Japan October 2010, In Living Kolor – Part 5

The following series of blogs are about my trip to Tokyo, Japan to participate in the “In Living Kolor” toy art sale and demonstration show.

The basic idea of this show was to introduce a new type of paint for toys, called Monster Kolor. Matt Walker ( aka Dead Presidents Designs ) is the developer and creator of this paint, but has also gained much attention within the Art Toy world as a top notch and sought after toy painter. By setting up several airbrushes and having plenty of paint to use, invited artists could use the paint in person on an actual toy.

Joining us on this trip was Keith Fulmis of BeBop Designs, artist and designer and maker of most awesome pins ( Like the Kaiju Eyezon pin, ;-P ). This was his first foray to Japan.


Part 5 – Monday, Factory Tours !

This being our last full day in Tokyo, I awaken on the early side for once and decide to check emails and what not … I’m feeling more tired now .. maybe just jet lag ? Not sure, but also a bit sad since we leave the next day .. and we all return to our “real” lives, ha-ha … being away even for 6 days I’m so far behind in my work left at home … I had planned to release some Eyezons for Halloween, but that is not happening ;-P I have at least 6 pieces of artwork coming due for various projects, a few customs due, also a Kaiju show at Double Punch called “Kaiju Bazaar” .. and, another coming up in January 2011… and as the Toy Whisperer has requested my possible return to Japan in early February.. Yikes! …well that is for another posting … !

Guess where we meet up with Yo ? Ya, McD’s again !!! The schedule today is VERY tight … Yo is not really sure how much time we will have at the last two factory stops … and he warns us about the iron molds guy .. well, lets just say if we do something to annoy him the meeting could be over even before it even starts ! Oh my .. Matt, Keith and I look at each other .. Ok, we better be on our best behavior !!! Now I’m getting nervous .. can’t forget my gifts …

Master Shimizu-san

So the first stop is a very familiar face, it’s Shimizu-san and his vinyl factory. After a subway ride and a bus ride we arrive at an all too familiar place to me.. and from my first visit and video on YouTube
I’ll post new videos from this trip in another blog ….

The outside looks like it’s falling apart and from the inside looking out you can actually see thru the slats of the wood ! Inside, it’s pure Toy Heaven … Shimizu-san is casting flesh colored Alien Argus for Toy Art Gallery and Max Toys collab project. The first thing I notice is the temperature is much warmer inside … and that smell ! Oh boy, to a vinyl collector it’s a very unique smell .. no doubt toxic, but heart warming nonetheless ! I describe it as a waxy smell … and very much like the old Bullmark toys we collect.

Shimizu-san is doing what he has done for the last 50 years .. casting vinyl .. all in this same building, with virtually the same equipment … his technique is the same..

pour vinyl into a mold, place into a vaccum chamber to release any air bubbles,

then pull it out and place into the oil bath for an amount of time only he knows from experience ( the longer it “cooks” the thicker the vinyl ), pulling out the mold at the right time, he rotates his wrist and dumps out the excess vinyl which drains off into a catch all unit. He said he only uses this “used” vinyl for test shots …as it is not drained back into the main supply.
After draining the mold is sometimes put back into the oil bath, and then put into the cooling water bath … then the mold is placed into a jig, at which point Shimizu-san grabs a pair of needle nose pilers in each hand and with a twist of his wrists and a heavy pull, the pieces are pulled out the mold and placed on a table. These pieces are too hot to touch without a gloved hand .. but within a few seconds begin to cool down.

Of note, the pieces he was pulling , the arms, hands of the Alien Argus figure where much more difficult to pull out than I thought .. literally Shimizu-san had to brace himself with one leg up on his work table, while he twisted and pulled the arms and hands out of the mold .. with a very loud “Pop” noise !! The way the fingers are, with round tips, evidently creates a suction in the mold .. in addition to making it harder to pull out, it sometimes leads to actually tearing the fingers off ! To prevent this he casts these parts in double thick vinyl.

