And now, Scary-Crayon presents...
Toys from Shanghai
by: Wes

As I noted in the 100th Hot Flash and attendant Scary-Crayon blog entry, I visited Shanghai, China, towards the end of last month (May 2007; you can see a sampling of the photos I took during the trip here and here). I do plan to write more about the trip in full later, but -- for the moment -- suffice it to say that in many ways Shanghai was not at all what I expected. With China being the land of bootlegs, I expected to find tons of wacky TMNT knockoffs and Transformers replicas (especially with both franchises getting a shot in the arm from new feature films this year) -- way more than the scarce offerings one finds amidst the tons of Power Ranger and Spider-Man clones in the shops of NYC's Chinatown. I expected to encounter so many bootleg toys that I would have difficulty deciding which ones to buy so that I wouldn't be overburdened with bags as I made my way through the streets of Shanghai. I expected to spend at least an hour removing them from their packaging and folding the boxes and methodically arranging them amidst my clothes in order to successfully cram the bevy of toys into my single suitcase. I expected to return to the United States with quite a haul.

Yet as it happened, I saw fewer bootlegs during my entire trip to China than one might see during a single visit to National Wholesale Liquidators or that odd Chinese-owned dollar store found in 86.7% of outdoor shopping plazas located in the middle of nowhere. Now, I encountered no shortage of hot women with cell phones trying to lead me down deserted alleyways to hidden shops and closets filled with Louis Vuitton bags and Nike sneakers. Each time I stepped out of the hotel building, I was immediately mobbed by persistent peddlers trying to sell me fake watches -- one of whom followed me for so long that as I repeatedly declined and he continued to lower the price, he literally came down from 500 yuan (¥) for a single Rolex to ¥20 for a Rolex watch, an Omega watch, and a designer pen. If you're looking for bootleg shoes, bootleg clothing, bootleg watches, bootleg handbags, bootleg sunglasses, or even bootleg DVDs, Shanghai is certainly the place to be. But in the bootleg toy department, my overseas adventure was an incredible disappointment.

Toys 'R' Us... in China!
(Click for larger image)

So given the depressing lack of knockoff toys in Shanghai, I was both glad and surprised to find a number of legitimate toy shops in the city -- particularly the Toys 'R' Us at the Super Brand Mall in the Pudong district. Located just two blocks from the hotel in which I stayed, its placement was convenient enough for me to visit it at least once a day (and sometimes twice!) during my time in Shanghai, especially considering that the harrowing language barrier made me wary of straying too far from the hotel or staying out too late when I ventured into other areas of the city. In a place where one can't even read an advertisement for a Whopper or have a friendly exchange (I think it was friendly...!) with a peer in a park without lots of confused looks and awkward gesticulating, the sense of familiarity that I felt within Toys 'R' Us even amidst the alien writing and strange new toys was rather comforting. And even when I wasn't in Toys 'R' Us -- as when I experienced a reprieve from the onslaught of sex peddlers by escaping into the several toy shops along Nanjing Road -- the sales associates within were among the most friendly people that I met in China. Much like a wine store or supermarket on a Saturday afternoon, there were a number of stations within the stores where employees showcased their wares to the delight of patrons, and with me being there during the middle of the week, when adults were at work and kids were in school, I got a lot of private and up-close demonstrations that gave me the same good feelin' as being tutored one-on-one after school by a hot teacher on a genuinely fascinating subject. With products ranging from magic markers that you blow into to produce a spraypaint effect (do we have those here?!) to battery-free UFO physics toys that hover as a result of magnetic repulsion to paper butterflies that fly via the use of a rubber band mechanism to all manner of magic sets where I can't even begin to guess the "trick" -- how the bloody heck did she put three foam balls into my hand and somehow replace them with a single foam cube?! -- and adorable little saleswomen who always smiled and said "please" and "thank you" (except in establishments clearly catering to tourists, this politeness seemed incredibly rare in Shanghai) these delightful demonstrations were definitely among the highlights of my trip. Being a foreigner in a strange land can be unnerving, but it's hard not to feel welcome when pretty girls are letting you play with their toys and asking you to blow on their hands.

