From the late 1940’s to the end of the 60´s , brightly colored tin-litho toys from Japan, made by the likes of companies such as Metal House, Masudaya, Yonezawa, Yoshiya, Nomura and Daiya ruled the tin-litho space toy market.
The first Japanese robot to appear was the boxy, yellow Robot Lilliput which came out in the late 40’s. Soon to follow would be Atomic Robot Man (whose box showed a giant robot marching through a devastated city with a mushroom cloud rising in the background — an irony probably not lost on the Japanese.)
Some say the true Golden Age for space toys was in the decade of the fifties, when science fiction came of age and movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1952) (see addendum) and the launch of Sputnik (1957) had young and old alike looking to the heavens. And there is something to be said for that. The designs for robots and space toys in the fifties relied on the imagination of science fiction and were't influenced by the real space vehicle designs to come later in the 60’s.
In the end, it was success and apathy that would kill the space toy. The Japanese standard of living was rising and with it, the once plentiful source of cheap labor that had spurred on the manufacture and export of toys, began to dry up. Others that followed just didn't have the same flair.
Interest in vintage robots and space toys (especially among the Baby Boomers) is at an all-time high. If you want to get an original, mint-in-box space toy from the fifties today, plan on breaking out the checkbook and taking a second on the house, because it can run you into the thousands of dollars, depending on the condition and rarity of the toy. In January of 2010, a Masudaya Target Robot from the original “Gang of Five” series sold for $52,900 at auction.
I’m certainly not in that league (not many people are ), but I have managed to purchase some original vintage toys, along with a fair amount of reproductions, both Japanese and Chinese. Along with assorted other space toys, some manufactured in South Korea, France, Russia, Hungary and Tawain and more modern “robots” that look like nothing from the Golden Age of Space Toys (or any other era, come to think of it), I’ve been reliving my childhood a little. Figured I’d better do while I can still remember it.
Check out the new Rick's Robot Store
This is the acknowledged first robot the Japanese produced for mass consumption in the late 40's. Some place “Lilliput” as having been produced in the late 30’s, but most experts agree that “Robot Lilliput” was a postwar robot. I'm thinking they didn't quite have a handle on robot names then, because the name “Lilliput” doesn't exactly inspire fear and awe in the masses. (Yeah, I get it, it's a small robot named after the Lilliputians in “Gulliver's Travels.” It's literary, but lame.) Really, if I was defeated by a robot named “Lilliput” I might just keep that to myself. Forever.
Check out the awe-inspiring and frightening moves (complete with obligatory Phillip Glass meets european arthouse movie soundtrack) of Robot Lilliput for yourself.
Okay, Atomic Robot Man has a face only a mother could love. But he's ATOMIC ROBOT MAN and he doesn't give a flying leap what you or I think of him. He's ATOMIC and he's a ROBOT and he's a... hmmm, not quite sure how that works out. Can you be a man and a robot at the same time? On second thought, you can. Today we call him ”Mitt Romney.“ Anyway, check out the best (and as far as I can discern, the only) Atomic Robot Man Movie EVER!.x
It's hard to believe that this little hunk of orbiting metal spurred panic across our nation and triggered an intense space race that would eat up billions of dollars, consume a couple of decades and occupy some of the greatest minds of our time. And after all was said and done, what did we get for it? Tang and Howard Stern. Well, that's not entirely fair; we also got this uncannily realistic artist's conception of the Sputnik launch.x
Would you pay close to $53,000 bones for this robot? Well somebody did in record-setting fashion at a 2010 auction. But, who knows what I'd do if I had a spare $53,000 lying around? I would either buy a really rare robot like that or maybe I'd travel around the world, or buy a nice Mercedes or get out of the soul crushing debt that haunts my EVERY WAKING MOMENT or... and, um ... seriously, what was that guy thinking? I'm thinking that if I were at that auction, I'd probably have done something a little more like this.x
The Japanese, spurred on by a better economy and a higher standard of living, handed over the mantle of making tin toys to newer expanding economies with cheaper labor. Which apparently, left them more time to drink themselves into alcohol-induced comas and create ever more bizarre, humiliating, yet tantalizingly hilarious and entertaining game shows. Gotta love progress. Korea, Tawain, Hong Kong and now China all have taken swipes at the crown, but have yet to exhibit the creativity and flare that Japan had in its heyday.x
When I think of the 60's I think of “Time Tunnel.” Was there any more sublime a pairing than James Darren and Robert Colbert? Even at that tender young age, Lee Meriwether elicited in me feelings I didn't understand and that I would later find out could get me into a whole lot of trouble. When they cancelled “Time Tunnel” in 1967 after only two years on the air I suddenly understood what the protests against the Vietnam War were all about. Injustice, man. The MAN didn't know quality tv, man. TURN ON! TUNE IN! DROP OUT! ATTICA! ATTICA! Recently, I watched an episode on Hulu. It kinda sucked. But, you be the judge.x