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.

Photographer Jim Lommasson on What We Carried

What We Carried: Fragments & Memories from Iraq & Syria, a traveling exhibition of the Arab American National Museum, is on view at JANM until August 5, 2018. Having previously created work centered on American soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, photographer Jim Lommasson wanted to tell the stories of those affected by the United States’ participation in these countries. When the same approach he had used in the past did not yield meaningful results, he tried another tactic. The following is excerpted from the artist’s statement:

 

I realized from the conversations, that when one leaves their home, under the cover of darkness with a kid under each arm, you can’t take much with you except some practical items and maybe one or two mementos. It became clear that the carried items tell the story. I began to ask recent refugees in several U.S. cities to share those things with me. I photographed the objects, I made 13” x 19” archival prints and asked the participant to write on the photograph why that item above all others, was so important that they chose to carry it on their long journey to America. The results speak volumes about being uprooted and displaced, about loss, and the preservation of identity. What was carried? What was left behind?

I realized that the objects and the stories help those of us who see them feel compassion and an intimate empathy. What would I take with me? But the more powerful understanding is the realization, of what was left behind. What was left behind was everything else: homes, friends, family, school, careers, culture and history.

The stories tell how similar we all are. Circumstances and zip codes determine what kind of lives we will live. When we try to walk in “others” shoes, we become more human. When we understand that those “others” are not as different as the media and that politicians make them out to be. When we see tired, hungry and desperate families arriving in inflatable boats, walking by the thousands to refugee camps, we have to understand that we would look just like them if we lived in a war zone, or were victims of a natural disaster. Those tired, desperate people might also be teachers, doctors, engineers, or homemakers. Their objects tell us how similar we are. What would you choose? A picture of your mother, bible, a Qur’an, a ring, a teapot, maybe even a Barbie doll? Yes, all of these things travelled from Iraq and Syria to your neighborhood. We aren’t as different as we think. Certainly those who fan the flames of “us” and “them” profit by spreading fear and hatred for personal political gain and try to keep them out by persecuting based on foreign-ness or religion. History has demonstrated that it works.

 

You can read Lommasson’s full statement on our website. What We Carried is included with museum admission. For a closer look at the exhibition, visit JANM on July 28, 2018, when we will be hosting two special events for visitors. At 10:30 a.m., take a guided gallery tour of the exhibition, or join us at 2:00 p.m. for Stories of Displacement, presented in partnership with Vigilant Love, which will share the perspectives of recent Iraqi and Syrian refugees, Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II, and others.

SNEAK PEEK: Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty

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JANM staff members have been working overtime to put together Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty. The 40th-anniversary exhibition will be the biggest U.S. showcase for the popular cute icon to date, with 40 works of contemporary art and over 500 Hello Kitty artifacts.

Many details of the show are top secret until the grand public unveiling on October 11, but with Sanrio’s permission, we are sharing these exclusive sneak peek photos with our loyal readers.

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Archivist Lauren Zuchowski measures the first-ever Hello Kitty phone, made in 1976. An object’s dimensions and condition have to be noted for the museum’s records before it goes on display.

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Collections Manager Maggie Wetherbee holds up a vintage Hello Kitty calculator, also from 1976. It still works!

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Sanrio has produced many Hello Kitty kitchen appliances over the years, often sized for younger cooks and diners. This Hello Kitty waffle iron makes kid-size Hello Kitty waffles in four friendly shapes.

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A Hello Kitty blueberry soda is a perfect fit for this Hello Kitty mini-fridge from 2007. Both products were made and sold in Japan.

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Here’s the first Hello Kitty artwork to be installed! Artist Nicole Maloney looks on and offers direction as a team of handlers assemble her sculptural installation, Hello Kitty All Stacked Up!, in the Weingart Foyer.

You can see these pieces and much more in person when Hello! opens on October 11. Remember, Hello! is a specially ticketed exhibition and we strongly recommend that you buy/reserve your tickets in advance by clicking here. JANM members get in FREE!