The place is so small that we each take turns standing and gawking at Shimizu-san !

I asked him if he always did this job .. and he replied that he was actually a candy maker at first, then in the 1950s a friend told him about casting soft vinyl so he decided to change jobs and start up this business. Now the part that made our jaws drop is he said this technique of casting soft vinyl was from the USA (!) and that because Mattel was making Barbies in Japan, they brought this way of toy making into Japan (!) Now I don’t know about you, but I had to process that for a second .. so, basically he was using an American technique of making toys ! Wow, amazing information .. which I had not known.. fascinating for sure … but unlike the toy makers in the US, in Japan 50 years later the process and practice continue .. although on a much more micro level …

It’s never enough time for me to spend with a master craftsman such as Shimizu-san … but he is working and after we take some photos, it’s time to leave. In another old school way of doing business, Shimizu-san gives us a 1000 yen note ( a little over $10.00 usd ) and says for us to buy a drink on him… good gosh .. he’s treating us ? The young business folks out there should take a note from Shimizu-san , not only about dedication but also humility and being gracious … all the things I hope I can be … I wish i could hang out here all day .. but I would be in the way ..

Shimizu-san brings his truck around and we all pile into it for the drive over to Goto-san ! Ya, he’s driving us dummies .. man .. he must think we can’t do anything ourselves .. and he’s right ! ;-P

Master Goto-san

It’s actually a 20+ minute drive over the Goto-san’s … the whole time I’m freaked out by the driving .. on the opposite side of the road ! I keep looking the wrong direction as huge trucks merge onto the highway towards us… yikes !

We pull up to yet another familiar site, the small driveway leading to Goto-san’s painting studio. And like Shimizu-san my YouTube video of Goto-san from last time around …

Of all the stops, we know we do not have much time to spend with Master Goto-san this day as he has a previous appointment, but that is fine whatever time he can allow us is great.

Like Shimizu-san’s place we can barely fit into the space.. I’ve been lucky enough to have watched Goto-san several times and as always he does not disappoint .. today he’s spraying some Marusan Guilala’s .. and as he has done for his 50 years of painting, quickly sprays down a silver, than changes colors out, a red and blue … he’s going so quick i can’t keep up with his actions !
Matt and Keith, being their first time to visit are of course speechless .. actually the place looks much cleaner than i have seen it previously ( ha-ha ) but still it’s ringed by FOK paint containers around the room … I ask him about his hands and keeping them clean since he doesn’t wear gloves… he smiles and with that all to familiar glint in his eyes and says, it’s no problem to just wash the paint off .. now when he says “wash” the paint off, he’s talking with paint thinner ! Not something recommend to the kids reading this, but it’s his old school way and well the guys in his 70s, so whose to argue with his technique ! 😉
Oh the only thing he said is sometimes he needs some lotion on his hands to keep them soft , ha-ha …

With that our time was up .. it’s was about 20 minutes but felt like only 5 minutes …
we all wanted our pictures taken with him and when it was my turn he said to Yo, this guys been here many times and taken his picture with me, he doesn’t need another one ? well, yes I do .. ha-ha … it was all in good fun and Goto-san went to get his car and like Shimizu-san drove us … this time to the subway station.

We enter the station and are still reeling from the two masters we have seen .. Matt I could tell was especially touched to have finally visited this living legend ..

Master Nakadai-san

We arrive at the next stop and Yo says we have time for lunch than a short walk over to the iron molds factory of Nakadai-san. I have some yummy ramen for lunch.

