Living tradition of court doll-making celebrated

by Yoko Haruhara

“Gosho Ningyo Court Dolls and Paintings of the Modern Era,’ currently at the Seikado Bunko Art Museum and coinciding with Golden Week, sets out to display the decorative flourishes and innovations of the late 19th century (late Edo and Meiji periods) through to the early 20th century. It was a time when, along with continuity in the traditional arts, there were also clear breaks with convention.

The court dolls on display were made in 1939 by an old master, Oki Heizo the Fifth (1886-1941) in a commission for the founder of the museum, Iwasaki Koyata. Heizo came from a famous line of craftsmen who elevated doll-making to an art form. The procession of 58 figures is led by a flag-bearing boy, followed by others playing musical instruments and singing. Bringing up the rear is a group pulling a takarabune (treasure boat) laden with jewels, gold and rice, and others dancing the rite of pounding rice cakes. Their finery accentuates the auspiciousness of the occasion.

Each doll is carved in an elaborate pattern and colored to give it the appearance of wearing a fine costume and each is marvelously detailed with intricate stylized features. Gosho Ningyo (court dolls) were constructed from dense paulownia wood (kiri), and coated with multiple layers of gofun, a white pigment made from pulverized oyster shells and glue. The end result is a lovely, smooth surface which gives the appearance of beautiful white skin.

Gosho Ningyo were typically chubby little boy dolls, exchanged among members of the Imperial family as auspicious items to celebrate the birth of a child. They were also given as mementos during the Edo Period (1600-1867) to feudal lords who visited the Imperial palace en route to the capital. Eventually the practice of collecting and displaying these dolls spread, first among the aristocracy, and later to commoners. Because the process was so complicated and labor-intensive, relatively few Gosho ningyo were produced. Consequently, the dolls became highly prized, rare art objects.

The second half of the exhibition, a collection of 19th and early 20th century Japanese paintings from the same time period as the Gosho Ningyo, is equally fascinating. The museum has a large collection of paintings that are shown in rotation. One of the most prized works here is the accordion-fold picture series “The Journey to Hell and Paradise” by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889). Commissioned in 1869 and completed in 1872 for a patron to commemorate the death of his young daughter, Tatsu, Kyosai’s approach to this subject is both masterful and humorous. His intent is to show his patron’s daughter is taking part in a festive afterlife inhabited by extremely beautiful and talented individuals.

The theme is taken up as a journey through paradise and hell. Rather than follow conventional notions of heaven and hell occupying separate universes, he created an afterworld in which the residents of both are allowed to intermingle freely. Each of the panels in this series depicts one of Tatsu’s experiences in the afterworld, where, accompanied by Buddhist deities riding a cloud, she observes the world beneath her — it is a breathtaking journey.

The kabuki scene is one of the most enthralling in the series, showing a young kabuki actor entertaining an audience from both heaven and hell aided by a demonic stagehand. Kyosai is at his most masterful here, displaying both the skills he learned from the Kano school, known for its detailed and elaborate depictions of decorative art and Buddhist themes, as well as his introduction of the ukiyo-e style of genre painting. The kabuki actor is drawn in stylized, bold relief typical of the ukiyo-e style, while the audience up in the balcony are shown in the representational style utilized by Kano school painters. The protagonist performing Yasuna, a famous kabuki play in which a deranged young man dances, unhinged by the memory of a lover who died prematurely. Kyosai has chosen as his subject the actor Ichimura Takenojo, famous for his dashing appearance on the stage, and who, like the patron’s daughter Tatsu, died very young.

The result beautifully captures the cacophonous environment of the times, transforming the theater into a place where the terms “heaven” (gokuraku) and “hell” (jigoku) are irrelevant. The human world and the afterlife have been conflated into a place that combines features of both.