Stay tuned to our blog for more Hello Kitty news and tidbits over the next few weeks!

A Behind the Scenes Look at “Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World”

National Museum Collections and Exhibitions Staff are busy preparing for the opening of the upcoming exhibition Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World which opens this weekend on March 8!

Here is a peek behind the covered doors.

As the photographs are hung
As the photographs are hung
A Dragon lurks behind the photographs
A Dragon lurks behind the photographs
The wall art was painted by hand
The wall art was painted by hand
Hanging the photographs
Hanging the photographs

Join us this Saturday for the opening day. Many of the artists will be here to present live tattooing, lectures, and a book signing of the exhibition catalogue.

For information about the exhibition and related public programs, visit: janm.org/perseverance

Perseverance – Live Tattooing and Lectures on Saturday, March 8th

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Tattoo by Yokohama Horiken. Lettering by Chaz Bojorquez. Photo by Kip Fulbeck.

 

JANM’s highly anticipated exhibition, Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World will be opening to the public this Saturday, March 8th!

Perseverance is a groundbreaking exhibition and the first of its kind, as it will explore Japanese tattooing as an art form by acknowledging its roots in ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints. This exhibition will also examine current practices and offshoots of Japanese tattooing in the U.S. and Japan.

GroupShotPerseverance features the work of seven internationally acclaimed tattoo artists, Horitaka, Horitomo, Chris Horishiki Brand, Miyazo, Shige, Junii, and Yokohama Horiken, along with tattoo works by selected others. Through the display of a variety of photographs, including life-sized pictures of full body tattoos, these artists will cover a broad spectrum of the current world of Japanese tattooing.

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Tattoo by Horikiku. Photo by Kip Fulbeck.

Many exciting things are planned for the public opening of Perseverance! Join us from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. for an event that will feature Live Tattoo Demonstrations by Horitomo, Miyazo, Shige, and Yokohama Horiken including tattooing by both machine and tebori—traditional Japanese tattooing by hand.

Saturday’s public opening will also pack in the afternoon with lectures given by curator Horitaka (Takahiro Kitamura), exhibition designer and photographer Kip Fulbeck, and a number of the artists featured in the exhibition—Junko Junii Shimada, Chris Horishiki Brand, Jill Horiyuki Halpin, and Chaz Bojorquez. The program will also include a live tattoo model unveiling.

These back-to-back lectures will begin at 1 p.m., and the last lecture will be given at 4:30 p.m. Don’t miss this opportunity to listen to artists and contributors talk about their work in the exhibition and the importance of the art of tattoo in their life!

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Tattoo by Miyazo. Photo by Kip Fulbeck.

Saturday’s opening will conclude with a signing of the exhibition catalogue with all of the attending artists. The catalogue, along with a variety of custom merchandise produced for the exhibition, will be available for sale at the Museum Store. Get your copy of the exhibition catalogue signed by these amazing artists!

For a full schedule and additional information, please visit the Perseverance exhibition page.

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The programs are free with museum admission. Purchase admission at the front desk of the Museum on event day. No pre-payment accepted. Last entrance to the National Museum will be at 5 p.m.

Lectures will take place in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum in the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy (glass building across the Courtyard from main building). Admission required for entry. Seating will be on a first come, first served basis, until maximum capacity is reached. Seating is limited so please arrive early!

Marvels & Monsters – Preview Reception Highlights

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On October 12, 2013, JANM welcomed its newest exhibition, Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986, with a Preview Reception hosted by the JANM Young Professionals Network (YPN).

The night began with a Members Gallery Talk that took place half an hour before the exhibition’s Preview Reception. The Members Gallery Talk allowed JANM members to take an exciting and intimate gallery tour with curator Jeff Yang.

The Preview Reception was free and open to the public with delicious food from Esaan Thai and free drinks throughout the night.