… once again, Yo is a bit worried about this next stop … Nakadai-san has never even let Yo see the iron factory part of the building .. only his office ! Yo warns us the meeting may be short and may only be in his office .. and for sure No Photos ! Oh boy .. we’re on pins and needles .. I mean Yo’s no push over, so if he’s worried , man I’m worried ! On top of that there’s so many of us .. that may work against us as well …

Lunch is done and we grab our stuff and walk over to the factory .. all the while in my head I keep thinking we’re gonna say something wrong and get kicked outta there so fast we won’t know what hit us ! … down a street there are several mini warehouse like buildings … Yo guides us to one and we proceed up the stairs. It’s a small space and we fill it up, with our bodies and our bags. We sit down and some nice green tea is brought to us, but as per usual you do not drink unless the host tells you too (!).. we wait .. and in what feels like an hour, we whisper to ourselves .. it’s like being back in the Principals office at school … like we all did something wrong or were about too ! Yo is sitting toward the door, and suddenly i see his eyes widen .. he stands up and waves at us with his hand to do the same .. in an instant Master Nakadai-san has entered the room … he walks over to his chair and greets Yo and us one by one … I think he’s impressed by Matts tallness 😉 he sits and Yo motions for us to do the same … you can hear a pin drop, it’s that quite …. slowly… Nakadai-san starts talking … of course, we must wait for Yo to translate … basically he begins to talk about the iron molds process … however he doesn’t give much a break in his lesson, so Yo has to find the right time to find a pause in the conversation and quickly tell us what has been said … after what seemed like 20 minutes, a few samples of the process are brought in to help show us … I watch intently to see how Nakadai-san might be feeling towards us .. I see some smiling .. .. but mostly a good Poker face .. not glum but not happy either .. soon it’s time for any questions we may have .. my question is about how he got started, how long he’s been in this business and also if anyone had written an article about his business and the iron molds process. Firstly he’s been in business 50+ years .. so he’s in the same group as Shimizu-san, and Goto-san .. previously he was helping make Japanese shrines for festivals but when he found out about this iron molds business he decide that was a good thing to try.

And in a total deja vu moment, he said this technology was brought into Japan by Mattel toys ! Whoa …. he said virtually the same story as Shimizu-san … that because of Barbie dolls this way of making iron molds was developed in Japan.

Now about the article, he said once over a decade ago a person came to interview him and take pictures for a magazine article. But those pictures ended up in China, where his factory was replicated ! For that reason he does not allow any photos or video … he didn’t look happy telling this part of the story .. and I could tell we all sunk in our chairs as this would mean no factory tour … well, that is fine, I’m thinking, the chance to at least meet this master is more than i could have hoped for and now it’s been an hour of talking … with that Nakadai-san stands and we follow .. we exchange gifts and Yo tells us to quickly leave ! We shove our shoes on and make our way out the door … myself and Yo are the last ones out and we thank him for his time .. he tells Yo something and we leave .. Yo is smiling and says go down the stairs and make a left turn … hmmmm .. and like Willy Wonka opening his factory doors, the doors to the iron molds factory are now open ! Yo says we are to be given a tour, but of course, No Pictures !

Holy Cow ! .. yes .. !

Now out of total respect I will not get into the details of what we were shown or even the type of materials or process we saw … I’m sorry folks, as much as I would like to share this experience it’s not happening .. but let me just say like all the masters we have been lucky enough to see and witness them in action this did not disappoint at all. The process can not be in a small place like Shimizu-san or Goto-san, so the operation is much, much bigger. As with all the craftsmen we have seen the fellow who gave us the tour also has been in the business for 40+ years ! He walked us through each step of the process … until the final iron molds are done, complete with handles 😉

The smell of metal and iron was fairly strong in the air as was the noise level.

When our tour was over, Yo said I was invited back the next time to actually try my hand at the process ! What ? Seriously !! … Yep, anytime .. oh boy you can bet I’ll be back again 😉 and take them up on that offer , ha-ha …

So I guess we did Ok .. and did not offend anyone .. well that or they took pity on us traveling from the US 😉 Either way I will take it and enjoyed every second !

