THE FIVE MYSTERIOUS PAINTINGS OF GO NAGAINovember 3, 2011
I had not heard of Willard Carroll up until a few weeks ago. Even after I learned of the auction that contained 40,000 pieces from his collections, the name of the owner was not revealed. However, in going through the online catalog and doing some quick research on IMDB, it became clear that this was his stuff. Carroll was (and is) one of the figureheads behind Hyperion Pictures and had contacts with creative people across the globe. One person he became good friends with was world renowned manga and anime creator, Go Nagai.
It’s difficult to overstate the worldwide impact of Go Nagai’s creations. The success of his 1972 hit, MAZINGER Z, not only spawned countless imitations within Japan, but was translated and shown (along with subsequent Go Nagai-created giant robot shows) throughout the world. One followup series, UFO ROBO GRANDIZER saw spectacular ratings in many countries in the in the late 1970s. The edgy and downright twisted DEVILMAN from the early 1970s is still beloved by legions of fans today.
The summary for the auction lot that came to my attention a few weeks ago listed “Paintings by Go Nagai.” Without even knowing what the paintings were, my interest was piqued. I had seen original pen and ink pages of Go Nagai manga for sale in the past, but the idea of PAINTINGS by him seemed unusual. What were they of? Not much was settled when images of the paintings finally appeared in the online catalog. That they featured monsters did not surprise me. Go Nagai is known for making truly horrifying creatures. What was odd was that I didn’t recognize them. One of the paintings contained a large stone egg with a face on it. Two of the paintings seemed to be of a werewolf-type creature and the final two paintings seemed to be of more grotesque monsters.
I consider myself quite familiar with Go Nagai monsters and simply didn’t recognize any of these guys. Two of the paintings were dated October 1988. I investigated Dynamic Production properties around that time. Were these from GOD MAZINGER? JUSHIN LIGER? The First Comics’ version of MAZINGER? Nothing checked out. A week before the auction, a preview viewing began and I drove down to Orange with my daughter to view them in person. It was quite an experience. One thing became clear when they were right before me: one of the paintings was shown upside down in the online photo. Go Nagai is known to put upside down faces on some of his monsters (specifically the enemy “Sentoju” in GREAT MAZINGER) and the face on this monster was put “rightside up” before being photographed. Once rotated 180 degrees, it became clear that the final two paintings were of the same, more grotesque monster.
The main thing that struck me when looking that the paintings how much more beautiful they were when right in front of you. We are so bombarded with digital art these days – art that is made to be viewed on a monitor – that it’s easy to forget how impactful it is to be in the same space with hand-made, analog art.
(CLICK TO MAKE BIGGER. I WISH I COULD WRITE “CLICK TO MAKE ANALOG” BUT I DON’T KNOW THE CODE FOR THAT)
Still, the mystery remained as to what these paintings were and why they were made. The lot included the envelope in which they were sent to Hyperion Films as well as a large stack of letters from Go Nagai’s wife, Miko, (and some from Go himself) to Willard Carroll. I suspected that the origins of these paintings could be found there.
The modern art world exists in strange and exciting times. The internet makes the art market incredibly efficient, but also renders incredible bargains almost obsolete. Could this be one of those rare instances of making a big score? For the following week, it became almost impossible for me not to dream of winning these paintings for almost no money. People in Japan wouldn’t know about it. The oceans of of “Wizard of Oz” stuff that dominated the catalog might drown out any serious anime collectors. The auction was at a penny with five days left, was at $5 with a few days left and was at $11 on the morning of the auction.
A week after viewing the pictures, I drove down with my daughter once again to see if I could get them.
Three auction houses were involved in the auction itself: Don Presley Auctions, Dave Hester Auctions and American Auctioneers – the group behind the TV hit “Storage Wars.”
The hosts of storage wars, Dan and Laura Dotson were both there and rotated in to auction off some of the lots. I had met Dan Dotson once before, but in the quiet before the auction began I had a chance to have a real conversation with him and get his take on the lots and the history of the collection. Dan Dotson may have a down-to-Earth, homespun charm but it almost belies a real savvy collectible sensibility earned only from decades of experience in the field. Because he deals in so many different types of collectibles, his breadth of knowledge is stunning. Perhaps he not best known as an appraiser, but he really knows his stuff.
Sitting there thinking how much I was willing to spend reminded me how subjective a thing value is. How high was I willing to go? I kept telling myself this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I still feel that way. But pulling the trigger in this economy is not an easy thing to do.
They were not cheap – certainly not as cheap as I had hoped – but I do feel like I stole them. And many people have told me as much since the auction. I raced over the pay for them and pick them up from the warehouse. Once I had the paintings in my hands and could view them up close, it became clear what these paintings were: They were all of the same monster.
The auction contained many items from a horror film that Carroll directed called “The Runestone.” The five Go Nagai paintings represented the monster in different stages (even though the fact that the monster ultimately used in the film stayed the same). This was confirmed when I read the letters included in the auction from Go Nagai’s wife, Miko, to Carroll. The first image was off the stone egg (The Runestone) The second one was the monster bursting out from it. The third is the monster close up showing the grotesque details of the face. The fourth is of the face extending into a snout while insect-like arms project from above the eyes and the final stage shows horns extending out of the monster’s back while it shoots lightning breath.
Here is what Miko wrote about the paintings in one of the letters: “Go was very happy to hear that you liked these creatures designed by him. For him, to create the monsters is one of the favorite things to do, and now he is drawing the more details of the monster’s facial design, also the process how does it get a transformation, as well.”
Upon understanding that these images were sequential, I was reminded of how much they were tied to the era in which they were painted. “The Runestone” was developed in the late 80s, a time before digital special effects and a time when monster movies took great pride in practical effect transformations. With Go Nagai’s concept for the Runestone monster transformation, one can’t help but think of “An American Werewolf in London,” “The Howling,” “The Thing” and “Pumkinhead.” The transition from the third and fourth painting in particular conjures up some Rob Bottin-like effect.
Moreover, the paintings feel dated in that they seem almost too glorious for concept art -certainly for a low budget monster movie. These are not the phoned-in photoshop images that would be produced today by lessor talent, but the work of a legend curious about the world of Hollywood movie-making and eager to please a close friend about to make his directorial debut.