The evening continued with welcoming and opening remarks from the President & CEO of JANM, Dr. Greg Kimura; Chair of the JANM Board of Trustees, Mr. Gordon Yamate; YPN President, Kira Teshima; Office & Gallery Manager from NYU’s Asian Pacific American Institute, Ruby Gomez; and Marvels & Monsters curator, Jeff Yang.

The highlight of the night was Marvels & Monsters: Unbound—a showcase of short performances inspired by the new exhibition. The showcase commemorated the National Museum’s West Coast premiere of Marvels & Monsters by rethinking, subverting, deconstructing, or satirizing the eight Asian pop culture archetypes depicted in this exhibition.

Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986 is on display at JANM through February 9, 2014. For more information about the exhibition, visit janm.org/marvels-monsters.

Check out these photos from the Marvels & Monsters Preview Reception!

Photo credits: Tsuneo Takasugi

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Our next exhibition opens next week. Go For Broke: Japanese American Soldiers Fighting on Two Fronts chronicles the history of Japanese American Nisei soldiers from the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and Military Intelligence Service who served during World War II to prove their loyalty to the nation that had disowned them.

The exhibition opens next Tuesday, November 12, but if you’re a current JANM member, join us for a special Member Preview this Sunday, November 10, 2PM – 4PM. See the exhibition before it opens to the public and hear remarks by Eric Saul, Director, Japanese American Wartime History Project. To RSVP, contact specialevents@janm.org or 213.625.0414 x2222.

 

A Behind the Scenes Look at Marvels & Monsters

What happens when a Museum changes exhibitions?  Why is the area cordoned off so we can’t see what is going on inside? Common questions posed by National Museum visitors when they meet the Collections Management team and realize we are part of the select group that is behind the blacked out door during exhibition changes.

Here are a few images to help you glimpse behind the door!

(click to see the full images)

 

Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986
October 12, 2013 – February 9, 2014
Through a selection of images from comic books representing four turbulent decades, Marvels & Monsters illustrates how evolving racial and cultural archetypes defined America’s perceptions of Asians.
For more information >>

The Comics Have Arrived!

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Comics from the William Wu Collection at the Fales Library at NYU. Collections staff are preparing them for display.

In preparation for the opening of Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986, Collections staff received 38 special collections comic books from the Fales Library at NYU.  The comics have arrived!

Comics featured include a Green Hornet from 1944, Yellow Claw from 1956, Wonder Woman from 1956, Justice League of America from 1967, Iron Man from 1969, Captain America from 1970, Batman from 1972, and many, many more!

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The comics were carried by Art Handlers from New York to Los Angeles.

Don’t miss out on the exhibition opening on Thursday, October 10th at 6 p.m. or the FREE fun-filled Target FREE Family Saturdays event on Saturday, October 12th from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

For more info about the exhibition and upcoming events, visit: janm.org/marvels-monsters

 

 

 

Save the Date: Go for Broke!

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Young Nisei soldier who entered the Army before the war and his mother pose in their strawberry field in Northern California shortly before incarceration.
Image credit: National Archives

The Nisei soldiers who fought in World War II embodied a particular set of values, passed down from generation to generation. Giri—sense of duty. Gambare—perseverance. And of course, go for broke—give it your all.

When Go for Broke: Japanese American Soldiers Fighting on Two Fronts opens on November 12, 2014, look deeper into the lives of these Nisei who gave their all.

Go For Broke chronicles the resilience and bravery of these young men both on and off the battlefield. Japanese American soldiers fought in eight brutal campaigns across Europe, receiving thousands of medals for heroism even while suffering an astronomical casualty rate. Thousands more joined the Military Intelligence Service and operated throughout the Pacific Theater as language and intelligence specialists. Yet their battles were not finished when the war ended. The Nisei veterans returned to fight pervasive racism back home—and proved just as successful in this arena. With their help, hundreds of anti-Asian laws were struck down.

