Yuki Atae, one of Japan’s most prominent doll makers, creates unique figures out of fabric — many of them depicting Japanese children from the early 20th century — not just for kids but for adults who may have forgotten their childhood days.
His dolls are now traveling around Japan in a series of exhibitions that will last through January 2008.
The tour began in March at a gallery in the Matsuya department store in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district, where it attracted hordes of mostly middle-aged women. There was a long line of people waiting to get in. At one point the line stretched from the event site on the eighth floor all the way to the first floor and out on to the street.
Artwork by the 69-year-old Kanagawa Prefecture native has also been exhibited in Paris at the Baccarat museum in 2006 and at the Louvre in 1991, as well as at a gallery in Soho, New York, in 2000.
Many of his dolls are modeled on Japanese children from the early Showa Era, which started in 1926, and the preceding 14-year Taisho Era, when Atae says, people were materially poor but spiritually rich.
The dolls, mostly dressed in traditional kimono, are exhibited in various scenes, including a girl napping by a “kotatsu” heater table, boys waiting for “mochi” rice cakes to be cooked on a brazier and a girl carrying a sleeping baby on her back.
“In the past, many kids wore dirty clothes and were snotty-nosed, but they had pure and shining eyes full of hope,” he said, adding that he wants to preserve in the shape of his dolls something that has been lost with time.
His works mainly portray everyday moments in ordinary people’s lives with realism, humor and warmth.
In a message book at the Kawaguchiko Muse Museum in Yamanashi Prefecture, which showcases about 70 of Atae’s dolls, many visitors write that they have been moved to tears as the dolls lovingly remind them of their long-lost childhood.
“The dolls brought back my old memories of Japanese people’s lives. They reminded me of the tenderness I have lost,” one message reads at the museum by Lake Kawaguchi near Mount Fuji.
“I found a doll that looks similar to one of my old friends and also one that looks like a woman who used to live in my neighborhood. They reminded me of that time,” says another message.
For Atae, dolls are a “mirror” reflecting what he feels during the creative process.
“Even if I try to make a doll that looks so happy, my inner feelings always appear in it,” he said, adding that being honest to himself is the most important thing for his work.
Atae, who usually creates his dolls at night in his Tokyo atelier, said it takes him about a month to make one, after spending weeks deciding on the doll’s image, character and bodily movements.
Using clay and plaster, he makes a 3 mm-thick papier-mache mold of a face on which a sheet of cotton, dyed the color of skin, is attached.
The face, along with other body parts made of cotton, is filled out with wood shavings. Atae then makes the clothing and other ornaments by hand, including wisps of hair, shirts with minute buttons and tiny straw sandals.
The dolls, which range between 30 and 40 cm in height, are firmly balanced and stand on two slim feet without external support.
“Everyone asks me why they can stand. But if you make dolls properly, they can stand under the rules of dynamics, just like a human being,” he said.
Atae learned the basics of doll making at a mannequin company he joined after dropping out of high school, where he was studying commerce.
He was no good at the abacus or bookkeeping when in high school and had no interest in them, he said. After hopping from job to job, he joined the mannequin maker and found the work enjoyable as he had always liked making things by hand since he was a child.
He later began to devote himself to making his own dolls, creating a world of his own simply by using his imagination and his hands. When he was around 40, he quit the company so he could make the dolls that he, rather than the company, wanted.
“I thought this is the only thing I should do. I didn’t care whether I could make a living by it or not,” he said.
Atae’s delicate, nostalgic artwork later gained popularity, and some of his dolls appeared in TV programs and movies, including “Poppoya” (“Railway Man”) starring Ken Takakura, which won the Japan Academy’s best film award in 2000. Atae’s girl doll Yukiko played a key role in the film.
Atae’s dolls require thin fabrics with tiny patterns and finding the right piece to suit a doll’s image is one of the hardest parts of the creative process. The fabric has to be old cotton to give the necessary sense of realism, he said.
“A piece of fabric can give me inspiration, and if it matches something in my mind I can create a doll in a single burst,” he said.
But if he does not find the fabric he is looking for, he cannot complete the work, even if it is merely for a tiny belt on a doll’s kimono.
“I can’t help connecting whatever I see with dolls, even when I’m in town, on a train, or watching TV,” he said. “Oh, that pose would be good for a doll. That facial expression is nice. I think like that, especially when I see children.”
One thing that has been concerning him recently is the fate of his dolls, Atae said. “Being my age, I often wonder what will happen to my dolls after I die. I want them to be happy because they are like my own children.”