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Beyond Ultraman

The opening night of the new museum exhibition called Beyond Ultraman: Seven Artists Explore the Vinyl Frontier was exciting for me, but also surreal. To see my artwork and some of my Ultraman and Japanese toy collection outside of my home made me look at them in a new light—these toys really do represent more than a child’s playthings. In my case, what started as a gift during childhood had spawned a hobby and now a full time career.

To give you some sense of my childhood, I am a Sansei—a third generation Japanese-American. I have lived my entire life in California, and would say I had a typical American upbringing. Growing up during the mid ‘60s and ‘70s, my toys were the usual American fare, such as GI Joe, Major Matt Mason and Hot Wheels. But for one fateful Christmas in 1973, my aunt, who was living in Japan at the time, sent me a box full of toys. Upon opening this box, I was blown away by the really strange and bizarre looking figures I found inside. Lion-headed guys, green space aliens…and the packages they came in showed these same characters fighting other monsters and attacking cities. I’d never seen the likes of these toys and each made my usual toys look very plain indeed! My parents were both born here, so when I asked them if they could read the packages and tell me more about these toys, they could not. I suppose I could have asked my grandmother, but I was more interested in just playing with them than researching them.

Well, fast forward to the early ‘80s when I was just starting art school. I came across my old box of Japanese toys. I pulled them out after many years in storage and again was blown away by the colors and designs. So, I decided to track down more information on them. I was able to find out the names of most of these figures such as Lion Maru, Mirrorman, and my favorite, Ultraman. Slowly, through local toy shows and then the internet and Ebay, the collection started to take form. I was able to hook up with local collectors and with dealers in Japan who all helped to track down more toys for me.

In 2001, I took my first trip to Japan. Unlike other tourists, I did not visit any temples or historical places, but rather toy stores and toy shows. I had such a great time, I wondered why my parents had not encouraged me to go sooner. I would later learn from my father, who was in the U.S. Army and sent to Japan right after World War II, that he had not only experienced racism from the American soldiers, but also from Japanese who could not understand why he was helping the “enemy”. So he figured I would run into similar feelings and situations. But my interactions had been all positive. Perhaps this is because the later generations know only of peace and consumerism in these modern times. Upon my return, I told my father how much I enjoyed the trip, and that I planned to go back again. He was glad I didn’t have any bad experiences.

I don’t speak, understand or read Japanese…so when I travel to Japan I usually rely on friends to translate for me. Many times, the person I’m with is Caucasian, but since I look Japanese, the store owners will start conversing with me, at which point I have to mutter, “No Nihongo… “ Then my Caucasian friend will start to translate in Japanese for me. The usual reaction is one of disbelief at the situation. This is quite funny—a few times the store owners thought I was playing a joke on them. Since that time, I’ve traveled to Japan many times in search of Ultraman toys…and most store owners now know me as “Nagata-san, the guy who collects Ultraman only and looks Japanese but does not speak it.” Well, there could be much worse reputations to have than that.

I’ve been asked many times “Why Ultraman?” It’s a complex answer that involves my love of the design of the character itself, the charm of the toys made, and finally the artwork that appears on much of the packages during this time period. All these factors appeal to me on many levels and have influenced my artwork style, my collecting habits and even the creation of my own toy company, Max Toy Company.

I’ve collected well over 2,000 figures and am close to tracking down almost all of the known figures I am looking for. Most of the figures I collect are made of soft vinyl material, or “sofubi”, as it’s called in Japan. And even though I did not grow up watching the TV shows or reading the Manga these characters are based on, I have a definite connection to them.

More recently, I’ve tried to find out more information about the creators of these characters and the artists who illustrated them during the 1960s and 1970s. Many of them have passed on, but it seems that there are now more books and articles about these past masters, many of who worked away in relative obscurity. Like most artists whose work is used in a purely commercial mode, their art is not always considered collectible. But my hope in shows like Beyond Ultraman is to not only expose the American public to these past artists, but also to demonstrate how these toys have influenced the current wave of toy artists and designers.

I am a firm believer in honoring and acknowledging the past, but also in carrying on the tradition in my new works. The toys I create for my toy company are an homage to these past Japanese toys, but have a unique take because of my American perspective. I believe this show is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Japanese influence on designer toys. In fact, the current American generation is now hooked on Pokemon and such, and even translated Manga and Anime.

Mark and Max eyeing Eyezons

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that the box of Japanese toys during my childhood Christmas would lead to a museum show many decades later. I suppose my research into these toys has been my main exposure to my Japanese heritage. I could probably write a book called “Everything I know about being Japanese I learned from my Ultraman toys,“ and in all seriousness this would be a true statement about me.

I think I understand a little better that the impact these characters have made on me and others is truly global and shows no signs of slowing down. I don’t know where this will take me as an artist or toy designer, but I look forward to what will be Beyond Ultraman!

Beyond Ultraman: Seven Artists Explore the Vinyl Frontier is at the Pasadena Museum of California Art in California through January 6, 2008. The exhibition examines the vinyl art toy landscape as seen in the work of seven California artists who have elevated the vinyl art toy movement and captured the attention of two audiences: the mainstream art community and the toy community. Features the work of Gary Baseman, Tim Biskup, David Gonzales, David Horvath, Sun-Min Kim, Brian McCarty and Mark Nagata. It is a collaboration between the PMCA and the Los Angeles Toy, Doll and Amusements Museum (LATDA). For more information about the exhibition and the artists, visit

© 2007 Mark Nagata

artists arts collections (objects) exhibitions kaiju Mark Nagata monsters superheroes toys Ultraman (fictitious character)
About the Author

Mark Nagata is a Sansei artist, toy designer, and creator of Max Toy Company. He has worked as a freelance commercial illustrator including over 40 cover paintings for R.L. Stine's Goosebumps book series, Give Yourself Goosebumps. He owns the world’s largest collection of Ultraman toys, has created and curated the Toy Karma toy show, and is featured in the exhibition Beyond Ultraman: Seven Artists Explore the Vinyl Frontier. Both his toys and artwork appear in Full Vinyl, Dot Dot Dash, Hi Fructose Magazine, and Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters. In addition, Mark writes about Japanese toys and is the toy editor for the bi-monthly magazine called Otaku USA.

Visit his Web sites for more information about his various passions:,, and

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