I'd like you to think back, way back, to the days when McFarlane toys still knew the meaning of the word "variety." A time when every line wasn't staid reiterations of the same thing. AAaaaall the way back to 2001's Spawn Series 19.
Having exhausted his supply of sure-fire hit characters like the ultra-popular No-Body, Todd decided to really go out on a limb and make figures that fans had been specifically asking for. See, back in those days, not every line was comic-based; at that time, the company was still taking risks like stripping the Spawn mythos to its basic framework and reimagining it. That's how we got fan-favorite lines such as the Viking Age and its predecessor, the Samurai Wars.
Japan. 1185 AD. A time of great and violent upheaval. A land torn apart by famine and war. Blood bathed the once-tranquil landscape. Famine was an ever-present danger. Brother fought brother over scraps of land and rice, and armies fell by the thousands at the edges of razor-sharp swords. The feudal lords, the Daimyo, powerful, righteous men, called upon the unyielding Samurai warriors to band together and wade into the battlefield; to draw their swords and destroy their enemies.
From the neck down, this figure is the same as the original release: huge shoulder pads, intricate "M" insignia on his chest, One Giant Boot... it's all there, just samuraized for your protection. Nearly every inch of this figure is covered with some sort of sculptural detail, like the braided cord on his shoulders, the overlapping metal of his armor or the woven bamboo on his hips. He's got a loincloth that reaches to his ankles and, despite being molded from plastic, has the look of thick cloth. There are tufts of fur glued in place at his knees, shoulders and neck to help hide the articulation.
Wait, articulation? In a McToy? Unheard of! But yes, hard as it is to believe, Samurai Spawn is almost as articulated as a Marvel Legend: he moves at the head, shoulders, biceps, elbows, wrists, chest, waist, hips and knees! Thank you, Todd! Thank you for making something so cool!
The head is all-new, featuring a less demonic vision than the original. The slightly mechanical shape of Samurai Spawn's facemask is nice, and he no longer has the long, braided beard. The body of his kabuto helmet is the same, though it has a new, M-shaped crest.
To help set this repaint apart, it comes with two accessories that were originally only available in the Collectors' Club exclusive accessory pack. When Series 19 was in production, Todd realized that producing the figures as intended would be more expensive than expected, so he went directly to the fans, asking if they would rather pay $2-3 more per figure and get all the pieces, or buy them in a separate pack. The fans voted for the exclusive, so that's what we got.
The accessory pack had a few extra bits for each of the figures - nothing earth-shattering, just some more things to add detail to the toys. The two pieces for Samurai Spawn were a bony, back-mounted battle standard and a flint-lock pistol that can be swapped with the blade on the figure's forearm.
Soon after Series 19 came out, teaser images of a Collectors' Club exclusive appeared: this figure was a kudoka, or archer, sculpted with just as much detail as the rest of the figures in the line. However, due to the club changing formats at the time, the figure never materialized. Now, three years later, he's finally seen the light of day in a KB-exclusive two-pack with the repainted Samurai Spawn.
Among these warriors was a novice Bushi named Takeda. He was a fearless hero who ignored the key instruction of the Samurai way: never draw your sword in anger. To draw in anger blinded the warrior's soul and enabled the devils to control a bushi's weapon. Takeda was young and brash, and he allowed the anger to boil in his veins. He disliked being "one of many" and wished to rise quickly through the ranks of the Samurai. To do this, Takeda used his rage to ruthlessly slaughter numerous enemies and allowed his anger to control him in battle.
Kudoka Takeda is Samurai Spawn before his death, when he was merely a severely pissed-off human given to fits of rage and violence - you know, a real hero to the kids.
The 3-year-old sculpt on this figure is just as good as anything being produced today. Takeda is wearing the traditional samurai armor: he's got the helmet, shoulder pads, breastplate, skirt and shin guards over cloth, and everything is sculpted with fine detail. You can make out the individual plates on his armor and the small rope ties holding it together, and even his shirt has a pattern on it. It's all very nice, a prime example of McToys at the top of its game. His facemask is removable, revealing his scowling, painted face beneath.
Though the katana was often considered the soul of a samurai, Takeda is instead armed with a yumi, the samurai's bow. Traditionally made of bamboo, wood and leather, the yumi is a revered weapon. It is typically more than two meters tall, surpassing the height of the archer. A real yumi is asymmetric; the upper and lower curves differ and the grip is positioned at about one-third the distance from the lower tip. Takeda's is more balanced and much more ornate than the real thing - more the sculptor's idea of a samurai bow than an actual representation of the tool.
A quiver hangs on Takeda's back, and two of the arrows are removable - one with a standard point, one with a crescent-shaped cutting head. Japanese arrows, or ya, were made from bamboo and eagle or hawk feathers. The ya has a gender, determined by the way the arrow spins in flight: male arrows, haya, spin clockwise, while females, otoya, spin counter-clockwise. The spin is created by fletching the arrow with feathers from just one side of the bird.
Takeda's pose is good: all kyudo archers shoot right-handed, so that they may face their sensei as they shoot. Unlike western archers, who only draw the bowstring back to the cheek, kudoka draw back so that the string ends up behind the ear - and you thought hitting the inside of your arm with a poor shot hurt. McFarlane's sculptors caught this detail perfectly, though they do still have him drawing with his fingers instead of his thumb.
Truly skilled kyudoka master the technique known as yugaeri, in which the bow, immediately after the shot is released, will spin in the archer's hand so that the string touches his outer forearm. While you can't really get Takeda's bow to spin that way, you can fake it with some careful posing.
Series 19 was one of Todd's few forays into the world of articulation, and Takeda is a pretty typical example of how that worked out: he moves at the neck, shoulders, right bicep, wrists, torso and hips, which is enough to get a bit of poseability out of him, but not enough to really do anything useful.
The Samurai War line's major failing was something that hinted at what was in the future of McFarlane toys - despite the figures' great sculpts, the color schemes chosen were attrocious; the paint apps just blended together to give us figures that, from any kind of distance, looked like really ornate turds. Just muddy brown lumps of plastic lacking any kind of distinguishing features.
For this two-pack, however, Todd went back and fixed that, giving us two figures in nice, vibrant colors. Takeda has bright blue pants that are complemented by the similar highlights on his armor and arrows. The dark bits of the armor are offset by lighter sections, giving the figure a very balanced look overall. Even Samurai Spawn looks better, with a golden orange scheme that is wonderfully brighter than the original - it makes it easier to see the details when they don't all run together.
This truly is a beautiful set, even if we had to wait years to get it. Besides giving us some decent toys, it also just points out how bad all McFarlane's recent stuff has been: releasing wave after wave of comic-based figures takes much less creativity than the Samurai Wars, and that's something that used to be McToys' stock in trade.
Was the wait worth it? Tell us on our message board, the Loafing Lounge.