SUPERCHANGE!

At any rate, given the lack of bootleg toys and the comparative abundance of legitimate toy stores, the majority of my Shanghai purchases were not of the knockoff variety. I wasn't particularly enticed by the profusion of Gundam and Power Rangers (that is, Tokusou Sentai Dekaranger) toys, and the Kamen Rider figures, in addition to being from an ongoing series that I really don't know that much about, were far too expensive for my traveler's budget. However, I did take a shine to the Superchange action figure line. Considering that the line consists of hardened robotic warriors that transform into cutesy animals, the figures instantly appealed to the Transformers fan and Pokémon sympathizer in me -- resulting in my initial purchase of Gerotan, a robot that transforms into a frog, for ¥58 (about $7.60; $1 is roughly equal to ¥7.6). Sharkrer wasn't on the shelf at TRU at the time -- if he had been, I probably would have just gone with him instead of Gerotan -- but after spotting both regular and clear plastic versions in the (more expensive) shops on Nanjing Road, I made it my mission to nab Sharkrer from TRU in the event that they restocked before I left. Robots that turn into frogs are certainly not without appeal, but robots that turn into sharks are just awesome. That's what I figured, anyway.

Unfortunately, while the 6.5" figures themselves (5.5" in alt mode) are cool enough for toys that double as souvenirs from a foreign country, I would probably have been disappointed with them if I'd ordered them from eBay. Though they look decent enough -- particularly in robot mode -- the actual "transformations" are pretty lame. With Sharkrer, it involves flipping his arms back, folding the fin kibble over (fairly obvious), twisting and inverting the legs, draping the shark "backpack" over his head like a hood, and placing his saber in the top to create the dorsal fin. As you see, the end result is definitely shark-like, but a SD shark that walks upright on its anal fins (seriously; that's what they're called) is somehow much less cool than the underwater menace that haunted cinema screens during the 1970s and 80s. Gerotan fares a little better with his more interesting transformation and slightly more respectable alt mode, though he has a few problems as well. With him, (after removing the backpack) you fold the head back and move the arms up, twisting them and raising the kibble to create his froggy feet. Then you fold the robot legs back to make rocket thrusters of sorts for the body before finishing by snapping the backpack -- which includes both the frog head and arms -- atop the crotch. Yes, if you want to be immature (and hey, why not?! XD), his penis is technically in his own mouth.

Gerotan and Sharkrer in robot mode.TRANSFORM AND HOP/SWIM OUT!!

The main problem here is that whereas the backpack appears to fit snugly and closely in the box art, it doesn't at all on the actual toy, such that a section of Gerotan's robot crotch is still visible below his frog chin and the arms sit too high on the body. This is presumably because -- if you look at the areas that don't quite match up -- you'll see that there's a bar in the backpack that prevents the solid crotch from getting too deep inside the hollow area. It's worth noting here that one of the few bootleg toys that I saw was a Gerotan that I suspect wouldn't have had this problem, as the crotch actually had a block cut out of it to accommodate the bar in the backpack/helmet. (If I hadn't already purchased the legitimate version -- and if that knockoff Gerotan hadn't looked like it had been snatched from some poor kid and roughly shoved back into its crushed, opened bubble and hadn't been missing all of its accessories including the ill-fitting backpack, which is necessary for the transformation! -- I probably would have gotten it to see if the transformation worked any better.)

