Man Turns Toys into Art
By John Sammon
SAN FRANCISCO — The traditional Japanese genius for vibrant colors and imaginative designs in art adorning everything from kimonos to stylized 19th century water color paintings also extends to toys—a career Mark Nagata has designed for himself.
“For me the joy is the creation of a drawing that becomes a three-dimensional model you can hold in your hand, that becomes a toy you can share with fans,” Nagata said.
A San Francisco resident, Nagata creates toys in the Japanese style in fantastic shapes that are literally splashes of color, starting originally with “Ultraman,” a superhero from a 1960’s Japanese TV show who fought monsters in the tradition of Godzilla. The Ultraman show grew hugely popular in the 1970’s including viewers in the U.S. The character has since become almost as well known worldwide as Mickey Mouse.
The toy monsters Nagata creates for Ultraman to battle, called “kaiju,” translated means strange beast or monster, are the kind that imaginarily go on rampages attacking cities, the military or other monsters.
Since the founding of his Max Toy Co. in San Francisco in 2005 (the company is named for his son Max), Nagata has expanded his “Kaiju” art to include other creatures and characters. The toy creations, wildly inventive, vary in size and shape and seem almost psychedelic-polychromatic.
As a result, they have become more than mere toys and are valued as collector’s items.
Nagata said he’s been an avid collector of Japanese toys starting back when he was a boy. A fan of Disney, comic books and classic Japanese TV shows and movies, he said he had always wanted to be an individually unique artist.
“I don’t speak Japanese,” Nagata said. “My love for these crazy monsters and space heroes is purely visual. Today I have a personal collection of 3,000 Japanese toys, for example Candle-Man or Lion-Man (Lion-Maru, 1972). These were TV series in Japan.”
After World War II with Japanese industry destroyed, occupation officials of the U.S. allowed tin metal to be used for the manufacture of inexpensive toys. Exported, they became popular resulting in massive production and one of the first industries to restart the Japanese economy.
Nagata was born in San Mateo in 1964. His grandfather had been a gardener and his mother’s family had run the Imperial Hotel in San Francisco (torn down) .
When the U.S. Government decided to imprison Japanese Americans living along the West Coast in 1942 suspecting them of treachery, both of Nagata’s parents and their families were sent to the Topaz War Relocation Center, a barbed-wire-enclosed concentration camp located in a remote part of Utah.
“My parents were teenagers in the camp and knew of each other,” Nagata said.
Later Nagata’a father Robert joined the U.S. Amy and served on occupation duty in Japan. After the war he attended UC Berkeley and entered the banking profession with the Bank of Tokyo.
His mother Takeko Doi (Nagata) worked at a fashion store in New York.
The couple reunited in California and married.
For a time Nagata and his parents lived in Southern California. He recalled that relatives visiting Japan sent him a box of Japanese toys.
“I had less than a dozen toys, but their color and the characters they depicted were amazing,” Nagata said. “They were so different from American toys.”
The family resettled in San Francisco where Nagata attended Lowell High School and San Francisco City College.
“I had always liked to draw and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” he said. “My parents were supportive of my wanting to be an artist. I thought I would go into film-making this was at the time of the movie Star Wars. City College had a small film department so I studied there.
But in film-making you needed to assemble a film crew and technicians and I wanted to do things on my own,” Nagata added. “It was then I rediscovered my box of toys I had been sent from Japan. I looked at them for inspiration. I picked up the collecting bug and started searching for Japanese toys for example on e-Bay.”
Nagata enrolled at the Academy of Art in San Francisco where he honed drawing skills and learned subjects like color theory.
“I’ve never had formal (art) training,” he said. “I wanted to be an illustrator and do commercial work, for example doing artwork on merchandise—-working for companies that would hire an artist. This was before (computer) Photoshop.”
Nagata developed a portfolio of work, acquired an agent to represent him and through the 1980’s freelanced as an artist. However the emergence of computer-generated illustration for less cost cut into his freelance work.
A chance meeting with a man named Jimbo who was doing a book about Japanese toys led to Nagata to be asked to display his collection for photographs in the book. Jimbo suggested offhand that Nagata start his own magazine on Japanese toy collecting.
“That was the genesis of my next career,” Nagata said. “I became a magazine publisher.”
The color magazine, titled Super7, was devoted to Japanese toy culture, kaiju (monster) culture, art and design.
Still wanting to do something individually Nagata decided to divest himself of the magazine and produce toy creatures. In 2004 he connected with a factory in China where officials agreed to produce a small output of his toy creations.
“This was different from the big toy companies in the U.S. like Mattel or Hasbro where they turn out thousands of items,” Nagata said. “I decided to create my own superhero called ‘Captain Maxx’ and my own rogue monsters. That’s who I started with. But we also make our version of Ultraman and Kaiju monsters.”
The toys are produced under license with Tsuburaya Productions Co. of Tokyo, holder of the rights to the Ultraman series.
“It’s a franchise, every year a new Ultraman is produced. The monsters we’re making are from the first series,” Nagata noted.
Nagata draws the figure to be produced and has a sculptor in Japan who creates a model of the beast. A mold is then produced from the model by a factory in Japan and vinyl used to make the creation.
“The vinyl comes in liquid form and is poured into the mold,” Nagata said. “After it cooks the excess is dumped out, individual pieces the arms and legs are extracted—and the figure assembled.”
Nagata said the main market for his toys is here in the U.S.
“After the toy is made and painted it is sent to me where I package and sell it,” he said. “It’s a very limited run, 100 pieces or under. Technically I’m a collectibles company.”
Retail price depends on the size of the object. Smaller figures five inches tall can sell for $35. Larger figures nine to 12 inches can go for $60 to $80.
“It can take three to six months from start to finish making one of the characters,” Nagata said. “I don’t have workers I’m a one-man operation.”
He credited his wife Anna for her support.
“I’ve known her since high school and she’s seen all my creations and offered her opinions. She’s been a great help to me.”
Nagata is designing a new toy figure based on Gerald Okamura, a Hawaiian-born martial arts actor and stuntman who appeared in 39 action feature films in the 1980’s and 90’s like the movie “Big Trouble in Little China.”
“I’m going to make him (Okamura) a master of weapons figure,” Nagata said.
The Okamura figure is now in production and will debut at the DesignerCon (toy show) to be held Nov. 16-18 in the Anaheim Convention Center.
In addition examples of Nagata’s vintage toys and artworks are on display in an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum (100 N. Central Ave.) in Los Angeles. The exhibition, titled “Kaiju Versus Heroes,” runs through March of 2019.
For more information on Max Toy Co. go to www.maxtoyco.com.
For information about the Japanese American National Museum Kaiju Versus Heroes exhibit go to www.janm.org/exhibits/kaiju-vs-heroes/