Lights, Camera, Garage Kits! The Cinematic Influences of Yasushi Nirasawa

Yasushi Nirasawa (1963-2013) left an indelible mark on tokusatsu, garage kits, and character art. A fixture in magazines such as Hobby Japan, Nirasawa’s career began like it did for many illustrators and modelers during the 1980s, with Mobile Suit Gundam. A scratch-built figure and illustration were featured in a 1987 issue of Hobby Japan EX while Nirasawa was still working as Makoto Kobayashi’s assistant. Even in this early work, you can see his tastes go in more outlandish directions than Gundam typically ventured, with a more organic scratch-built figure. His work would go on to appear in role-playing game manuals, video games, TV commercials, comics, and of course, garage kits. At a glance, Nirasawa’s art style has a hyper-charged energy to it, full of rippling muscles, beautiful women, intricate costumes, bizarre and asymmetrical monsters. Divorced from its historical context, the aesthetics are highly idiosyncratic, but we are what we consume, and Nirasawa’s style was certainly the product of a broader shift in global pop-cultural cross-pollination.

Over the years we’ve seen a multitude of older properties based around toys, cartoons, or kid’s TV shows be remade/remodeled for “adult” audiences. Hideaki Anno’s Shin Kamen Rider is an obvious and recent example, but during the mid-’80s and into the early ’90s, there was an ongoing trend of Showa-era nostalgia getting spun into new merchandise and aimed squarely at middle-aged adults and an older otaku demographic. Arguably this trend began in 1984 with The Return of Godzilla1 and continued with the likes of tokusatsu films aimed at older audiences such as the live-action 8 Man film in 1992 (and its sister OVA 8 Man After) as well as the Cronenberg-esque Shin Kamen Rider: Prologue (no relation to Anno’s film), and Keita Amemiya’s Mechanical Violator Hakkaider in 1995. All classic Showa-era tokusatsu properties are known for being colorful kid entertainment getting a new (very Verhoeven-influenced) coat of paint. At roughly the same time we start to see the emergence of properties aimed at older audiences using the building blocks of tokusatsu such as Sayonara Jupiter (1984), Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis (1988), and Gunhed (1989).

Nirasawa's take on the Marasai, from Japan EX Autumn 1987.
Nirasawa’s take on the Marasai, from Hobby Japan EX Autumn 1987.

In the United States, we were seeing comic book characters from roughly the same time period go through their own modernizations into something darker, for adults. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (among other titles) led to comic book authors taking a heightened approach to comics of decades past, like in The Death of Superman, while indie comics were doing their own “adult” twists on classic adventure or superhero comic formulas with titles such as John Ostrander and Timothy Truman’s Grimjack and Matt Wagner’s Grendel. All led to the rise of Image Comics and hyper-stylized titles like Spawn.

Todd McFarlane’s Spawn was itself a mini media empire with t-shirts, movies, animated series, and of course, toys. McFarlane Toys produced complex toys for older collectors based on Image properties (with a tantalizing amount of edginess for teenage audiences), but also sold figures based on work from artists like Clive Barker and horror films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Terminator 2 with a level of detail previously unseen. Japan certainly noticed with reverberations felt to this day. This baroque and gothic revival of ’60s and ’70s era properties was very much the zeitgeist that created Yasushi Nirasawa. Fiercely original and with a style all his own, Nirasawa wore his influences on his sleeve, creating genre pastiche of Showa-era characters mixed with his own supercharged style, and all these elements dovetailed in a way that led to Nirasawa being exposed to a Western audience.

In the early 2000s stores like FYE and Electronics Boutique had sizable action figure sections chock full of McFarlane Toys, but Japanese brands like Fewture were also represented. It was there that I first encountered the work of Yasushi Nirasawa. At the time I didn’t realize it, but his interpretations of Devilman and Mazinger Z were a mixture of nostalgia and late Showa special effects style through the lens of McFarlane toy details, a degree of detail that at the time was on par with garage kits rather than action figures. This led me to track down any of Nirasawa’s art books I could get my hands on, though it still wasn’t exactly easy to find people familiar with Nirasawa’s work. But even more years later, having worked at conventions like Monsterpalooza and talking to folks online, I realize the impact he left on an American audience, and likewise, American pop culture played an instrumental role in Nirasawa’s own supercharged maximalist style.