Another strike against the figures is that they really only include basic articulation at the hips, shoulders, and wrists. Gerotan also has bending elbows and knees, but considering that he can barely stand with his knees bent in robot mode and without them bent in animal mode, they seem less like genuine articulation and more like features added solely for the sake of the transformation. There's also the rather annoying fact that the Superchange toys require the owner to apply certain details to them in the form of stickers. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing -- for example, it can be acceptable when the details are things that were absent from the actual animation version and might be left off by a purist (a la the stickers that came with the original TMNT Mouser figure, and even those might already have been applied). But when those details consist of things like eyes and additions that cover exposed screws and/or prevent the toy from looking horribly bland, they really should be applied at the factory if they're not going to be molded and painted on. This is doubly true when they need to be placed into precise areas and are so flimsy that a person is exceedingly likely to tear and/or crease them upon removing them from the sticker sheet. Seriously, given that I ended up ripping mine and not getting them quite right when placing them on the figures, I can't imagine many kids being able to pull it off without making a mistake and bawling ad infinitum because he/she just "ruined" the toy. An experienced model builder and hardcore collector might have a less difficult time with it, but I doubt that those guys are the primary audience for a line consisting of Animal Crossing mechas. In short, I like them for what they are -- random toys that I picked up during my adventures in Shanghai -- but I wouldn't go out of my way to find any more Superchange figures. For Bandai offerings, they're definitely a letdown.

Rei Ayanami, Ringo Noyamano, and Kamen Rider #2

That said, Bandai easily redeemed itself in the gashapon department, as the figurines pictured above are also the company's work. (Judging from the Bandai Asia website, Bandai made roughly 65% of the toys and 99% of the gashapon that I saw in Shanghai.) For those of you not in the know, gashapon are capsule toys that can be found in vending machines. They're similar to the vending machines that we have in the US, except instead of gumballs or wacky wall crawlers or poorly painted 1" Cartoon Network figures, the machines in the East dispense capsules with 4.5" high-quality PVC figurines. Naturally, the figurines come disassembled (otherwise they'd never fit in those tiny capsules!), but assembly is generally straightforward and intuitive, with pegs of differing shapes that fit into specific holes and whatnot. There's not much play value to them -- aside from the occasional ball joint involved in their construction, the figurines lack articulation -- so despite the ease of assembly (and taking into account the numerous small parts), they're probably geared more towards older collectors than children. Again: whereas in the US adults who collect toys and figurines are regarded as creepy freaks, there is a place in the world that has vending machines with toys made specifically for older collectors. Give me a minute here -- I need to wipe the hope-filled tears of joy from my face.

Okay, I'm back. TRU literally had two walls filled with gashapon machines -- think of the displays you'd find in a candy shop, but with capsules in place of the various assorted gummy critters and chocolate candies -- and there were other machines scattered in various locales, so selecting the specific machines to try was fairly difficult. I mean, I had no idea who most of the characters were (visit this page to get an idea of the selection), and even where I recognized characters, as with the Dragon Ball Z machines, there was no guarantee that my turn of the crank would net me the Piccolo or Vegeta that I wanted. I ultimately went with the machines where I had the best probability of getting a cool-looking figurine -- that is, a hot girl -- which resulted in me trying the machines for the Air Gear and Gainax girls figurines. I had never heard of "Air Gear" before (heck, I didn't even know the figurine was from it until I looked closely at the scanned insert upon returning home), and while I know of Gainax I'm not familiar with most of their stuff (I still haven't seen "Neon Genesis Evangelion"; blasphemy, I know), but I figured that with 83% of the figurines in the Air Gear machine being hot girls and 100% of the figurines in the Gainax machine being hot girls, I was pretty much guaranteed to get two hot girl figurines. (Yeah, I know that getting two capsules from the Gainax machine would have been an even better gamble, but variety is the spice of life.) But wouldn't you know it -- and if you already looked at the gashapon parts pic you know how it turned out -- I ended up with the one-in-six dude in my capsule. I'm so bitter about that that I still haven't assembled him (and may not ever...!), but that's beside the point.

If you want gashapon, you've gotta get the grooves.