It’s been over an hour and half and as much as Yo and everyone is so excited we are very late for the next appointment with Kobayashi-san and his paint masks ! This tour went much better than Yo thought and much longer … We quickly walk to the station and hop onto a train …

Master Kobayashi-san

At this point we’ve been out all day and this was the last stop on our factory tours .. and another part of the puzzle that was a complete mystery to me .. I know what a paint mask looks like but how they are created and why they are so expensive .. well that and more I was about to find out ! In what looks like a family neighborhood is the paint mask factory. Inside there’s room for several work stations, but it’s not big by American standards. Introductions are made and a tray of masks are brought out .. we are instructed to pick them up and look at them .. while we are marveling at the workmanship, Kobayashi-san starts to describe the basic process and techniques he uses … once again, I have decide out of respect for this master to not go into the details of this process.

What I can show are these finished pieces that were given to us .. and that basically the process of masking out eyes or say VERY thin eyebrows is all by hand … with tiny drills, files and saws … each area is hand cut out, and if needed soldered back and than cut again or filed to achieve perfectly smooth or rounded shapes, or hard angles.

Yes these are actually all handled by human hands and touch .. simply amazing .. we ask if there is a high tech version of a paint mask and he said one of the toy companies in Japan tried to develop a machine to make masks, but it didn’t work and was not accurate at all… he smiled and said this way was the best.
How could we argue ? He was right … I asked again how long he had done this business and he said for 50+ years .. and that went right into him explaining this type of metal masking, where the mask is placed on top of the figure, was brought to Japan, by … you guessed it Mattel in the 1950’s !

I’m still am a bit floored by this revelation … I don’t know about you out there, but it really puts a different spin on how this whole process got started.

The cost is not cheap to make paint masks. Besides the man hours to drill and file away at each mask, there are the metal costs as well … but for sure if you can afford to have these masks made by Kobayahi-san, you will get not only perfectly accurate masks, but also 50+ years experience .. that is something you can not get anywhere else. And after seeing and being given some masks, each one is a small treasure and work of art in itself …

As a side note, of all the masters we visited, only Kobayashi-san has a son who was taking over the business …

above: placing a figure in the middle and closing the mold, you can paint all around the waist. The way this mold is made it’s so precise that each time I close it the edges line up without any misalignment !

and finally below, although not the work of Kobayahi-san, these molds from my Tripasu figure show how the masks are placed on top of the figures, so one can spray through it.

Since only the eyes are exposed only those areas will get paint on them.

So with that our visit was over and in true master form and in two cars, they drove us to our next stop …. Mori-san and RealxHead !


RealxHead – Bridging Old and New

Now you might think that ending up at Mori-san and his RealXHead shop would not “fit” into our days visits .. but if you know anything about Mori-san and his process, you know at his core he is an old school guy who still uses these very same guys in his own production. Never mind that his designs speak to the newer generation, these pieces he produces are steeped in the spirit of the soft vinyl traditions.

Keith, being his first time to Mori’s shop was dumb founded 😉 Both Matt and I kept on him to buy stuff and talk to Mori-san .. ha-ha … Keith even found a shirt to buy ..he didn’t care that it didn’t fit …

This was also my first visit to Mori-sans shop and it’s awesome ! I wish i had that many Lucky Cats .. so cool !

We were running late and Mori-san was kind enough to wait for us .. but now we must get back to OneUp store so Matt could deliver some figures … we bid good bye to Mori-san, and walk off into the rain … oh no problem, we have umbrellas from the day before .. right Mark ?!! Oh crap .. guess what .. I left them at the iron molds factory ! oh well ..nice gift we left them .. I think i was so pressured to leave the office I completely forgot them …

One Up – Nakano Mall

We finally arrive at the Nakano stop which of course to any Japanese toy collector would know is the mecha of all things Otaku and Toyage … I’ve been many times, but we are so late that we only have 40 minutes ! I feel very badly for Matt, who has to spend his time in a meeting with Ken .. so no shopping for him … I take Keith around and lucky he finds a few items .. but the stores start to close up and we have to get out as well .. so with that the toy looking and buying was over ;-( … well, to be honest my last few trips to Japan I’ve not toy shopped at all … and I actually do not miss it .. I suppose I’m entering another phase of my toy collecting 😉