First displayed at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York, Go For Broke shows how instrumental these soldiers were in the Japanese American fight for justice both overseas and at home. The photographs in this exhibition are supplemented by a special Guide by Cell audio tour, with narration by curator Eric Saul and Nisei veterans.

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To celebrate the opening of this exhibition, we invite all JANM Members for a special preview of the exhibition before it opens to the public.

Member Preview
Sunday, November 10th • 2-4PM
Members are invited to join us for an exclusive preview of Go For Broke with curator Eric Saul. To RSVP, contact specialevents@janm.org or 213.625-0414 ext. 2222 by Wednesday, November 6.

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Join us also for this special public program on December 7th presented in partnership with the Go For Broke National Educational Center:

The Military Intelligence Service (M.I.S.) in Occupied Japan
Saturday, December 7th • 2PM

M.I.S. veterans, Edwin Nakasone, Bruce Kaji, and Hitoshi Sameshima, will discuss their roles in the rebuilding of Japan after the end of World War II. The MIS was a US military unit mostly comprised of Japanese American Nisei who provided translation, interpretation, and interrogation services during World War II. Presented as part of the Tateuchi Public Program Series.

From Mine Okubo to Li’l Neebo: JANM Collections to Augment Marvels & Monsters Exhibition

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Comic from the Tulean Dispatch. This First Person Narrative of Americas Concentration Camps is highlighted in Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986

As the incoming Collections Manager at the Japanese American National Museum, I am amazed by the sheer depth of artifacts and artworks that comprise the Japanese American experience. Having admired the institution’s mission and values from an outside perspective, I am happy to become part of the thriving community that is “behind the house” in the collections at JANM.

It is the goal of the Collections Management and Access Unit (CMA) to preserve the collections for future generations and to utilize them to their fullest potential as ambassadors and storytellers for the Museum—for the collections are the cornerstone of the Museum. One wonderful way to achieve this potential is to use our temporary exhibitions as an entryway into exploring our own collections.

We are excited to have the opportunity to share some of JANM’s collection alongside the traveling exhibition, Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986, which comes to us from the NYU Fales Library & Special Collections. CMA and Education Staff realized the potential of pairing our collection of historical artifacts to enhance the exhibition in an unexpected way.

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Chris Ishii’s Li’l Neebo (Little Nisei Boy) reading a Superman comic inside his book. Ishii, who once was an artist for Disney, started Li’l Neebo while at the Santa Anita Pacemaker newspaper, and continued at the Granada Pioneer. His first person narratives provide a glimpse into America’s Concentration Camps.

It is interesting to contemplate the idea that artist Chris Ishii never imagined Li’l Neebo sharing gallery space with Wonder Woman! A Miss Breed letter and Mine Okubo drawing in conversation with each other about the shared theme of comic books… who would’ve guessed?

Marvels & Monsters illustrates Asians and Asian Americans through racial and cultural archetypes and when paired with first person Japanese American narratives of concentration camp life told through comics, a differing perspective is shared. Through the cartoons of artist Chris Ishii’s Li’l Neebo and George Akimoto’s Lil Dan’l, artwork by Mine Okubo, and letters from young inmates to librarian Clara Breed, Museum visitors will glimpse how comics were used to express emotion and to retain a sense of normalcy in a less than ideal situation. These images, juxtaposed with the stereotypical Asian themes in U.S. comics, provide a place for reflection on the impact and power of storytelling through comics and the way in which this popular medium has shaped perceptions of history.

It is through collaborations such as these that the importance of the collections at JANM, through the stories and first person experiences of the Issei and Nisei generation, are linked to contemporary society.

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Marvels & Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986 will be on display at the Japanese American National Museum from October 12, 2013 – February 9, 2014. For more information about the exhibition and related public programs, visit: janm.org/marvels-monsters

Margaret Zachow Wetherbee is the new Collections Manager at the Japanese American National Museum.