Kaiju vs Heroes

Past Exhibition

kaiju vs hero

Mark Nagata's Journey through the World of Japanese Toys

Growing up in California, Mark Nagata was a fan of Disneyland, comic books, and classic Japanese television shows, movies, and toys. These influences inspired his creativity and spurred his initial interest in drawing and art. Fast-forward to today and not much has changed for this toy designer, painter, illustrator, and collector.

Mark Nagata Studio
Mark Nagata in his studio. Photo by Gary van der Steur

After attending the Academy of Art College in San Francisco during the late 1980s, Nagata embarked on a 10-year plus journey as a freelance commercial illustrator. During this time he worked with a diverse client list that included Scholastic Books, Lucasfilm, DC Comics, Hasbro Toys, IBM, Sony, and others. A highlight of this time included Nagata’s colorful paintings gracing the covers of several books in R.L. Stine’s series, Give Yourself Goosebumps.

In 2001, Mark transitioned from illustration to co-founding Super 7 magazine, a publication dedicated to vintage and art vinyl toys. Through his work on the magazine, Nagata combined his passion for Japanese vinyl toys with his own artwork. It was during this period that Nagata founded Max Toy Company (2005). He started the company with the mission to specialize in custom and limited editions of kaiju toys and artwork. Many of the original toys produced by his company are hand painted by Nagata, exhibiting his skills acquired during his career as an illustrator.

Nagata’s original paintings, toys, and a selection of his vintage toy collection were featured in the exhibition, Beyond Ultraman: Seven Artists Explore the Vinyl Frontier (2007) at the Pasadena Museum of California Art in collaboration with the Los Angeles Toy, Doll and Amusements Museum. This marked the first museum show that explored the world of art toys by California artists.

Continuing to spread the kaiju and art toy movement into new uncharted areas of the art world, in 2008 Nagata sold hand-painted custom toys through the prestigious auctions houses, Philips De Pury and Christie’s in New York and London. In 2009, Nagata curated Mark Nagata and Kaiju Comrades art show in Tokyo, Japan, which brought together artists from different aspects of the kaiju toy movement in this first of its kind art toy show. In 2010, Nagata co-curated the first kaiju art show in Barcelona, Spain with Emilio Garcia called Kaiju Attack. Later that year, Nagata lectured about kaiju and the toy making process at the Morikami Museum in Delray Beach, Florida.

Much of Nagata’s world-renowned Japanese toy collection—including many from his massive Ultraman collection—was on display in 2013 through 2014 at SFO Museum in the San Francisco International Airport. The exhibition, Japanese Toys! From Kokeshi to Kaiju, showcased the incredible diversity and growth of Japanese toys with many of Nagata’s favorite vinyl kaiju figures prominently featured. The exhibition also served as a great introduction to the captivating art form of toy design for tens of thousands of bustling travelers to and from Nagata’s hometown.

Additionally, toys designed by Nagata and his writing have appeared in Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters: Defending the Earth with Ultraman, Godzilla, and Friends in the Golden Age of Japanese Science Fiction Film (Chronicle Books), Killer Kaiju Monsters: Strange Beasts of Japanese Film (HarperCollins Publishers), Full Vinyl: The Subversive Art of Designer Toys (HarperCollins Publishers), Dot Dot Dash: Designer Toys, Action Figures And Character Art (Die Gestalten Verlag), Art-Toys and Beyond Ultraman: Seven Artists Explore the Vinyl Frontier (Baby Tattoo Books), along with Super 7 Magazine, Otaku USA magazine, Hyper Hobby magazine, and others.

 

Read a 2007 article by Mark Nagata about how he became interested in Japanese toys on JANM’s Discover Nikkei website.  READ NOW

 

In the Clutches of Kaiju

An interview with artist/toy collector Mark Nagata produced for the exhibition by the JANM Watase Media Arts Center.

September 15, 2018 - July 07, 2019

Japanese American National Museum

With mighty fangs, menacing horns, and iridescent gold scales, the lizard monster Drazoran crushes an imaginary city while Captain Maxx, wearing a bright red suit, flies in to save the day. Drazoran and Captain Maxx are two of the monsters and heroes that emerged from the creative mind of Mark Nagata, a toy designer and fervent toy collector. At JANM, Drazoran and Captain Maxx join hundreds of dazzling vintage and contemporary Japanese vinyl toys on display in Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey through the World of Japanese Toys.

In California in the 1970s, Mark Nagata was living an all-American childhood. When he was nine, an aunt and uncle serving on a US military base in Japan sent him a box filled with colorful figures packaged with art-laden header and backing cards featuring alien-looking beings—kaiju and heroes—engaged in battle. These Japanese toys would eventually change Nagata’s life forever. That seemingly simple gift sparked a passion for Nagata that continues this day. Those toys and the artwork of their packaging inspired him to study art, to zealously collect vintage Japanese vinyl toys, and to become a toy designer himself.

Kaiju translates to “strange creature” in English but has come to mean “monster” or “giant monster” referring to the characters that became popular on Japanese film and television soon after World War II. The anxiety surrounding the lasting physical effects of radiation after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki no doubt helped give birth to super-sized monsters like Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah, and Rodan, and the advent of these monsters brought about the creation of characters to combat them. Hence the emergence of pop-culture heroes like Ultraman, Kamen Rider, and Kikaida. 

