional train.

-Thinking about transforming toys, would you say it's harder to use trains as a subject rather than cars or planes?
I’d say so. It’s difficult to change a long thin object into a humanoid form. A car body is smooth and the more realistic we make it, hinges and other excessive detailing would make it look odd. If we tried to eliminate the hinges we’d have to add more parts which would increase the price and complicate the transformation.

-What was the sequence of the development?
We made block prototypes of all 6 figures at first; mainly due to the overall size of the figures and the concern with how they would look combined. Once we were happy with the prototypes we would add additional details whilst checking on the combined form and the joints. That’s why it took so long from when we announced the project to Shouki’s unveiling.

-What direction did you want the robot mode to take?
We wanted to make the robot mode as close to the cartoon as we could. With the help of Mr Ohshima (Yuki) we sought to achieve a cool design as well as a realistic train mode.

-Please tell us more about the first MPG, Shouki.
Raiden's chest is an important feature so I was relieved to begin there. We all had to be mindful that it needed to combine with other parts as well. With the original, various parts such as the wings are attached when combining the figures but this time round we wanted to be able to transform the figure as much as possible without surplus parts. Where there were additional parts we made sure they could store in the figure. I really wanted to form Raiden’s head from Shouki but it proved too difficult so I allocated the head to Yukikaze. I also wanted to make sure that the smaller figures from previous Masterpiece releases could sit inside Shouki. I wanted to make this a Masterpiece from the Diaclone era so please enjoy this as a nostalgic figure.

-Could you please share your memories of “The Headmasters” era.
At that time we had already released a series of products from “Diaclone” and “Microman” and Hasbro was at a dead end in terms of development after “2010”. After several meetings I kept getting asked “Do you have any more ideas?”. Then I drew a sketch of a Headmaster with a head that transformed into a robot based on “Steel Jeeg”, which I was fond of, I submitted that to Hasbro and they liked it. They told me “It's not just a single concept and it completely expands our world view”. From here it led to the Master concepts such as the Targetmasters, Powermasters which we originally called Enginemasters and the Micromaster. We also became aware of story related features, such as a robot's personality changing when combined with others. We wanted to create a narrative attached to the toy line title which could also be incorporated into the storyline, broadening the world view.

-It also led to a Japanese only cartoon production.
The broadcast cycle of cartoons is very different between Japan and North America. In North America a single episode can have many repeats but in Japan 52 episodes must be made for a weekly broadcast. There is also a product cycle of spring, summer, autumn and winter so the stories would include increased action to coincide with the release of new products. The cartoon in North America, “The Rebirth”, was only produced as a mini series so it was not enough to last throughout the year in Japan. We knew this wouldn’t work so we consulted with Toei Doga (now Toei Animation), the company who had been producing the cartoon up to this point.

-What’s the story behind the introduction of the Trainbots?
Unlike the previous Transformer series, there were no plans to expand the series overseas and we only needed to focus on the domestic market. Train Robo was a hit during the Diaclone era so we thought it would sell well if we re-released them.

-It’s a marketing strategy (laughs).
When I watched the cartoon I was surprised how underutilised they were (laughs). With the Headmasters and Fortress Maximus as our main products it must have been quite difficult to fit them in. Even so, they were one of our most popular products in the “Headmasters” series. This was down to the strength of the train designs. I did think it was great they appeared in the introduction sequence of every episode.

-Could you tell us about Masterpiece Skyfire.
It has actually been in development for some time now. I was assigned Skyfire when I first joined the Masterpiece team. Preparation has been underway since Convoy Ver.3.0. But just as my predecessor was about to start work on it, he was transferred departments and I took over. As the Siege version was also in development at this time we decided to delay the release date.

-It’s a completely different construction when compared with the Siege version.
Skyfire is a character who has been remade numerous times but this time we decided upon a cartoon accurate version. So here we are trying to reproduce a G1 cartoon version whereas the Siege version has a lot of modern detailing. The cartoon version is completely different from the original toy so in that sense I’d say the Masterpiece is the definitive version.

-The size is impressive.
It’s the largest Masterpiece we have ever made. I’m still an analog person so I draw my drawings on graph paper and this time round I had to draw over several sheets instead of one (laughs). Because it’s big and white I procrastinated over the design as I was afraid the paint would just peel off. When I actually made it, it looked great so I was able to dispel my initial concerns.

-It has a new style of transformation doesn’t it.
We spent most of our time on the backpack. In robot mode the backpack is really compact; its transformation is so gradual it looks like Hakone’s marquetry work. In vehicle mode the arms fit inside the backpack so I tried to make sure the transformation of the wings would not interfere with that.
(Note: Hakone Marquetry is ancient Japanese woodworking)

-I didn’t expect the wing transformation to be so deceptively simple.
As it is so large it was a challenge to keep the transformation simple. I think we succeeded in making a figure which can be transformed quickly and easily. Mr Ohshima also gave me the idea for an alternate mode as a homage to the original toy and I was able to reproduce the transformation which featured in the overseas instruction manual. I hope fans of the old version will be happy with this new version.

-The mini figures are nice additions.
One of the best things about this product is that it isn't just a transforming robot but also a play set with the accompanying mini figures. Mr Ohshima wanted to include more figures but due to cost considerations we limited the number to three figures. Convoy is a scaled down version of Masterpiece Ver.3.0. There was talk about having transforming mini figures but that would have led us in a different direction so we just decided upon posable figures. If there is an opportunity in future to create a huge figure like Omega Supreme in the Masterpiece series, it would be great to increase the number of mini figures in the same format.

-Mr Ono, as someone who has been involved with the Transformers since their inception, what does Skyfire mean to you?
It was an odd feeling. To be honest it felt strange bringing in another company’s product in a series we were involved with (laughs). On the other hand however, I was amazed that Hasbro pulled it off. There were many others such as Roadbuster, where we took a toy and turned it into a completely different character as a Transformer. It was just amazing that as long as you gave it the emblem it would be a Transformer. I guess in this sense the world of the Transformers opened up and anything is possible.

-Finally, could you please tell us what’s in store for MPG and Masterpiece?
Thanks to all of you, Trainbot Shouki has been very well received. We were able to show that a mere shinkansen which turns into a robot is a fantastic product. We are currently adding the final touches to Suiken and we are about to start working on Seizan. The initial development took a long time but now we are rolling it out Raiden will be complete next year. We just need to think about what to do next.

-Colour variations were released during the Diaclone era so maybe fans would like to see something like that?
I’m not sure if we would be given the go ahead to release a chrome plated train or a transparent diesel locomotive (laughs). Rather than a set we could possibly do a one-off train, like the Doctor Yellow for example. If we stick with real world trains the details would be different so it isn’t a simple colour switch. It isn’t as straightforward as you’d think.

-What is your vision for Masterpiece?
We have just finished Trailbreaker and now the number of Car Robots needing a Masterpiece representation is shrinking. What we make into a Masterpiece has always been a challenge. Nowadays there are series like Transformers Legacy which pay homage to the original animation so it’s a tough one. Personally I’d love to make a Pretender, specifically Metalhawk. I made the original years ago, but I haven't been given the green light from my team (laughs).

Kojin Ono joined the company in 1980 and is the oldest active legendary member in the team having worked on Microman and Diaclone before jumping across to the Transformers team. He is currently a member of the Masterpiece team.
Translated Tech Specs
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