Ken treats us to Chinese food and of course Matt asks for ice cream ! 😉 We walk around awhile and finally find a Baskin Robbins ! Well at least it’s ice cream ! But in a really odd moment we are inside looking at what to order, than they start closing up .. I’m thinking they’ll take our order, but suddenly they ask us all to leave out a side door ?! Yesh .. why’d they let us in, in the first place ? Well I have no idea, and Ken just shrugs and we go looking for another ice cream place .. at this point we are all dead tired .. and decide a dounut place is fine. I forgo the desert … Keith begins to line up all the RealXHead items he got .. than out of the blue he shrieks, “Where’s my shirt ? !! ” Matt and I take one look at each other and can not hold it in .. we bust up in laughter … of course, Yo and Ken have no idea what we’re laughing at .. and to be honest, I think being sleep deprived and tired made us lose it even more 😉 Turns out the shirt Keith thought he bought .. well Mori-san heard him say it’s the wrong size, so he didn’t include it with his order … ha-ha … well that means Keith HAS to come back and visit Mori-san !


Phew !

Being our final night, we have to say good bye to our tour guide, translator, Toy Whisperer and most importantly good friend, Yo … really he does not like the spotlight but my ability to not only travel within Japan but also Max toys presence is all made possible by Yo.

Back in our rooms, we do our final packs .. it’s always a bitter sweat feeling for me, leaving an exciting city, such as Tokyo but knowing my home lay thousands of miles away. Even though I didn’t really buy anything, my suitcase is full … how’d that happen ? I’m also hoping the metal masks make there way through security ;-P

So much has happened on this trip .. I’m not sure why, but each of my trips seem to have different adventures every time I visit …even if the trips themselves are basically about putting on a art toy show or visiting factories… there’s always an interesting spin or take on each visit.

The artists we met along the way, to hear their stories and how it’s like to be an artist in Tokyo .. hosting fellow toy makers and seeing them airbrush spray toys was awesome !.. and finally the masters we met … I’m so glad the Toy Gods have given me the Toy Karma .. to finally meet these talented folks … my life is for sure richer for it .. and I look forward to working with many of them. But even if not for business, the personal interactions and time spent with all of them I cherish the most.

The human touch is what it comes down, too … I have always felt I was born out of time .. I’ve always been attracted to old comics ( 10¢ ones ! ), classic 1930’s Buck Rogers, silent Lon Chaney Sr movies … these always spoke to me on some gut level .. and so this whole toy making process also speaks to my on that level. The hand work done, the skill level .. and most of all the years put into the industry will most likely never be again… I’m witness to at once the most amazing experiences in my life and at the same time knowing this is the twilight of this type of craftsmanship.

I do know there will be others to step in … at some point, so I’m not too worried about the future, but still feel it is important to document as much as I can on each visit not only my thoughts but my pictures for everyone to see.

In this era of high tech what i saw is very low tech .. but the results are amazing toys we hold in our collectors hands !

I know I’m biased in that I have a toy company and of course use all these individuals in the toy making process … and I know there are other factories which do the same types of works in Japan. All of them deserve our respect for their dedication to craft and for keeping the art of soft vinyl toy making alive.

Once again, I can not sleep … I’m thinking too much… but, at some point I drift off …

