M.U.S.C.L.E. Mania

Posted by | on December 3, 2007

Shivering with cold because the water has gone tepid an hour ago…tiny, brightly-colored Superheroes, pro-wrestlers, and space aliens are perched on every inch of available tub-space.

…A view from the bathtub…

M.U.S.C.L.E. Men Toy Figures

It’s about 8:30pm on a Tuesday night lost long ago. Mom and dad are in the living room watching the news and an eight year old me is upstairs having my bath before bedtime. I’m shivering with cold because the water has gone tepid an hour ago, but I don’t even feel it. I’ve been busy concocting stories and battles for the hundreds of little plastic figures littering the bathroom floor, and floating around with me in the tub. Tiny, brightly-coloured Superheroes, pro-wrestlers, and space aliens are perched on every inch of available tub-space !

POW !!! The Lizard-Man just got blasted by the Robot-Wrestler. BLAM !!! The Walking monolith just got flying kicked by the Ninja Assassin. Pretty soon my mom’s at the door, wondering why it’s taking me so long to scrub behind my ears. How can she possibly understand the Universe is at stake !!!???

It’s now 9:00pm and serious hypothermia is in danger of setting in, so I collect up all the figures, deciding that the ultimate super-wrestling championship finals can wait till tomorrow night’s bath-time. I pop them all into a big tupperware container, towel off, trek back to my room (past my mom’s quizzical looks) and hop into bed. Tonight, I’ll dream the next chapter of my imaginary epic saga.

Almost twenty years later, I’ve still got that tupperware container full of little figures.

The legion of colourful little 1 1/2″ figurines that captured my imagination so vividly were called M.U.S.C.L.E. Men (An acronym for Millions of Unusual Small Creatures Lurking Everywhere). During the early 1980s these little dudes (and I think they were ALL dudes) were sold by the ton to rabid North American pre-teen collectors in packs of four, ten, and thirty. The ten packs being one of the coolest packaging jobs on toys I’ve ever seen !!! (miniature plastic garbage cans of love)Pack O’ Muscle

The packs of figures, which sold for pennies, seemed to contain an endless assortment of characters, both righteous “Thug Busters”, and evil “Cosmic Crunchers”. The only way to tell if one of your tiny un-opposable figures was a good guy or not was to study it’s facial features, it’s pose, and it’s clothing (little tip : guys that stoop to using weapons are evil). The packaging literally came with no indication of what the M.U.S.C.L.E. Men’s story was, or where you could find out who or what your characters were. So, without missing a beat, a whole generation of children with hyper-active imaginations just thought up their own stories for these little guys to play a part in. I did some of my best work in the tub… but you already know about that…

So imagine my surprise when, after a little research, I found out that M.U.S.C.L.E. Men were in fact a Japanese franchise with a very colourful and in-depth storyline !!! (I should have known, first Transformers, now this)

Originally known as Kinnikuman in Japan, the whole shebang started as a weekly comic book in the 70s created by two guys named Yoshinori Nakai and Shimada Takashi under the combined pen-name of “Yudetamago” (which means “boiled egg”). The comic focused on the exploits of Kinnikuman (translates to “Muscleman”) who was kind of slow, but determined to protect the world from a wide array of bizarre villains. These supremely powerful beings called “Chojin” always decided to settle their differences with pro-wrestling matches for some reason. As weird as the premise seemed, the comic had a rabid Japanese fan base, who routinely mailed the creators ideas for new cosmic wrestling villains, and were rewarded by seeing their creations get suplexed to bits in black and white.

Kinnikuman TV Group

As popularity for the action/comedy comic grew from a cult following to a mainstream phenomenon, it was translated into a weekly Japanese television cartoon than ran from April 1983 to October 1986. The Kinnikuman machine was unstoppable, pumping out merchandise of all kinds : dolls, stickers, games, and a peculiar brand of small figures called “Kinkeshi” which were prized for their collectabillity. These 1 1/2″ foreskin-coloured figures were molded from a tough plastic that kinda resembled one of those old pink erasers that got forgotten in the bottom of your locker and calcified over the summer break. Japanese kids were crazy for the little guys !!! Soon the figures were being distributed in various colours from simple reds, oranges and purples, to eighties tube-sock neon green !!!

