By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
“Kaiju vs. Heroes,” an exhibition featuring vintage and contemporary Japanese vinyl toys from Mark Nagata’s extensive collection, is on view at the Japanese American National Museum through March 24, 2019.
“It’s quite literally a feast for the eyes and the imagination,” said JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs at a preview for members and donors on Sept. 14, the day before the show opened to the public. “It also demonstrates how something as seemingly insignificant as a child’s toy … can help to inspire the exploration of identity.
“For those of you unfamiliar with the term ‘kaiju’ … it translates into English as ‘strange creature,’ but it’s also come to mean ‘giant monster,’ which refers to the creatures like Godzilla that inhabited the post-war movie and television screens in Japan. And of course when you have monsters, you need to have heroes that are going to combat them. Hence the emergence of pop-culture heroes like Ultraman.
“All the toys that you’ll see on display in the gallery are from Mark’s personal collection. He is a toy designer and a fervent toy collector. Most of you here know that after the World War II incarceration experience of the Issei and Nisei, there was an unspoken shedding of openly Japanese cultural practices in America. Mark, a Sansei, like many of his generation, found a connection to his heritage through Japanese toys and popular culture.”
Inviting actor, activist and museum trustee George Takei and his husband Brad onto the stage, Burroughs announced, “Today is their 10th wedding anniversary. They got married right here at the Japanese American National Museum, across the plaza … George is our special speaker [for the evening]… He and Brad have been unwavering supporters for years and years.”
Noting that the wedding took place in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum, Takei said, “We chose this venue because we love the Japanese American National Museum very much. But we also were absolutely delighted that that venue there is called the Democracy Forum because it’s democracy that made Brad and my wedding possible, and so we are very grateful for that.”
He added that the reception was held in JANM’s Aratani Hall. “As we walked in, we had the Gay Men’s Choir up there serenading us, and all our performing arts friends joined us and performed here as well … An absolutely memorable, unforgettable, breathtaking experience … and just about this time we were gathered together in this Aratani Hall to celebrate. So it’s wonderful to be here.”
Of “Kaiju vs. Heroes,” Takei said, “This is a show that I have very special and very personal feelings about because in my professional acting career, the first time that I got paid to do what I do was dubbing in English dialogue to a Japanese science fiction movie. It was called ‘Rodan’ … It was a fun show to do and an exciting show for me because … I got paid for doing what I would have voluntarily done eagerly.
“My next job too was a voice-dubbing job, and that was for an episode of ‘Godzilla.’ And even my third paid gig was a voice dubbing … It was called ‘The Jelly Monster’s Vengeance.’ I didn’t play the jelly monster; I was one of the heroic voices.”
Takei noted that the exhibition embodies an element of Japanese history. “Japan is the only nation that was bombed with the atomic bomb … The fear, the terror, the horror of nuclear radiation just permeates that society, and these prehistoric monsters … have a background in that fear. These prehistoric monsters were in hibernation, lying dormant in some deep, dark cave, and it was radiation that brought them to life.”
He said the show can be seen in “the happy context of a Japanese American young boy finding a unique way of connecting with Japan” as well as the context of “recent Japanese history of the atomic bomb.”
Maria Kwong, who runs the Museum Store as director of retail enterprises, took on the additional role of curator for “Kaiju vs. Heroes.” “The show gives a new meaning to the concept of a toy story,” she explained. “… Toys serve children the same way that art serves adults. They teach and inspire in a way that allows freedom of personal expression. A lesson here — pay attention to what your kids play with.”
In addition to her staff, she thanked Nagata “for allowing me to share his story and play with his toys. This is a show I have wanted to do since I worked with him 11 years ago on another exhibition … He’s a pretty modest guy, but once you see the show, I think you’ll all agree that he shaped himself a pretty extraordinary life by following his passion.”
One of the special features of the exhibition is “a virtual reality component … that will take you into the midst of Mark’s toy collection,” Kwong said. “What you see in the galleries is a smattering of his toy collection and it’s presented in a museum format … but this is not how these toys live in Mark’s house.”
There is also “a video game feature where you can become a kaiju and smash buildings as you rampage down First Street,” she said. “You must try it.”
The Museum Store is offering several exhibition-related products, some exclusive to JANM and in limited quantities.
“It’s been three years since we started this project,” Nagata said, “and to be honest, at first I was not too clear on how the internment related to the toys and myself. Both of my parents were interned in Topaz, Utah when they were 14 years old. Growing up, they always referred to this time as being in the ‘camps,’ and at the same time did not dwell on this experience. They instead stressed being self-reliant in life, but to remember that it can all be taken away.
“I didn’t really think about how confusing these statements were at the time, but now I realize what they meant. As you tour this exhibit, you will learn how my upbringing and my exposure to kaiju toys slowly exposed me to my Japanese culture and the realization that the camp experience did have an impact on myself and the careers I’ve chosen. For me, there is a connection, and while you honor me with this exhibit, you actually honor my parents and what they endured.”
He gave special thanks to “my wife Anna, who’s endured countless toy convention and comic book conventions throughout the years, even though she’s not a collector, and finally my son Max, my inspiration. He gives me hope that we will all have a better future.”
JANM is located at 100 Central Ave. (at First Stret) in Little Tokyo. Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday, 12-8 p.m. Closed Monday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day. Admission: $12 adultsl $6 seniors (62+), students with ID, and youth (6-17); free for children 5 and under and members. Group rates available. Free admission Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. and all day every third Thursday of the month. Free admission all day on Saturday, Nov. 10. For calendar of events, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org.
Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo