Monday, February 2, 2009

Reflections on a Talking Robot (part six) Kunimatsyua Comes to Town

Entire collection for sale. Click for private auction info.

...Then Kunimatsuya arrived in La Habra.
I was filling in a few extra hours at an inland surf shop not far from where I lived. One day, as I got to the strip mall I saw a couple setting up a toy store in one of the empty storefronts. There they were! Gaiking, Combattler, Voltes V, plus zillions of other figures I’d never seen before. Posters, books, trinkets, all sorts of Japanese science fiction, and monster stuff! I was Kunimatsuya’s first customer in La Habra, and the first thing I got was the coveted Daikumaryu, which is still my favorite piece. Remember the demon warrior Gaiking? The Daikumaryu Gaiking was the mothership, a machine dragon probably twice the size of an aircraft carrier, and capable of interplanetary travel. It housed the components of the warrior robot, and an attack force of mechanical dinosaurs, each capable of destroying entire cities. The dragon’s ghastly head became the colossal robot's breastplate, its weapon a monstrous sword. It was all just too bizarre.

In a real fight, they’d kick butt all over anything from Star Wars.

Most of these pieces have become sought after collectibles. Perhaps you're familiar with the Transformers hero Optimus Prime. The original truck-into-robot warrior was this guy:Daimos.

Voltes V is another of the world's most coveted toys.This set is configured like, Combattler, but is a much more sophisticated piece of engineering. Notice the folding airplane that becomes the head.

Several of the pieces I got were orphaned toys who had lost boxes for one reason or another, but were otherwise intact. The folks at Kunimatsuya gave me a good break on the price. They were very nice people. They had recently moved here from Japan and had two or three toy stores around the Los Angeles area. Communication was sometimes a little difficult, but when I saw stuff I wanted, pictured in the booklets that came with the toys, I'd point it out, and they would get it for me. I just went nuts.On one visit to Kuni's, the woman who owned the store brought this tiny figure out from behind the counter. She had brought it over from one of the other stores, and was rather insistent that I add it to my collection. Frankly, I didn't think much of it, but that never stopped me from buying another robot. It would be years before I appreciated the significance. He is production number GA 01 Mazinger Z: the very first first figure in Popy's line of chogokin (super alloy metal) toys. This one is about as rare as they get.

I got a lot of other stuff there as well- another bookcase full, and then some.

But nothing lasts forever. My girlfriend broke up with me, and Kunimatsuya went out of business. (The two events were probably not related). Those ingenious toys never did catch on in America. A few of the robots were packaged as "Shogun Warriors" and sold by Mattel, but those had a short market life, and soon disappeared. Popy was absorbed by the parent company Bandai. They later tried to market the gift-box sets with English packaging under the Godaikin label. The seventies were giving way to the eighties. Eventually even I had to admit that the surf bum life was getting old. I left my kick- back job for a more responsible position, which I soon grew to hate, and then quit. I went back to being a surf-bum, drifted for a while longer, and then started college just after my thirtieth birthday. The robot collection was boxed up, and put into storage. My last two acquisitions were the Golion set in ’83, and the Daltanias in’84- both in the Godaikin boxes. Godaikin never caught on either.

There is a peculiar twist to the Japanese imagination, particularly in their science fiction. They start with a concept that is just too outlandish to take seriously; then they treat that idea with such ingenuous and absolute seriousness that you get drawn in and hooked, almost despite yourself. But like sake, or sushi, It’s a twist not everyone appreciates. Whether it’s giant robots or Godzilla, some find it magical; others find it unbearably corny. The toy collection caused more than one rolled eye. (‘yeah, uh-cool toy. You paid how much for that thing?’) It was hard to explain- like I said, some find it magical. The money didn't matter. The robots were more than toys. They were the working models of outlandish concepts that just electrified my imagination.
I saw fantastic interplanetary battle engines of awesome scale and power.

Most people saw toy robots.

