His Monstrous Love

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Nagata's affectionate "Kaiju vs. Heroes" opens at JANM Sept. 15.

Lifelong collector Mark Nagata’s studio is filled with Japanese kaiju and heroes. (Photo by Gary Van Der Steur)

Hundreds of contemporary and vintage Japanese vinyl toys will take up residence at the Japanese American National Museum beginning Saturday, Sept. 15, installed as part of “Kaiju vs. Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey through the World of Japanese Toys,” a new exhibition that will be on view through March 24, 2019.

The kaiju and heroes to be featured represent but a fraction of toy designer Mark Nagata’s collection; his own toy designs also will be displayed.

Nagata was living an all-American childhood in California during the 1970s. When he was nine, an aunt and uncle serving on a U.S. 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.

Toys sent to young Nagata from relatives overseas sparked a lifelong love of Japanese monsters and superheroes, as captured in “Memories,” his painting created in 2005.

Those toys and the artwork of their packaging eventually changed Nagata’s life forever, inspiring him to study art, zealously collect vintage Japanese vinyl toys, and become a toy designer himself. It was Japanese toys and Nagata’s pursuit of Japanese pop culture that also eventually brought him new realizations about his cultural identity as an American of Japanese ancestry.

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 toy industry was one of the first to reinvent itself, and the kaiju films and television shows helped fuel it, stimulating Japan’s economy during the early postwar reconstruction period and setting the stage for a golden age of Japanese popular culture — one that Nagata first became enamored with as a nine-year-old boy.

A wide range of toys from Nagata’s extensive personal collection will displayed alongside original artwork by Nagata and some of his own toy creations, including Captain Maxx, Drazoran, Eyezon, and Alien Argus. Nagata’s toys and artwork have previously been displayed at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (“Beyond Ultraman: Seven Artists Explore the Vinyl Frontier,” 2007) and at SFO Museum at San Francisco International Airport (“Japanese Toys! From Kokeshi to Kaiju, 2013-2014”).

In conjunction with “Kaiju vs. Heroes,” JANM will present a free outdoor screening of the original Japanese version of “Godzilla” (“Gojira”) on Thursday, Oct. 25, at 7 p.m. First released in Nagoya in October 1954, the movie, which spawned numerous remakes and sequels over the years, is a metaphor for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is longer — and bleaker — than the re-cut version released in the U.S. in 1956, and is widely recognized as a significant commentary on the suffering of the Japanese.

The screening is supported by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and presented in partnership with Haunted Little Tokyo, a family-friendly community festival celebrating Halloween throughout the month of October, culminating in an all-day Halloween block party on Saturday, Oct. 27.

Vinyl toys created by Nagata show Captain Maxx waging battle against Drazoran in front of JANM. (Photo by Brian McCarty)

For the exhibition, the JANM Store will feature several limited-edition toys sold only on-site. Two of these — Marusan Gorilla (10 pieces, $120 each) and Marusan Bondora 350 (10 pieces, $70 each) — are hand-painted by Nagata. Other in-store exclusives include Marusan King Godoras (20 pieces, $80 each) and Marusan Licensed Glitter Ultraman (20 pieces, $115 each). No discounts will be allowed on these items.

Limited editions of 50 pieces each available both online and in store will include Mini Eyezon and Mini Drazoran at $30 each and Sofubi-Man in red for $40. In addition, fans can purchase an Eyezon T-shirt for $25 and a Kaiju vs Heroes mug, featuring original artwork by Nagata, for $15. An accompanying book about and by Nagata, Toy Karma, will be available for $24.95.

The Freeman Foundation is the major sponsor of “Kaiju vs Heroes.” The Department of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles, is associate sponsor.

For more information, visit http://janm.org/kaiju-vs-heroes.

JANM is located at 100 N. Central Ave. in Little Tokyo. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday from noon to 8 p.m. General admission is $12 adults, $6 students and seniors, free for members and children under age five. Admission is free to everyone on Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. and every third Thursday of the month from noon to 8 p.m. Closed Monday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. For more information, visit www.janm.org or call (213) 625-0414.

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