STGCC 2012: Interview with Max Toy Co’s Mark Nagata – Part Two
Do you have a special story of a collectible toy of any kind that you obtained through extraordinary circumstances? Have you gotten a hold of something you never dreamed you’d be able to own in a million years, something so extremely special?
(Laughs) Yes, I do! Yes, I do have a story about that. So, there’s a Bullmark figure, which is a Japanese company from the 1960s and 70s, and they issued, in very small numbers, a standard size Ultraman figure in red vinyl. Now the reason why they released it in red vinyl is they were hoping the colour red would appeal to girls, instead of the grey or like silver colour of what Ultraman is supposed to be. But Ultraman never was red in the series, and then the girls hated the figure anyways, so it never sold, it was a flop for them.
So going forward when I started collecting the figures in the late 80s-early 90s, and I’m doing research about all the different types of figures I had to find, when I found out about the red Ultraman that was always at the top of my list, like if I go back to Japan I’ve gotta look for this, or if I’m looking at eBay or Yahoo Japan or something I gotta find this. So on one trip to Japan, we were in the Nakano mall, which is a very famous mall with like different shops, like Mendorake and toy stores.
One of my friends said “Hey, go look over in the case; I think that’s something you’re looking for!” So I walk over there and there’s a red Ultraman sitting there right, so I was like “oh my God”, and I had to find out, I had to go over and ask how much, right? So I went over and in my very, very poor Japanese asked “Ikura desuka?” – you know, “How much?” And the guy goes “$5,000” – USD $5,000. I just thought… ”I can’t, I can’t. My wife’s gonna kill me!” And I only had $2,000, that’s all I had – for the whole trip, so no way, and I don’t wanna use credit card or anything. So all my friends said “Oh, you know, I’ll loan you a couple of hundred dollars, maybe you’ll get enough to make a big pool or something,” and I said “No no no, I don’t want to have to owe you guys!” So, I left.
So about a week later, I come home to San Francisco, and I’m still thinking about that figure. I can’t believe I couldn’t get it, right? So I’m looking around my room and I’m like “okay”, I have maybe $1,000 saved for toys, but maybe can I sell $4,000 worth of things to get the $5,000? So over the next three weeks, I gather up all kinds of figures and I sell them. And I raised the $4,000, plus the $1,000 I had saved, so I had $5,000 ready to go.
I have to email another friend to run down to the store to make sure the figure is still there, and luckily, it’s still there. So I PayPal the money to my friend, he goes down a second time, buys the figure, and so I tell him “Look, you send it to me EMS. Full insurance, please $5,000 insurance. Put it in a secure box, lots of tape, lots of bubble wrap, this is… this is it, this is my Holy Grail. I’ll pay whatever it costs to get it to me!” He was like “No problem, no problem.”
So a week later, the mailman comes and, you know, EMS box, and I’m looking at the box. It’s a shoebox, a Nike shoebox. It’s crushed. So, it goes like this (an indentation) right in the middle. EMS, it’s from my friend, so I’m thinking “I hope my figure’s not in there.” So I sign for it, I open up the box and the figure’s in there, with two pieces of newspaper. And it’s crushed right, but luckily the figure is fine. So I’m like “good, I got my figure now, I put it in my case, everything is great, right?” I’m looking at the label – he insured it for $5! ¥500. So I just… you know I just thought it got crushed, he didn’t even pack it well, but it got to me alright so… it was meant to be! (Laughs).
Thank you, that’s a great story!
Well, not at the time. I was so mad! I was like “What’s wrong with you?!” and he was like “I forgot… ”
It would probably be hard to ask you to pick a favourite out of the thousands of figures you own, maybe that Red Ultraman would be one, but if you had to – a desert island sort of question – what five figures would you rescue if your house burned down – knock on wood.
Oh wow. Number one has to be – well one of the five, I can’t rank it – has to be the Red Ultraman. I actually have a wax sculpture of the most kaiju that I sell called Eyezon. Even though that’s not really a figure, for me it’s very special because that’s like the original sculpt (master sculpt). See, I’m trying to think of… ohh… these are tough questions! What do we got… three more… there’s a… about a 20 inch tall Marusan Talking Ultraman that I have… that… that was actually very hard to get too so I gotta put it on there. I think I’ve got to get a couple of kaiju in there, so, there’s a giant-sized Kitty Fire – it’s a kaiju from the Mirror Man show. And then, um, probably last one…
Wouldn’t Godzilla be somewhere in there?
You know, actually, I’m not a big Godzilla fan. Yeah. I mean I watch the movies, but in terms of collecting, um, you only have so much money, so all my focus went into Ultraman. Whereas my other friends it was Godzilla or Toho figures. So you know, if I want to see a Toho figure, I just go to my friend’s house and he has all the Godzilla figures (chuckles).
When I was younger, my Dad would always say “Don’t start a new collection, don’t start a new collection!”
Oh yeah, yeah of course! Yeah, it’s, uh, it can be bad.
You’ve said that handpainting toys preserves a tradition. Do you think mass market toys lose too much of the personal feel given to them by sculptors and painters in mass production, or does modern day toy technology adequately duplicate, to a certain degree, the handcrafted original product?
You know, I actually visited a factory in China, for some of my early toys, and the thing that I realised is even though you don’t know the people’s names in the room, they’re all humans. They’re all hand-painting the toys! So even if one woman is just doing the eye, it’s by hand. And she just passes it to the next person, and then maybe they just do the chest, and then the next person but in the end, humans are all touching the toy! Even like a Star Wars figure, you know, they make two hundred thousand of them, it’s still hand-processed. For the actual painting they use a mask, they spray, they put another mask and it goes down the line, so you know, sometimes I don’t understand why people get so down on Chinese-made toys, because what I used to tell them is, well, “Maybe you don’t know their names, but these are people that are still doing the same; similar techniques – just on a bigger scale than what’s happening here, but you should still appreciate the effort that’s going into it,” so…
I guess people have this misconception that mass-market toys come off a production line like cars, you know, where it’s all robots…
Right right, with the robots… well exactly, I understand. If you look at the room and there’s like a hundred people all dressed alike, and you don’t see their faces then you don’t have a connection, a human connection, but even with like, you know, the Hot Toys, they’re sewing all the clothes, sewing the pockets and putting the buttons on… it’s all handwork, it’s amazing.
So, how much of the handiwork do you think most collectors will appreciate? How much of what you do ends up in the collector’s hearts and minds?
Well I would hope that because I like to talk about the process and I videotape them pulling the vinyl, and the guys painting it, I hope that in a little way people will realise that there is that human element in all of these toys and even thought it’s a collectible to just realise that, you know, even if I do twenty of these, really no two are the same. If you line them all up, they look the same, but you start looking and go “oh, maybe this eye is a little this way or this tooth is a little like that” – so actually each one is unique.
My last question is: are you optimistic about a possible kaiju movie revival in the States? With Godzilla and with Pacific Rim and films like that?
Yeah, I am more excited about Pacific Rim (laughs) than I am about Godzilla, only because, uh, I think you know Godzilla has such a long history, that it’ll be very difficult for anybody to come up with something fresh or new… ah… without going so far away from the original Godzilla look?
It’s kinda like how people said “You can’t tell a new Joker story” before The Dark Knight with Heath Ledger came out.
So there is that concern.
Yeah, there is.
Do you think Guillermo del Toro will handle the heritage well, with Pacific Rim?
You know, I’ve barely heard any, uh, reports on it. So um, let’s hope! I love his um… I love Pan’s Labyrinth, and Hellboy, yeah so I think he’ll do a good job.
Thank you so much!
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