Never one to be cagey about his influences, the 2002 book Devilman The List includes an interview with Nirasawa where he rattles off a murderer’s row of favorite sculptors and artists: Thomas Kuntz, Steve Wang, S. M. George (probably Screaming Mad George), Tony MoCabe, Randy Bowen, and Clayburn Moore, Salvador Dali, Egon Schiele, Frank Frazetta, Simon Bisley, Mike Mignola, Akira Takahashi from Ekisu Pro, H.R. Giger, Dan Brereton, Martin Emond, and Hajime Sorayama. All maximalist artists, who while certainly possessing nuance, favored more visual flare, influences that would spill out into Nirasawa’s own workspace. Sculptor Keijiro Togita described his first impressions of Nirasawa many years ago as 『この人は無職のマニアおじさん』(Some kind of unemployed old maniac), and when you see Nira’s workspace you can understand Togita’s strong reaction. Nirasawa’s approach to decorating his studio was about as unrestrained as his own art, with every possible square inch covered in toys, statues, and collectibles. This eclectic collection can be seen in numerous photographs of Nirasawa.

Nirasawa in one corner of his office, his extensive toy collection on display.
Nirasawa in one corner of his office, his extensive toy collection on display.

In a feature for Figure King magazine, Nirasawa gave a glimpse of his extensive collection, with the Inhumanoids being one of his big favorites, particularly the gory saurian D’Compose. Along with the expected Aurora model kits, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys, and Bucky O’Hare are some oddities like Devil Warrior (the magazine caption says it looks like something out of a Hideshi Hino manga), and Galoob’s feminine answer to He-Man, Golden Girl and the Guardians of Gemstones (villainess Moth Lady was one of Nira’s favorites, and in all her Reagan-era kitsch you can see how he’d gravitate towards her). Another Figure King article from 1998 showed Nirasawa flanked by a Horizon vinyl kit of She-Hulk, toys from Iron Man’s short-lived ‘90s animated series, and a plethora of Star Wars toys courtesy of the then-new Special Edition. Nirasawa had a long-lasting affinity for the sci-fi wild west style of Star Wars planet Tatooine and its eccentric creatures. Hunger from the game Volfoss (a 2001 RPG from Namco released only in Japan on the Playstation) was based on the B’omarr Monk seen briefly in Return of the Jedi lurking around Jabba’s Palace, while Edge Master from the video game Soul Calibur was loosely based on Obi-Wan Kenobi. For an issue of Erotopia Magazine, he concocted a sexy pin-up girl version of the Podracer Sebulba from The Phantom Menace. Incredibly strange creatures were a recurring motif in Nirasawa’s work and also where he first made his mark as an artist.

Released in 1988, Fantastic Creature World was the first art book to focus exclusively on the work of Yasushi Nirasawa (with the first known published magazine to feature his work being the Autumn 1987 issue of Hobby Japan EX, featuring a scratch-built model and ink drawing of a Marasai). Fantastic Creature World was a collaboration of sorts, as it acted as a monster manual for the tabletop RPG Phantasm Adventure. Published in Japan by Dainihon Kaiga (publisher of tasteful stories such as Riding Bean and AD Police), Phantasm Adventure was created by an American expat, Troy Christensen. Relatively obscure in the West, it was covered in Dragon magazine and received an English translation in 1992, but information on the breadth of its release is spotty. In addition to Yasushi Nirasawa, the Phantasm Adventure series also featured work from Record of Lodoss War artist Akihiro Yamada.

One of the many iterations of Nirasawa’s Nina character.