Anyway, after going to the ends of the earth and doing a whole lot of arm waving and gesturing -- which at one point involved locating an employee elsewhere in an arcade, leading him to the gashapon machines (and pointing some more), and then following him to an outside booth where he explained what I wanted to the pretty attendant -- I was able to acquire the necessary coinage to try again. See, although they require amounts of ¥8, ¥16, or ¥24, gashapon machines in China don't take normal yuan coins, which I figured out when these weird indentations in the slot prevented me from inserting any of my money into the machines. No, if you want gashapon, you need to get special ¥8 coins with grooves that fit the machines. Apparently the same coins work everywhere, and the knowledge that they are needed to use the machines is probably fairly common in China, but I was utterly baffled and frustrated by this seemingly unnecessary step, especially when nobody could understand my pleas for the special gashapon tokens. But eventually I was successful in acquiring them, and upon revisiting the Air Gear machine I was able to acquire Ringo Noyamano, who joined Rei Ayanami of Evangelion and some unknown rollerblader dude who may remain in pieces FOR-EVER. Later, upon finding a Kamen Rider machine (have a better look at the contents here), I ended up with both a Kamen Rider #2 figurine (as seen in Kamen Rider the First) and some orange monster that also remains unassembled. They're all pretty nifty, but the action-packed Rider Kick pose and the sexy sexiness of bunny Ringo lose to Rei in the end because of her "special" feature. In addition to having an articulated neck (Ringo does too, but her hair gets in the way), Rei sports removable clothing, as you can detach her torso and slip off her skirt to display her in her panties (or bikini bottoms, if you prefer). Yes, Bandai actually went the extra mile to make this figurine appeal to perverts! If that's not worth a thumbs up, nothing is.

In addition to the wealth of Gundam, Power Rangers, and Kamen Rider merchandise, the toy stores also had multiple shelves and endcaps filled with Ultraman wares (also from Bandai). Despite recognizing Ultraman on sight, I don't know enough about him to offer any informed insight into his appeal -- but I'm guessing that the show(s) must be wicked cool to warrant making so many bland-looking action figures based on the character. With the exception of the plastic representations of Ultraman's kaiju foes -- which incidentally cost more than the corresponding versions of the Ultraman figures themselves -- the simplicity of Ultraman's design gives even the top shelf offerings from the Ultraman line a cheap dollar store toy look. It's also worth noting that whereas toys in other lines increase in price based on the toy's action features ($5 for a regular Raphael, $8 for one with sai-tossing action, etc.), Ultraman toys apparently get more expensive in accordance with the amount of articulation that they have. For ¥25, you could get a more traditional Ultraman figure with the basic five points (neck, shoulders/arms, and hips/legs). ¥45 would get you one with additional waist and elbow articulation; ¥65 for knee joints (and a fireball accessory), and so forth. Given that they all looked more or less the same and that I really don't care that much about Ultraman, I went with two soft vinyl Ultraman figures that, unlike the carded, more poseable versions, came in modest plastic baggies. With three points of articulation each (shoulders and waist), they cost me ¥9.90 -- basically the equivalent of the dollar store variety.

Destroy all monsters!Sky Type Tiga, GO!
Power Type Tiga, GO!

You can't expect a lot out of a figure for that price -- and there's not a whole lot I can say about them; what you see is pretty much what you get -- but they're definitely nice souvenirs. At first I was a bit disappointed with the fact that the hanging tabs had been punched directly into their heads (when I worked at KB Toys, I always went out of my way to avoid sticking these things into merchandise), but they're relatively easy to remove. Since the figures can be taken apart at the waist, I simply cut the tab and pushed the part with the barb into the figure, whereupon it simply fell out from the hole in the middle. Upon reassembling the figures, I also found that standing them up can be a bit awkward due to the slight bending and/or unevenness of the legs, but that could probably be fixed with a blow drier and a bit of repositioning -- if one wanted to go that far. I imagine that the kids playing with these cheaper Ultramen probably wouldn't even notice, as these are more or less the safe toys that toddlers hold like paper airplanes as they run around humming the Ultraman theme song.

