At the moment, Little Tokyo’s Japanese American National Museum is full of toys. Godzilla figures are posed as if they’re ready to storm out of their display cases and stomp through the exhibition. Ultraman, the Japanese television hero, makes frequent appearances. There are new toys here too, like Hello Kitty in a monster suit and loads of creatures painted in metallic-tinged colors, sometimes coated in glitter. But, there’s more to Kaiju vs. Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey Through the World of Japanese Toys than just the eye-catching figures.
Nagata is a San Francisco-based artist who helms Max Toy Company. Designer toys, collectible pieces that are more like small sculptures, are his business. Vintage toys are his passion. Nagata has a massive collection of Japanese toys made primarily in the 1960s and ’70s, only a portion of which is on display at JANM. This is an era, he notes, often referred to as a “monster boom,” when frightening creatures and larger-than-life heroes were rampant in Japanese pop culture.
When Nagata was 9, he received a box of toys from an aunt and uncle who were living on a military base in Japan. There were wild monsters and colorful heroes in the stash—some of which are on display at JANM—and it was nothing like what was available in the United States. “From that point forward and without me knowing it, [the toys’ influence] started making its way into my art,” says Nagata. “I started drawing much more dynamic and with bright colors.”
Those toys profoundly influenced Nagata’s work. Before he made his own monsters, he was a commercial artist whose work included covers for the Goosebumps series of books. Some of that work is on display here too, and you can see the influence of mid-20th-century science fiction in the art for tales like Creepy Creations of Professor Shock and Deep in the Jungle of Doom. But Japanese toys also had a deeper impact on Nagata, and this exhibition explores how they helped him connect with his heritage and family history.
Nagata is third-generation Japanese-American. His parents were U.S.-born citizens who were among the Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II because of their ethnicity. Nagata explains how his parents’ experiences informed his own. “They always felt that you should be American first and not really worry about your Japanese heritage because, I’ve come to learn subsequently that their camp experience was not a good one,” he says. “To that point, I started realizing that that’s why I don’t speak Japanese, why I don’t understand Japanese, and why I never really pursued it, because my parents basically didn’t encourage that.”
Nagata connected to his Japanese heritage through pop culture, specifically the toys he loved and the television shows and movies related to them. As an adult, he made his first trip to the country for toy-collecting purposes. “My first exposure to Japan was going to toy stores and hanging out with toy guys and having an amazing time,” he recalls. “They were very receptive and curious about me. You look Japanese. Your last name is Japanese. Why don’t you understand us? They just didn’t understand the concept that I had almost no Japanese-ness outside of my face and my name.”
During the three-year process of developing Kaiju vs. Heroes, Nagata thought a lot about his family history and how it shaped his life, from his interests to the tenacity that drives his career as an artist. Of the internment, Nagata says, “These types of events do have an effect on future generations.” His toys are evidence.
Kaiju vs. Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey Through the World of Japanese Toys, through March 24, 2019; Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave., downtown.
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