An Interview with Toy Designer and Collector Mark Nagata

Left to Right: Bullmark Mirrorman Darklon, soft red Ultraman, and glow-in-the-dark Bullmark Zazan

Our newest exhibition, Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey through the World of Japanese Toys opens on Saturday, September 15 and showcases hundreds of dazzling vintage and contemporary Japanese vinyl toys, providing a feast for the eyes and the imagination! Kaiju translates to “strange creature” in English but has come to mean “monster” or “giant monster” referring to the creatures that inhabited the postwar movie and television screens of Japan. The advent of these monsters brought about the creation of characters to combat them—hence the emergence of pop-culture heroes like Ultraman and Kamen Rider. Drawing from the extensive vinyl toy collection of Mark Nagata, the exhibition also demonstrates how 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.

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. 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. 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 artwork. It was during this period that Nagata founded the Max Toy Company in 2005 to produce vinyl kaiju and hero toys. Fast-forward to today, and not much has changed for this toy designer, painter, illustrator, and collector. We caught up with Nagata via email to ask him a few questions.

JANM: What is your favorite kaiju toy of all time?

Mark Nagata: To be honest, my favorite kaiju toy is actually a hero toy. It’s an Ultraman figure, made of soft red vinyl, produced by a Japanese company called Bullmark in the 1970s. Ultraman is my favorite hero and when I discovered that there was a very rare variation of this figure, the hunt was on. During one of my trips to Tokyo in search of toys, I actually found one but the price was very expensive. Even though my fellow toy friends were willing to let me borrow the money, sadly I had to pass on the chance to obtain it. For the next month after returning home, I couldn’t stop thinking of the figure. So, I decided to sell off a bunch of toys and contacted a dealer in Japan to see if the figure was still there for sale. Luckily, it was and they helped me to purchase it. Because the figure is fragile and expensive, I requested that they carefully wrap and pack the figure in a sturdy box and declare the full insurance amount when shipping it.

I waited what seemed like weeks for the figure to arrive. To my complete horror, the mailman handed me a shoe box that was partially opened, and inside the figure was barely wrapped in one piece of newspaper! I quickly examined the figure to make sure it was not broken and luckily it was in perfect condition. As I was throwing out the box, I glanced at the shipping label and once again was shocked to see that the declared insurance value was $5.00, not the value of $5,000! The story has a happy ending, but to this day I keep thinking of how lucky I was that it made it to me in one piece!

Marusan Talking Ultraman

JANM: Where was the most unique place you bought a kaiju toy?

MN: Not really the most unique place, but I think using a fax machine to order toys from Japan was unique. Before email and the internet (yes, that long ago) I would buy toys via the fax machine. A dealer from Japan would fax me in the middle of the night (it was his daytime) with various toy offers. The next day I would circle what I wanted and fax it back to him. I’d still have to wait for another fax to me with payment information. Once I got the totals I had to get a postal money order and mail the payment to him. I’d wait a month for a box to arrive and sometimes a toy would be sold out by the time he got payment. In that case, I would end up with a credit with the dealer.

There was much more work involved to obtain Japanese toys back in those days. Now, with the internet, toy buyers can get a ”fix“ instantly. To me, the fun has been taken out of the searching and hunting process for these toys.

JANM: What is your favorite piece featured in the exhibition?

MN: I know I will get asked this question and to be honest it’s like picking your favorite child! In no particular order for the heroes: the Bullmark Red Ultraman figure, Marusan Talking Ultraman figure, and Ultraman costume. For kaiju figures, I would say the glow in the dark Bullmark Zazan figure, Bandai Barom One Doruge figure, and Bullmark Mirrorman Darklon figure.

Join Mark Nagata on Saturday, September 15, at 2:00 p.m., for a conversation with Marusan toy company President Eiji Kaminaga about kaiju toy history, the world of Japanese toy collecting, and their companies’ histories. (The Marusan toy company created some of the first vinyl kaiju and hero toys of the 1960s and these toys make up a significant part of Nagata’s collection). The conversation will be moderated by Brad Warner, who worked for 15 years at Tsuburaya Productions, the makers of the Ultraman television shows.

Following the discussion, Mark Nagata will sign copies of Toy Karma, an accompanying book by and about Nagata, as well as a 13″ x 19″ print (10″ x 17″ image size) featuring a kaiju and hero image by toy photographer Brian McCarty, who will also be signing the print. The book is $24.95 and the print is $50. Both can be purchased the day of the event. RSVP here.

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