The following pages are an image-intensive essay on the dolls representing Kabuki themes:
This page was designed and is maintained
The 18th and 19th century produced in Japan an art, Ukiyo-e,
representing the "floating world" --ephemeral, repugnant to Buddhist philosophy,
but dear to the hearts of young men and essential to the economy and society
of feudal Japan. This was the world of the Kabuki theater, with its favorite
actors and their fans, and of the geisha and oiran, whose brothels became
salons for elegant social intercourse as well as lively sexual intercourse.
Names for this type of doll include:
Fashion dolls have been produced since at least the 18th
century in Japan; dolls representing the activites of daily life, Ukiyo
or "the floating world."
Such dolls may be called isho ningyo (or isho-bina), "costume dolls" representing various
aspects of daily life, humble as well as romantic.
Is this remarkable figure a sakura-ningyo, an oyama ningyo, an isho-bina? Click on the photograph to find out more (photo essay--heavy on graphics!).
These dolls usually represent a particular dance or type of performance: the "Wisteria dance" from Kabuki, the samisen player in her quiet-colored kimono, the bride with her shite hat, and so on. sometimes, however, they do evoke the social categories of women devoted to entertainment, the geisha, maiko, or oiran.
Dolls of this type with hard gofun, gypsum-lacquer, or even plastic faces with inset eyes might be called Oyama dolls (a word that in fact refers to the actor in Kabuki theater who portrays a woman).
The silk-mask-faced geisha dolls were first designed by Kamimura Tsuyuko, a woman who had travelled in Europe and got the idea from French dolls; before the War, they were called Furansu (French) ningyo, but during the war were renamed Sakura ningyo, "Cherry-Blossom Doll". They were a popular home craft, made from kits, and were also marketed by companies (Nishi, Kyugetsu). Most of the dolls of this type found in the U.S. now were produced after World War II, and found a ready market with military personnel who brought them home.
Note that in the 1950s and 60s dolls were made using similar techniques but dressed in Western apparel, or with big anime-style eyes suggesting Western influence. These might also have been called Furansu or Sakura dolls.
As I have noted on the Bunraku page, the relationship between puppets and dolls is close. The wildly posturing Takeda ningyo--see Lotz doll page for an example--are related to another form of puppet theater, and recall the woodblock prints of Kabuki actors. On the other hand, the Oyama and Sakura ningyo draw subjects from various Kabuki plays, but the heroines are represented as women, not as the male actors who would play the roles on stage. The girl with the buckets, the girl with the wisteria branch, the dancer with a spring horse, with butterfly wings or with seven "hats"--all these represent traditional dance and theater themes.
A Gosho child could also represent an actor or dancer--compare the 19th century example, Gosho doll, with a contemporary one from the Kaga Region. Such childish figures suggest a street festival, not the Kabuki plays which also present lion-dancers.
Hakata pottery dolls have been a good medium for depicting theatrical roles; some of the loveliest images of geisha and young women in general are found in this medium.
Another type of doll based on theatrical models is the "tableau" doll grouping. Typically one, two, or three figures from a Noh or Kabuki play stand on a little stage with a tree or other simple scenery. Noh scenes may depict the figures as masked or made-up actors or as the "real" people they represent. Jo and Uba, the old couple from the play Takasago, are among the dolls most commonly represented in tableaux.
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