The introduction to the book states that the world of Phantasm Adventure is a little different from what is seen in Lord of the Rings or Tales of Earthsea, and indeed, a lot of that is thanks to Nirasawa’s illustrations which combined elements of Frazetta, Chris Achilléos and Simon Bisley with the asymmetry of Makoto Kobayashi. Nirasawa’s art also featured heavily in Japanese role-playing game magazines at the time, using a soft-colored pencil art style. Fantastic Creature World acts as a field guide for would-be adventurers about dangerous creatures. Released in 1989, the book deals in sword and sorcery imagery, reminiscent of TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons manuals of the 1980s, but in Nirasawa’s precisely shambolic style, and even here we see Nirasawa’s affinity for American sci-fi with references to John Carpenter’s The Thing.

The follow-up to Fantastic Creature World was the 1992 art book Creature Core, containing Nirasawa’s manga work, scratch-built models for Hobby Japan, and some of his RPG manual material. It also included a list of some of his favorite films, including everything from New Line Cinema, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Frankenhooker, Hellraiser, Midnight Cowboy, The Doberman Gang movies (a series of films about Doberman Pinschers trained to rob banks. Yes, really), Kin-dza-dza!, Hidden (probably the 1987 sci-fi crime thriller The Hidden), Dune, and Liquid Sky2. Disparate films, united by elements of shlock, genuine visual flair, and Kyle MacLachlan. These were films the likes of which you might see listed in the back of magazines for VHS maniacs such as Takarajima or Uchusen. The same book also features vaguely biblically themed creatures Belsebub (based on Cronenberg’s The Fly) and Leviathan (loosely based on the 1989 movie of the same name). Though Nirasawa’s favorite film, evidenced by his work and mentioned in art books, was Brian De Palma’s 1974 gothic rock-n-roll horror Phantom of the Paradise. The exact how and why is unknown (and definitely worth an article in the future), but Phantom of the Paradise found a dedicated cult following in Japan, with Nirasawa being in the right age group to have first gravitated to it. The Phantom’s costume of brushed silver and black leather is a recurring motif in Nirasawa’s work, including a statue featured in Creature Core of the Phantom himself and the monster Owl Imagin that Nirasawa designed for Kamen Rider Den-O. Phanteana, from the Resurrection of Monstress toy line, was practically the spitting image of Winslow Leach, complete with her own electric keyboard. That toy line was a send-up of movie monster motifs, particularly Universal monsters such as The Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Devilman The List, published in 2002 by Graphic-Sha was a compendium of Nirasawa’s work for Fewture, with a particular focus on the Devilman figures he designed. Included was commentary on each figure and descriptions of repaint variants released. The Mystery Inferno Red version of the turtle monster Jinmen was inspired by Dario Argento’s Inferno, while the sanguine Blood Die repaint was likened to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Color Me Blood Red. As part of a box set with the figure of Akira Fudo, his girlfriend Miki had an Elis Conscious repaint with silver clothes and purple hair, modeled after Gerry Anderson’s TV series UFO (a favorite of early studio Gainax and other founding fathers of maniac culture). Miki received another repaint with blond hair and pink translucent clothes modeled after actress Traci Lords. Concept art was also made for a Demon Armor version of Devilman that was meant to riff on the accessory-laden style of figures produced by Toy Biz, though this went unproduced.

Music, particularly rock music of the ’70s and ’80s, was a recurring motif throughout Nirsawa’s work. Nirsawa’s 1991 garage kit which reimagined Devilman as a gaunt figure in leather pants was based on the appearance of Iggy Pop, while figures from the subsequent Devilman line of figures contained nods to Deep Purple and The Damned. Nirasawa even designed a line of Marilyn Manson figures as a direct response to McFarlane’s pursuit of licensing Manson figures. Devilman The List curated a playlist to accompany a section on figure customization, including KISS, Spandau Ballet, Bauhaus, and Peter Gabriel among others.

Some of Nirasawa's Super Festival pin-ups.
Some of Nirasawa’s Super Festival pin-ups.

