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Entertaining the Gods and Man: Japanese Dolls and the Theater

October 2 – January 27, 2013

For most of us the word doll connotes a child’s plaything or precious collectable, but in Japan, ningyō, meaning “human shaped,” are doll-like forms that serve many different purposes, from talismanic and ritual functions to starring in theatrical dioramas and public performances. While the hina-ningyō associated with the Girl’s Day display and the intensely martial forms associated with the Boy’s Day festival have become familiar to those with at least a passing interest in Japanese culture, few have had the opportunity to be exposed to the rich traditions surrounding ningyō and the theater. Ningyō, both entertaining in and of themselves and commemorative of various theatrical traditions, have been a part of Japanese culture for many centuries. This exhibition presents over 60 visually stunning and powerfully engaging ningyō exemplifying this little-explored and undiscovered world of Japanese art.

Exhibit Preview

1) Kisakae Wig Doll
This male mitsuore kisakae-ningyō (triple-jointed wig doll) was originally sold in the Tokyo shop of Musashiya in the early Meiji Period (1868 – 1912). He is dressed in a silk crepe kimono in gray, red, and purple with an allover design motif of the Japanese flag and various banners set against a dramatic mountainous landscape. His face is delicately modeled with softly sculpted features to accentuate the female role, with inset glass eyes and silk fiber hair done in a male style, equipped with five wigs (4 female, 1 male). The jointed knees, hips, and ankles allow the figure to stand or kneel independently.

19 ½” high; Meiji Period, late 19th century, loaned by Hannig Collection

2) Kagamijishi
This isho-ningyō represents a male kabuki actor in the lead role of the play Kagami Jishi. The most dramatic scene of the play is the Lion Dance (shishi mai) in which a young woman (played by the male lead) and the spirit of the lion mask are joined together. In this fanciful tale of personal courage and strength, a beautiful lady-in-waiting is chosen by the shogun to perform the auspicious Lion Dance at the New Year’s celebration. The shy young woman refuses to perform, so the shogun has her locked in a room alone with the mask to practice. As she begins to dance the spirit of the mask residing in the wooden lion head takes complete charge of her body. The spiritual synthesis and physical transformation that occurs between the lion mask spirit and the young woman is expressed here in the face and hands of the doll, which holds out two thick sections of the spirit’s long white mane.

15” high; Meiji Period, early 20th century, loaned by the Rosen Collection

3) Tomomori Takeda
This takeda-ningyō depicts a kabuki actor in the role of Taira no Tomomori (1152 – 1185), a 12th-century warrior and one of the chief commanders of the Taira or Heike clan that rivaled the Minamoto or Genji clan. During the decisive battle at Dan-no-ura in which the Minamoto clan emerged victorious, Tomomori followed his men in defeat by committing suicide. Dramatically posed with one foot still inside the ship, Tomomori holds the anchor that he will tie to his feet before leaping into the sea to his death.

21 ¾” high; late Edo- early Meiji Period, 19th century, loaned by Rosen Collection

Related Films & Publications

Entertaining the Gods and Man
Entertaining the Gods and Man
Japanese Dolls and the Theater by Alan Scott Pate
Available in the Museum Store

Antique Japanese Dolls
Antique Japanese Dolls
From the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Joel Rosen by Alan Scott Pate
Available in the Museum Store

1) Kisakae • Wig Doll 19 ½” high; Meiji Period, late 19th century, loaned by Hannig Collection
2) Kagamijishi • 15” high; Meiji Period, early 20th century, loaned by the Rosen Collection
3) Tomomori Takeda • 21 ¾” high; late Edo- early Meiji Period, 19th century, loaned by Rosen Collection