I hadn’t looked at the robot collection in over ten years, and more than twenty had passed since I got Robocon. During that time I finished college, got a teaching job, got married and divorced, got a Harley, crossed America ten times over, sold the Harley, lost the teaching job, became a stone sculptor, and at the one point in my life when I had the fewest material prospects, I met the girl of my dreams and got married again. It was April of 2000, and I was standing in the living room, waiting for my ride to the ceremony on my wedding day. I was nervously flipping through channels on the TV, and I stumbled on to the very beginning of episodes one and two of Gundam Wing on Cartoon Network. This was something I had wanted to see for a long time-real Japanese giant robot shows. But the Gundams weren’t exactly robots, and the idea that a fifteen year old kid could pilot such a war machine was a concept just too outlandish to take seriously.
Luckily, my ride didn’t get there until episode two was over.


Robin Starfish said...

I believe you'll get the last laugh when it comes time to cash in on your investments. ;-)

walt said...

Killer photos, JWM!

Pursuits like your toyz can definitely lead to extremes -- and expenses! I could tell you tales of collections and costs for other aspects of Japanese culture; good thing I was never rich, so I couldn't do really serious damage (because I would have).

I tried to give up all my collections, artifacts, and acquisitiveness when I moved north, and now only collect books.

Really appreciate seeing your childrens! If you have more, it'll be fun to see!

jwm said...

Thanks, Walt.
This is it for the vintage stuff, but I repeated myself after I got back from my honeymoon. Bandai re-engineered almost all the old toys and started their Soul of Chogokin line in the late nineties. I set out to get all the new issues of the old pieces (and I got a ton of other stuff, too) but I kind of lost interest, and gave it up. I have a follow up piece that I'll post later. For now, though, once again, the collection is boxed and stored. The characters in Doesn't Play Well With Others, (listed on the sidebar as The Greatest Toy Story Ever Told) are mostly from the SOC line. The sculpts are better, but the new pieces aren't proper toys. They're collectibles, made for adult collectors, and more along the line of Franklin Mint pieces. The Gundams at the bottom of the post are model kits, and that's another whole story in itself. Some of them are 600-700 pieces or more, and the attention to detail in them is just insane. Building those kits has a crack cocaine level of addiction. It's huge fun, but once you start, it's almost impossible to stop; you can just work yourself sick. Unfortunately, the assembled models for all their intricacy are major touch-me-nots. They break if you look at them hard.
And Robin- yeah, I could cash in, on the collection, but it never happens that you just get a huge lump sum for your whole stash. The way it usually works is the collection gets piece mealed out, a chunk here, a chunk there, a little extra cash now and then. And then it's gone, the money is spent, and all you have left is a few of the less desirable pieces and nothing to show for the rest of it. The idea, that you can buy something, hang on to it for a period of time, and then sell it at a huge profit is mostly a myth.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

There is a peculiar twist to the Japanese imagination, particularly in their science fiction. They start with a concept that is just too outlandish to take seriously; then they treat that idea with such ingenuous and absolute seriousness that you get drawn in and hooked, almost despite yourself. But like sake, or sushi, It’s a twist not everyone appreciates. Whether it’s giant robots or Godzilla, some find it magical; others find it unbearably corny.

You nailed it John!
This is why, for a relatively small country, the Japanese are so industrious, creative and competitive.

People either get it or they don't. Most of the very best video games I played were from Japan.
I also love their sense of humor, which can be subtle as well as universally slapstick.
And Ximeze got me interested in Akira Kurosawa's outstanding movies.

Of course, like you said, there is the corny, like electronic pets, or love bots, which is just...weird, but then again, it's incredibly funny too. :^)

I admire their work ethics too. Their sense of honor and reverance of national heroes.

Thanks for sharing, John!

Ricky Raccoon said...

You know, it must have been about a year ago at least, I mentioned to Bob that in the 20 years since art school I had never met another person who carved stone. What are the chances in our merry band I should find another. I was blown away when you mentioned it on OC one day.
I looked for your email. Don’t see it. Probably to keep back the trolls. Anyway, thought of it today (not to talk about stone carving, hung up that chisel 20 years ago last Thursday :-) just in case, either way. Here's mine:
Anytime, John.

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David Fretz said...

I too went to the Kunimatsuya in La Habra. My thing was UFO Warrior Dai Apolon. I think I had my mom drive me and my friends there. More than once. Do you remember where, exactly, the store was located? I would like to go there and see what is there now.