Tarnmoor in Toyland

Mark Nagata Surrounded by His Collection

On Sunday, Martine and I drove downtown to visit a museum that was closed because of the Memorial Day Holiday. So instead, we headed for the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Little Tokyo. There was the standard (permanent) exhibit about the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans to concentration camps in the desert; but there was also something diferent.

I am not a toy collector, but I have always been impressed by the Japanese superheroes and monsters (known as kaiju). However powerful the kaiju were, there was something almost appealing about them. American toy villains are somehow more evil. The Japanese ones are almost cuddly.

At JANM,there was an exhibit entitled “Kaiju vs Heroes: Mark Nagata’s Journey Through the World of Japanese Toys.” It was scheduled to end in March, but was held over through July 7, 2019. I was enthralled.

The Kaiju Eyezon, Created by Mark Nagata

Mark started as a collector, then became an illustrator and a creator of Japanese toys. The exhibit was so interesting that I resolved to visit it again on Thursday so that my thoughts on the nature of his art would somehow jell. I( thought back to my response to Ishiro Honda’s horror films for Toho of the 1960s, such as Godzilla (1954), Rodan (1956), Mothra (1961), and all the other Japanese monster films that were to follow. There was a definite difference in these monsters compared to the ultimate evil that is Dracula or Frankenstein or the Nightmare on Elm Street.

Poster for the JANM Exhibition

I am still thinking over in my mind what I will ultimately conclude about this exhibit and Nagata’s artistry, other than that I am strongly drawn to it. Stay tuned to this space for further developments.

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A Mythology Out of Comic Books

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

In desperation, o avoid another afternoon of a multi-day heat wave, I went to Santa Monica to see Wonder Woman in air-conditioned comfort. As one who, in my tender years, was an aficionado of comic book heroes (and heroines), I remember the thrill I felt at their sense of power against evil. When you’re a little kid, injustice really bugs you: You want to wreak vengeance on bullies without having the law, or the vice principal, or someone’s angry parents coming after you.

Superman came from Planet Krypton, Batman from a wealthy American family, and Wonder Woman from the secret Mediterranean (one presumes) island of Themyscira, which is shielded by fog from mortal view. All these super heroes have super powers. (As a kid, I had none—except the ability to survive a sickly childhood.)

Princess Diana, alias Wonder Woman, is powerful enough to stop bullets and deflect mortar shells. On a First World War battlefield, she singlehandedly attacks the German lines and frees a captive French village. She is in search of Ares, the God of War, whom she identifies as General von Ludendorff, and whom she kills with a special sword. But Ludendorff is not Ares: It turns out to be the British politician Sir Patrick Morgan, who ostensibly is trying to set up an armistice, but who really wants everlasting war.

Evidently, we still have war and lots of it. I guess that makes room for a sequel, which I am not surprised to hear is already in production.

What Would Be My Kryptonite?

In the jejune mythology of American comic books, there is frequently a weak point in every superhero. I guess it started with Achilles in the Trojan War, who was immortal provided no one shot him in the heel. It was Paris (no relation to me) who found this out and hit the Achaean hero there with a poisoned arrow. With Superman, he lost his powers when he was exposed to Kryptonite, a fragment of the planet where he was born. For me, I would probably lose such powers as I have if someone dug up some dirt from the East Side of Cleveland, near the intersection of Harvard and Lee, and waved it in my face.

I guess what I’m getting at is that this comic book stuff doesn’t move me much any more. The young love it, because they feel powerless in the face of all us evil adults who want to put them down and make them take out the garbage and clean their bedrooms.

 

The Problem With Our Super Heroes

There’s a Reason for Ferguson and Baltimore

There’s a Reason for Ferguson and Baltimore

Violence is woven into the warp and woof of American life. When we are young, it takes over our dreams and make us imagine a super self that can take revenge on the bullies that steal our lunch money and slam us into the hallway lockers. Even when we grow up and become strong, we want to have an edge over all the people we imagine could harm us. Perhaps these people are Black or Mexicans; they’re not our kind of people. Hence, they represent a threat to us.

Perhaps we don’t get into our superhero uniform and cosplay our way out of trouble. Instead, we get guns and use them when we are threatened. We go in for such nonsense as “open carry” and claim that we, in the spirit of the Second Amendment, constitute a militia. But we really don’t. Instead, perhaps our wives yell at us or make eyes at Ralph next door. We pull out our guns and blast away. Or Junior gets upset that Little Bobby stole his tricycle. He knows where Daddy keeps his loaded gun. He find it, and before you know it he’s on the evening news.

Notice that our superheroes are not interested in getting along with people, in negotiating calmly with them. It’s either blood, or you’re a wuss. We make fun of Europeans for being more civilized than us, but down which mean street would you prefer to walk? Laugavegur in Iceland’s Reykjavik? or Hough Avenue in Cleveland?

In his novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon depicted the cartoonists who created America’s superheroes as transferring the Jewish Ghetto hero that was the Golem to American streets. The problem is, things got out of hand. The translation went awry.

I’m not saying the superheroes are to blame: It’s just that they represent one of the elements in American life that symbolize the mess that we’re in.