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Toy Story

Justin Kovalsky Brings Together His Passions For Punk and Japanese Pop Culture With Toypunks

Sick For Toys: Justin Kovalsky (Right, With Balzac's Hirosuke Nishiyama and Akio Imai) Turned His Obsession With Japanese Playthings Into A Film.

By Raven Baker | Posted 12/5/2007

Toypunks debuts at Atomic Pop Dec. 7 with Tony Pence spinning Japanese punk, power pop, and rock 'n' roll.

Justin Kovalsky takes his coffee black. This quirk, along with his stylishly dark attire, lends him a serious air, somewhat at odds with his boyish looks. Kovalsky, in his early 30s, has spent most of his adult life deciphering kindred passions for Japanese pop culture and punk rock. It is a duality of interest prevalent enough to form a loose subculture here in the United States, one to which he belongs. With a proud but modest smile, he slides a DVD across the café table.

It contains Toypunks, which he says he just received the afternoon of this interview. Both a culmination of his life's work and an enthusiast's ode, Toypunks is a documentary illuminating the punk-rock underpinnings of the current designer toy craze.

Though some designer toys may have movable parts, they are less playthings than small works of art. Still, as toys, they invite handling and childlike delight, even with their penchant for the odd and absurd. A prime example is the popular Smoking Rabbit figurine created by underground art star-cum-full-time toy designer Frank Kozik, interviewed in the documentary. The original bunny is cartoonishly simple: cute, rounded, and pink with a cigarette jutting from its face. Kozik's bunny has spawned a whole series of smoking characters, including a grumpy cigarette puffing away on its tiny doppelgänger.

Designer toys fall into two camps: singular designs and what is known in the industry as platforms. The latter come in an identical form, say that of a bear cub, which an array of artists then customize. The packaging for some toy series harks back to cereal or Cracker Jack prizes: Known as blind boxes, the toy inside is a mystery until opened. While designer toys are surefire collectibles due to their limited production runs, blind-boxed platform toys
incite an almost insidious compulsion to amass them all or to keep buying until scoring a favorite design. At anywhere from less than $10 to hundreds a pop, depending on scarcity, size and the artist designer, collecting these toys can be an expensive hobby. Little wonder then that in under a decade designer toys have spawned a lucrative industry of brands and specialized boutiques.

Work on Toypunks, a self-financed collaboration between Kovalsky and filmmaker Chris Nelson, started more than 10 months ago. Through interviews with toy-makers, artists, and collectors in the States and Japan, Toypunks traces the designer toy market from its roots in vintage Japanese vinyl toys (think: Ultraman) to its modern inception at the Bounty Hunter boutique fashion house in Harajuku, Japan. Founded in 1995, Bounty Hunter initially sold vintage American toys, such as Disney and Peanuts characters, alongside its own punk-inspired clothing designs. Among Toypunks' attractions is a rare English-translated interview with Hikaru Iwanaga, founder of Bounty Hunter and the man credited with launching the market after releasing his toy Kid Hunter in the late '90s. Originally a T-shirt design and based on a Cap'n Crunch breakfast cereal character, Kid Hunter, with his surly grin, striped shirt, and skewed pirate hat, is an ode to Iwanaga's duel interests in vintage American advertising and punk rock.

Additionally, the documentary features interviews with Japanese horror-punk outfit and prolific toy-makers Balzac, Max Toy Co. owner Mark Nagata, and Dogg Pony Records label head Isaac Ramos (a former City Paper contributor), among others. Toypunks debuts at Atomic Pop this weekend, with Kovalsky on hand with a number of his rarest toys on display for the night.

At the crux of Toypunks is the intersection of Japanese and American pop culture, which is "like looking at yourself through a mirror lens," Kovalsky says. "It's like they are [our] Bizzaro World opposite or we are their Bizzaro World opposite. But what joins the two together is that interest in punk music."

Teasing out this symbiosis led Kovalsky from Baltimore, where he grew up, to San Francisco and Houston while working for an array of anime and art magazines. A writer and editor by trade and a skateboarding musician by passion, Kovalsky first got hooked on Japanese pop culture as a child, through cartoons such as G-Force and Robotech that he watched in his grandmother's Brooklyn Park home.

When Kovalsky learned that his beloved cartoons were imports, he started searching for more. At the time, in the early '90s, both anime (Japanese animated films) and manga (Japanese comics) were difficult to find in the United States, though seminal titles such as Akira, a 1988 horror sci-fi tale set in post-apocalyptic Tokyo, had begun surfacing. Kovalsky sunk all his money from an after-school job into procuring the latest stateside releases.

He likens his deepening adolescent interest with anime to the thrill he got from his other outsider pursuits. "There was something familiar but not quite the same, culturally," he says. "Even though those original [anime] titles were doctored to suit the American audience, there was still something that just felt otherworldly. As a person growing up interested in punk music and skateboarding, you already have a predilection to search for something different. Getting into the Japanese stuff, there was no social context for it. So, it was yours, [and] because there was no information I was making up my own stories about what these things were. It was a creative hobby."

Kovalsky wasn't alone in his fascination for what he describes as "that sense of other." Dwelling on first encounters, with little overdubbed narration, Toypunks relies heavily on the reminiscences of its subjects. Hikaru Iwanaga, who grew up on a U.S. Navy base in Japan, waxes nostalgic about his childhood fascination with Western pop culture, particularly Cap'n Crunch cereal and a G.I. Joe toy that was the envy of his friends. Americans likewise detail their discoveries of Japanese pop culture: Kozik remembers watching Ultraman on public-access television during the 1970s.

After leaving UMBC in 2000, where he had studied English literature, Kovalsky moved to the West Coast for a few years before heading to Houston, in 2003, for an assistant editor position at the anime and manga magazine Newtype USA. In Texas, Kovalsky befriended Chris Nelson. Both play guitar and worked in kindred industries; Nelson was art director for the nascent Anime Network. Responsible for branding the startup channel, Nelson often turned to Kovalsky for insight.

Meanwhile, Kovalsky continued unraveling the punk roots of the burgeoning designer toy scene. He landed at Super7 magazine in 2005, then a well-designed yet DIY ode to collecting vintage Japanese toys, staffed by a number of punks. While expanding Super7 into a lifestyle magazine covering both modern designer toys along with vintage, Kovalsky fermented the concept for the documentary, and he tapped Nelson for the project. Though the project stalled and Kovalsky moved onto other work, including covering the toy scene for the underground arts magazine Juxtapoz, the idea for the film lived on. Nelson was especially keen to helm his own movie after years of working for others and urged Kovalsky to pursue the documentary with him, the first in a planned series delving into the cross-pollination of toy culture, street style, and punk.

Still, at the core of the project are the toys themselves. "Who doesn't like toys?" Kovalsky asks. "You have to have a hard heart to think it's not fun."

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