As the ’80s gave way to the ’90s, much of the Nirasawa oeuvre took on elements heavily influenced by American blockbusters from the same time. Take for example Vampire Killer, an illustration for the magazine DDD which was loosely born out of the desire to see an all-women version of the movie Blade starring Traci Lords. Super Festival, a biannual toy collectors/garage kit show, regularly had Yasushi Nirasawa draw pin-ups promoting the show until his passing. Since these shows covered a wide range of collectors and sculptors with varied interests including mecha, cute girl kits, and kaiju among others, Nirasawa’s poster girls had a playful atmosphere and eclectic references, including Mars Attacks, The Fifth Element, and X-Men.

Nirasawa’s character Nina Dolono appeared throughout his comics, garage kits, and toys with outfits designed to reference a number of blockbuster and effects-heavy movies such as Ridley Scott’s Legend, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Popular opinion has decreed that the film Batman and Robin, directed by Joel Schumacher, was some kind of cinematic abomination, but at a certain point, you realize a lot of nerds are just allergic to camp. Nirasawa had no such aversion to the film, and we can see in photos that he had an extensive collection of figures including Mister Freeze, Poison Ivy, and Batgirl. The appearance Nina took in her 12th Super Fest pin-up (dubbed “Poison-Element Nina”) was a fusion of Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy and Leeloo from The Fifth Element. Uma Thurman would pop up again in a rejected pitch for a series of Captain Harlock figures similar to what he had done for Devilman and Mazinger Z. Nirasawa’s proposed redesign of Emeraldas cribbed from Uma Thurman as Emma Peel in the 1998 film The Avengers (adapted from the 1960s spy show, but if you’re reading this blog you probably already know that).

This is still only scratching the surface of the number of Western films referenced in his work, but I didn’t want this article to become even more of a list than it already is. Nirasawa has never been one to hide his influences throughout his career. Nirasawa’s taste in cinema (or at least what was reflected in his work), may not have exactly been the Criterion Collection, but it reflected the deep appreciation for practical effects that was echoed in his work. Big, bombastic, but handled with eagle-eyed attention to detail, even if it’s just shlock. Unfortunately, the American film market never returned Nirasawa’s reverence in kind. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within featured Nirasawa’s creature designs in cineplexes across the USA and was met with (at best) critical apathy. Space Truckers, by the director of Re-Animator, featured an alien creature designed by Nirasawa and became a fixture of late-night cable movie channels but is now more or less forgotten. Nirasawa’s concept for the Edgar creature in Men in Black was rejected in favor of a giant roach that looked like it walked out of an ad for Raid. Meanwhile, in Japan, he’s revered for his work in shaping early ‘00s tokusatsu, and was responsible for a lot of the aesthetics of Heisei era Kamen Rider, along with contributing to Gokaiger, GARO, and giving Gigan one hell of a comeback in Godzilla Final Wars.

Iggy Pop once said, “Schlock has its place” and Nirasawa certainly found his shlock, while still approaching it with a deft and unparalleled level of craft.

Books referenced in this article include Fantastic Creature World, Creature Core, Niragram, Chameleon, Devilman The List, and Blood of Nira’s Creature. While these were all published in Japan, some of them include bilingual captions in Japanese and English.

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  1. Consider where Godzilla left off in ’74 with Titanosaurus and an android lady, and then a decade later we get a realistic Tokyo draped in Cold War geopolitics, it does feel like Return of Godzilla was a definite shift.
  2. Additional favorite films of his mentioned in the book Devilman The List, included Blade Runner, Vidocq (probably the 2001 film, an action/mystery set in 19th century Paris), Shadow of the Vampire, From Hell, Interview with the Vampire, Melody (a British romantic comedy with a Bee-Gees laden soundtrack that was a dud in the US and Britain, but a hit in Japan), Phantom of the Paradise, Electra Glide in Blue (a biker cop movie that was the sole directorial feature from the producer of the band Chicago), and two Robert Redford features: Condor (probably the 1975 thriller Three Days of the Condor) and The Hot Rock.