An artist based in Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido is in demand for her remarkably lifelike clay figurines of famous historical figures. Mika Takayama, 47, who lives in Sapporo, calls the 15-centimeter-tall figurines made of oven-bake clay chima chima ningyō (tiny little dolls).
Takayama principally works as a book illustrator and says making the models is “just one of my hobbies.” Nevertheless, she spares no effort in making them as realistic as possible. Before creating a doll of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), one of her favorite writers whose works include “Rashomon,” she read nearly 50 books about him.
Takayama originally made musical instruments and daily items until one of her friends suggested that she create a doll of a human figure instead. Her initial Akutagawa doll, however, “didn’t look like him” and she realized that she needed to know more about her subjects if she wanted to make them look real.
Having read the 50 books borrowed from a library, Takayama discovered details about Akutagawa — he was, for example, a heavy smoker and his hibachi brazier was often full of cigarette butts, and he had a favorite zabuton mat to sit on.
First, Takayama created his face, baking the doll in an oven over and over each time modifying details, before painting the finished figure. She used real tobacco to make the cigarette, which the doll is “smoking,” cutting it to about 4 millimeters in length and even burning the end.
Such detail means a single figurine can take more than a month to make, yet she has produced around 150 models of historic figures including poet and children’s book writer Kenji Miyazawa, Mahatma Gandhi and Pablo Picasso.
“Creating a doll makes me obsessed with it but I always want to be released from it as soon as possible,” she said with a wry smile on her face.
About 20 of Takayama’s works are currently on permanent display at the Municipal Otaru Literature Museum in Otaru, a coastal city northwest of Sapporo, and her dolls have been exhibited in other parts of Japan as well. With her reputation having spread across the country, she has been fielding a stream of requests from museums to create likenesses of locally famous figures.
She has made a figurine of poet Kazuo Noritake at the request of the Fukui Museum of Literature, while others include haiku poet Dakotsu Iida and his son Ryuta for Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Literature, which plans to lend the pair of figures to local schools.