おもいで – Omoide

Part 6 – Going Home

About toykarma

Over the years Mark Nagata has collected thousands of toys and a fair amount of titles. The man behind San Francisco-based Max Toy Company is widely known as: Toy Collector. Illustrator. Magazine Founder/Publisher. Toy Designer. Artist. Author. Husband. Father. But the one description that might fit best is an unofficial one – Kaiju Toy and Art Ambassador. In the Japanese-inspired art and toy area, as well as throughout the larger toy collecting community, Mark is welcomed and recognized for his personal passion and commitment to supporting artists all around the world and the unique works they create. Beginning as a collector in his youth, Mark has had for years a keen eye for great art and a personal interest in collecting that he has spread through a variety of outlets. Trained at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco, Mark honed his skills working for himself and for some of the most notable businesses in the country. As a freelance commercial illustrator, he completed works for such prominent companies as Lucasfilms, DC Comics, Hasbro Toys, IBM, Sony, and numerous advertising and design firms, both national and international. Mark’s colorful style graces over 40 cover paintings for R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps book series – Give Yourself Goosebumps. After hundreds of assignments, Mark made the decision to move in another direction, and that choice has led to whole new career as a successful businessman. For four years, the owner of one of the largest Ultraman toy collections in the world co-published Super 7 Magazine showcasing the finest in Japanese toy collecting. “I’d been collecting Japanese toys all along and suddenly realized it would be cool to have a magazine of some type devoted to them,” Nagata says. Mark’s devotion to presenting collectors with a selection of original figures inspired by classic Japanese toys from the 1960s and ‘70s as well as new versions of licensed Japanese characters is at the heart of Max Toy Company. Named for his son, Max Toys specializes in custom and limited editions of “kaiju” (Japanese monsters) toys and artwork. Many of the original toys produced are hand painted by Mark, a tradition that goes back to Japanese toy makers of the past. “Since our target is the soft vinyl Japanese toy collector, which is a very small niche, our runs of toys can be extremely small,” Mark says. “Runs range from 500 pieces of one toy to just one for a hand-painted, one-of-a-kind custom figure.” Through Max Toys, Mark has taken great pains to widen the reach of his two passions – toys and art. He played a significant part in the development of the first group kaiju show in the United States. Held at the Rotofugi Gallery in Chicago, Illinois in 2007, the “Toy Karma” Show featured detailed work from artists from Japan, the U.S. and South America. Participants marveled at the custom-painted toys and art on display. “Toy Karma” led to Mark being asked to be one of the artists spotlighted in the “Beyond Ultraman: Seven Artists Explore the Vinyl Frontier” exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. The October 2007 show, held jointly with the Los Angeles Toy, Doll and Amusement Museum, marked the first time – in a museum setting – that the influence of Japanese toys on California artists was explored. The exhibit featured more than 30 of Mark’s original paintings, toys and a selection of his vintage toy collection. Mark continued to be at the forefront as interest in Japanese-inspired art and toys expanded in 2008. Prestigious art houses Philips De Pury and Christie’s in New York and London sold Mark’s hand-painted custom kaiju toys in its auctions, spreading this unique art and toy movement into new and uncharted areas of the art world. In 2009, Mark once again took his love of toys and art overseas this time to a receptive and welcoming audience in Tokyo, Japan. Here, Mark curated the “Kaiju Comrades” Art Show, once again bringing together artists from various aspects of the kaiju toy realm in this first-of-its-kind toy art show. The following year found Mark in Barcelona, Spain co-curating with Emilio Garcia “Kaiju Attack,” the European country’s first kaiju art show. As the growth of kaiju art and toys increases worldwide, Mark continues in his unofficial role of Kaiju Toy and Art Ambassador. He has written and had his artwork and toy designs included in several books and magazines, both domestic and international. In 2010, Mark served as guest lecturer on kaiju and the toy-making process at the Morikami Museum in Florida. The San Francisco resident and his art can also be spotted in the first volume of the “ToyPunks” DVD and the “Toys R Us” DVD, while the video for the number one song by Owl City “Fireflies” featured Mark’s popular Kaiju Eyezon character. During this same time period, Mark has spearheaded the “Toy Karma 2” and “Kaiju Comrades 2” shows and has plans for future shows both in the U.S. and overseas. “Max Toys allows me to produce original artwork, new toys and work directly with a lot of talented artists,” Mark says. “Max Toy is a synthesis of toys and art, both life-long passions.”
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