Qonto: 1970's Japanese Robot Birthday Mystery
Post Star Wars, the world went robot crazy. It seemed as if any kind of toy robot had a better chance than ever of being successful. Lots of robots were modeled after stubby & feisty R2-D2, a cute friendly droid that any kid could imagine as his best friend. If the official Star Wars robot toys weren't enough, there were plenty of other robot ranks to explore on toy shop shelves.
As a boy, I once got a funny little robot for my birthday. It wasn't a character from any comic book or cartoon that I knew of, and yet there was a rather complete toy line at my local Toys R Us. All I knew is that the name on the package was "Qonto", and at under 2" he was small enough to be R2-D2's pesky little brother. When childhood's playtime was over, this little robot stood sentry on my shelf for years as I always had a sneaky liking for the little guy. I remembered his name, but not the unusual spelling. This year as my birthday approached, I racked my memory banks and finally got the robot mystery all figured out.
It appears that Qonto was a character on a Japanese TV show that never made it stateside called San Ku Kai (which I'd really like to see...). In the intro sequence you can see the live-action prop robot that this toy is based on (at around the 45 second mark). Bandai manufactured die-cast figures of the robot, and sold them here in the US as "Bandai Investment Die Cast Collection" for some imagined high-end robot collector market back then. I only ever got the little figure (which was available in a variety of colors) since he was 97 cents, but last week for my birthday I was able to buy the old saucer toy in its box, and am happy to report that it's even better than I remembered.
The "Space Saucer" has that classic UFO shape with Qonto as its pilot. The center section hinges out, with a cleverly weighted rotating interior. Qonto stays upright no matter what angle the ship is - and you all know that when you mess up a robot's equilibrium, they get madder than a wet hen. The spaceship also boasts spring-loaded landing pads with wheels, secret hatches, and a front mounted gun that was undoubtedly originally meant to shoot little missiles (shooting toys were neutered in the late 70's after a child choked to death on a plastic missile). Overall Qonto's spaceship has a much nicer construction & finish than a typical child's toy of the time.
The packaging is interesting as it portrays the toy to be both a collectible for adults, while at the same time it's safe and fun for children. The original price sticker is for $7.95, so it wasn't priced out of range of other toys of the time. There is no mention of the original TV series or backstory on the box either, we kids were on our own (do toys always have to have a storyline built in?). I wonder what the marketing tack was for Qonto? If the toy store is out of R2-D2 figures, perhaps mom will pick up an equally cute little Japanese robo? Perhaps the only way to compete with the Star Wars toy juggernaut was to position this as something a bit better? The cutesy flying saucer was suddenly out of step with the gritty realism that Star Wars showed us, so perhaps it was wise to market this to adults.
All that matters to me is that the saucer was a good enough toy for me to remember it for at least 30 years, and when I found another one and it came in the mail recently I really did feel like a kid again opening the box. To answer your next question, yes... I was making jet noises and ray gun sound effects the whole time. When it's your birthday you get to make the rules, and if you're good you can come over for cake and I'll let you play with my new spaceship.
san ku kaï (french dub)