After the war, the United States closely monitored the types of industries allowed to revive in Japan. The toy industry was one of the first to be enabled to reinvent itself, and the kaiju films and television shows helped fuel it. Additionally, the toy industry helped stimulate Japan’s economy during the early postwar reconstruction period. These new artistic and economic factors fused with kaiju and hero characters to set the stage for a golden age of Japanese popular culture—one that Nagata first became enamored with as a nine-year-old boy.

Nagata’s pursuit of these Japanese toys took him on an unexpected journey that brought new realizations about his cultural identity as an American of Japanese ancestry. As a Sansei (third-generation Japanese American), Nagata once felt removed from his Japanese heritage. After the incarceration experience of the Issei (first generation) and Nisei (second generation), there was an unspoken shedding of openly Japanese cultural practices in America. Proving one’s “Americaness” meant pursuing and embracing a Euro-centric American lifestyle. The children of Nisei were encouraged to follow this path, with only cursory participation in Japanese culture (mostly eating food and celebrating holidays). 

Nagata’s story mirrors that of many of his generation, who sought to recover their ethnic heritage and reconnect with their ancestral homelands by studying Japanese, living in Japan as college exchange students, or participating in cultural pursuits such as bon odori dancing and taiko drum ensembles. One of the most accessible sources of a Japanese American connection for youth was through toys and popular culture. It was through this connection that Nagata entered a world that would eventually lead him to explore his cultural roots. Now, we invite you to immerse yourself in the same colorful universe of kaiju and hero toys that inspired one Sansei to delve into his cultural connections.

Major Sponsor: The Freeman Foundation

Associate Sponsor: LA DCA

Media Sponsor: Rafu Shimpo

#kaijuvsheroes

September 15, 2018 - July 07, 2019

Japanese American National Museum

With mighty fangs, menacing horns, and iridescent gold scales, the lizard monster Drazoran crushes an imaginary city while Captain Maxx, wearing a bright red suit, flies in to save the day. Drazoran and Captain Maxx are two of the monsters and heroes that emerged from the creative mind of Mark Nagata, a toy designer and fervent toy collector. At JANM, Drazoran and Captain Maxx join hundreds of dazzling vintage and contemporary Japanese vinyl toys on display in Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey through the World of Japanese Toys.

In California in the 1970s, Mark Nagata was living an all-American childhood. When he was nine, an aunt and uncle serving on a US military base in Japan sent him a box filled with colorful figures packaged with art-laden header and backing cards featuring alien-looking beings—kaiju and heroes—engaged in battle. These Japanese toys would eventually change Nagata’s life forever. That seemingly simple gift sparked a passion for Nagata that continues this day. Those toys and the artwork of their packaging inspired him to study art, to zealously collect vintage Japanese vinyl toys, and to become a toy designer himself.

Kaiju translates to “strange creature” in English but has come to mean “monster” or “giant monster” referring to the characters that became popular on Japanese film and television soon after World War II. The anxiety surrounding the lasting physical effects of radiation after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki no doubt helped give birth to super-sized monsters like Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah, and Rodan, and the advent of these monsters brought about the creation of characters to combat them. Hence the emergence of pop-culture heroes like Ultraman, Kamen Rider, and Kikaida. 

After the war, the United States closely monitored the types of industries allowed to revive in Japan. The toy industry was one of the first to be enabled to reinvent itself, and the kaiju films and television shows helped fuel it. Additionally, the toy industry helped stimulate Japan’s economy during the early postwar reconstruction period. These new artistic and economic factors fused with kaiju and hero characters to set the stage for a golden age of Japanese popular culture—one that Nagata first became enamored with as a nine-year-old boy.

Nagata’s pursuit of these Japanese toys took him on an unexpected journey that brought new realizations about his cultural identity as an American of Japanese ancestry. As a Sansei (third-generation Japanese American), Nagata once felt removed from his Japanese heritage. After the incarceration experience of the Issei (first generation) and Nisei (second generation), there was an unspoken shedding of openly Japanese cultural practices in America. Proving one’s “Americaness” meant pursuing and embracing a Euro-centric American lifestyle. The children of Nisei were encouraged to follow this path, with only cursory participation in Japanese culture (mostly eating food and celebrating holidays). 

Nagata’s story mirrors that of many of his generation, who sought to recover their ethnic heritage and reconnect with their ancestral homelands by studying Japanese, living in Japan as college exchange students, or participating in cultural pursuits such as bon odori dancing and taiko drum ensembles. One of the most accessible sources of a Japanese American connection for youth was through toys and popular culture. It was through this connection that Nagata entered a world that would eventually lead him to explore his cultural roots. Now, we invite you to immerse yourself in the same colorful universe of kaiju and hero toys that inspired one Sansei to delve into his cultural connections.

Major Sponsor: The Freeman Foundation

Associate Sponsor: LA DCA

Media Sponsor: Rafu Shimpo

#kaijuvsheroes

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