What I find somewhat more interesting about these particular Ultraman toys, however, is that while I could definitely see one getting these for children who might be too young for the more articulated versions (or aren't old enough to be picky about that sort of thing), they also have some appeal for hardcore collectors. While scouring the web to figure out precisely which Ultraman versions these figures represent (apparently they are the Power and Sky Types from "Ultraman Tiga"), I found that these 6" Ultra Hero Series figures are rereleases of previous Bandai products from yesteryear. As noted, I got mine in little baggies for pretty cheap, but Toys n' Joys is selling boxed versions for $15 each. They're not quite worth that much unless you're a hardcore Ultraman fan and crave them for your display, but -- if you must have them -- I suppose spending $15 beats spending 15+ hours on a plane to purchase them from a TRU in China yourself.

...and merge to form DEVASTATOR!!!Simple construction vehicles...
...transform into evil Decepticon soldiers...

But while all of the above are official, licensed products, I did leave Shanghai with one bootleg acquisition. Incidentally, I found it not in one of the shady alleyway shops or roadside stands of Nanjing Road, but in the souvenir and lobby area within the base of the Oriental Pearl Tower, which, given its official landmark status and the number of tourists about, is about as conspicuous a place as it gets. I certainly wasn't expecting to find any bootlegs there, but lo and behold, while I was poking around the area in search of postcards and foodstuffs to bring back, I happened upon a little toy shop -- and there amidst the tiny toy dogs and windup robots was a shelf with several stacks of boxed knockoff G1 Transformers combining groups. Given the size of the boxes, I didn't think that I'd be able to fit multiple ones in my suitcase in addition to what I'd already purchased, so I decided to limit myself to one. Now, I like Transformers a lot. I recently purchased the movie, watched most of the first and second seasons of G1 Transformers, and viewed several episodes from the later seasons. Despite this, however, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you the names of the individual members of the combining groups, let alone point out which group turns into which robotic behemoth. I do know, however, that the Constructicons merge to form DEVASTATOR. And that being the case, I went with that group.

Considering that it only cost ¥30 -- roughly $4 -- I'm quite happy with this purchase. As far as I can tell from the photogallery of the original G1 Devastator release at Seibertron.com, this transforming "Engineering" set is a pretty faithful knockoff. It lacks the die cast parts of the original and is probably made with cheaper plastic (I didn't break anything while transforming it, but the feel of the plastic made me worry that I might), but at 1/15th of the price (at least) of what one would end up paying on eBay for a complete G1 Devastator, I can't complain -- even though Scrapper's head is apparently on backwards. Heck, whereas the original came with sticker sheets, the bootleg Devastator even comes with all of his manifold stickers already applied! Aside from the aforementioned problems and the difficulty of standing two of the Constructicons (for the photo, I used some of the extra pieces to prop them up), each warrior transforms well enough and fits effectively into the Devastator whole. That said, uniting them to form the Decepticon giant is admittedly fairly time consuming (especially with the somewhat confusing instructions on the box that explain the process), and I having done it I don't really have much desire to disassemble him into his component parts again. The fully assembled Devastator is also pretty lacking in play value -- he can move his arms to aim his weapon(s), but otherwise lacks articulation -- which sort of reduces him to the status of a display piece. And then there's the issue of his size. At 8.5", Devastator is hardly to scale with his animated version, as he's only slightly larger than most Deluxe and Voyager class figures (and, as seen in the linked image, knockoff Optimus Prime). Yet since this is a direct knockoff of the original version, I imagine that the G1 toy suffers from these latter problems as well.

''Sign Up and become a Star today!''

That about does it for this toy roundup, then -- we hope that you've enjoyed our discussion of these toys from Shanghai! I didn't come back with nearly as many toys as I'd hoped to buy -- or see as many bootlegs as I'd hoped to see -- but it was nevertheless fun and interesting to explore the toy shops and check out the variety of different figures found in the East (even though almost all of them sported that familiar Bandai logo). In addition to reviewing my acquisitions, hopefully I've been successful in sharing some of the wonder that I experienced while wandering those foreign establishments with you. But if I've failed miserably, you could always book a flight to Shanghai (after jumping through the necessary hoops to get a passport and visa and whatnot) and go exploring yourself! If you can decipher the menu and figure out how to order a Happy Meal at McDonald's, perhaps you can even tell us how the toys therein differ from what we get in the States. :)

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