Soon the big, international toy company Bandai came to see what all the fuss was about. Buying the rights to distribute Kinnikuman in N. America, Bandai decided to release the Kinkeshi figures only and see how American children responded. Re-dubbed M.U.S.C.L.E. Men, and packaged with only the names of two characters (“Muscleman”, the hero and “Terri-Bull”, the villain) the strange, collectible toy line hit American and Canadian shelves in 1985. The timing could not have been more perfect.

Kids in north America were beyond ready to embrace a kitschy Japanese sci-fi/wrestling sensation. It was the year of Hulk Hogan and the first Wrestlemania, the year of the Droids TV show, Back to the Future, and Mad Max. Body Slams and lazer beams were already part of our genetic make-up !

NES M.U.S.C.L.E. GameEach character was inscribed with the mysterious Y/S.N.T. code on it’s back, indicating that it was one of the 233 original series M.U.S.C.L.E. Man figures. How do I know there were 233 ? Because you could send away for a poster that proudly displayed ALL the figures, and your collecting obsession, to all your friends and family. There was also a life-size Championship belt you could buy to store your figures, and a miniature wrestling ring for them to fight in (of course we ALL know the proper place to play with M.U.S.C.L.E. Men is in the bathtub). Nintendo even got in on the action, and paired-up with Bandai to release M.U.S.C.L.E. for the NES in 1986. Probably one of the silliest and most pointless Nintendo games ever made, M.U.S.C.L.E. did succeed in revealing absolutely NOTHING about our beloved characters, or the world they inhabit. But hey, I still bought it…

By 1987 the magic of M.U.S.C.L.E. Men had pretty much dispersed from the collective ADD-riddled American attention span, but in Japan the series continued to have a huge fan base. The cartoon wrapped up with 137 episodes, plus a spin-off show dedicated to the character Ramenman (think Bruce Lee meets a Butternut Squash).

Ultimate Muscle comic cover

The comic continued to be published, and seven more video games were produced for various systems for the next couple years. Bandai tried to market the Kinkeshi toy line to Europe (Italy especially) by releasing the multi-coloured series of figures under the name of “Exogini” (which I think roughly translates to “I can’t speak Italian, so don’t ask me“).

The popularity of Kinnikuman continued through the 90s to this very day in Japan. Good ‘ol Yudetamago struck gold again in 1998 with a new series entitled, appropriately enough Ultimate Muscle : The Kinnikuman Legacy. Focusing on a new bunch of Chojin (led by Muscleman’s son… er… little MuscleMan…?) and their battles against new and even more silly villains. This series became just as huge a hit as the original, spawning cartoons, video games, trading cards, and yes… hundreds of tiny Kinkeshi figures to inspire a whole new generation.

I, along with most N. Americans, had moved on to bigger and flashier toys by the end of the 80s. Even so, I still kept my M.U.S.C..L.E. men in that worn tupperware container in my closet. Every once in a while my family would hit a local garage sale and I’d find the obligatory shoe-box filled with 5-cent buttons and figures containing one or two M.U.S.C.L.E. Men (it’s usually by the kiddie table at the back, next to the Barbie dolls that are missing limbs). Slowly, my inactive collection of figures grew right through my teenage years into adulthood. Every so often I crack the box open and sort through the little guys, rubbing dust and dried bits of soap out of their faces from my bathtub adventures so long ago. I try to remember the names I gave them, and the stories they were a part of… I had so much more imagination then.

For anyone interested in dusting off their M.U.S.C.L.E. collection and getting back into the collecting game, there is a passionate and hard working group of websites dedicated to all things Kinnikuman which can provide much more info than I.

  • The Exogini Page can help you figure out if that strangely-coloured M.U.S.C.L.E. Man is actually an Italian spy.

So get up into that attic, dust off your old shoebox fulla toys and start EBay-ing to finish that near-perfect M.U.S.C.L.E. Man collection. Or, just have a look at the little guys for Nostalgia’s sake… It’s okay to play with ‘em too, and make those Mortal Kombat sound effects when no-one is around… I won’t tell…


Much Love…

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2 Responses to “M.U.S.C.L.E. Mania”

  1. AvatarJudy

    There exists a list that illustrates and names many of the muscle men. It would be interesting if it is still kicking around.

    Reply to this comment.
  2. AvatarTim

    I’m looking for an original M.U.S.C.L.E man poster that displays all of them for my brother. He has a copy of 1. And I am also looking for #120 in the series.

    It is the only 1 he is missing to give him for his birthday.

    Without spending a small fortune.

    Can you help.

    Reply to this comment.