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IKI NINGYO: LIVING DOLLS AND THE LEGACY OF
MATSUMOTO KISABURO

by Alan Pate

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In 1868, in preparation for a large-scale exhibit of iki ningyo (living dolls)* to be held at the Asakusa Sensoji Temple in the newly christened capital of Tokyo, Matsumoto Kisaburo (1826-1892) created his most enduring masterpiece: a life-sized image of Kannon dressed as a female traveler. The exhibit itself, designed as a series of vignettes involving over 33 individual figures, was a tour de force and represented Kisaburo at the peak of his powers as a ningyo artist. It was based on popular stories of faith and manifestations of the power of the Buddhist deity Kannon, called the Saikoku sanjusan [Miraculous Deeds of Kannon at the 33 places of Shikoku]. This particular image, the tanikumi kannon, clothed in rich silken robes and wearing the lacquered cap of a traveling noblewoman, was suffused with a life and vitality that gave these striking figures their name: iki-ningyo or "living" dolls. The graceful pose of the body with the head looking back slightly over her left shoulder, her finely formed hand, ripe and fairly pulsing with life, the index finger pointing delicately into the distance, her enigmatic expression, beatific and haunting, was all masterfully rendered. Her ivory teeth and inset glass eyes, exquisitely executed, completed the image of divinity. Such was the perfection of this particular figure when Kisaburo finished it that, rather than including it in the intended exhibit, he donated the piece to Jo koku-ji Temple in his home town of Kumamoto where it remains to this day as an object of veneration. A second piece was subsequently created for inclusion in the Kannon exhibit which first appeared in 1871.

 * The term iki ningyo did not come into common parlance until the early years of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), but this term will be used throughout to refer to the roughly life-sized, non-mechanical ningyo forms first documented in the early years of the Edo Period (1603-1868) and whose production continued well into the early 20th century.

The Saikoku sanjusan opened in 1871 in the Ookuyama of Sensoji Asakusa in Tokyo and was repeated until 1878. The Tanikumi Kannon, representing the final stop on the pilgrimage route, relates a story in which Okura Taro Nobumitsu, a gold merchant and devout follower of the Kannon, had a sculpture commissioned of an 11-headed Kannon which he decided to carry to Kyoto to dedicate it to temple there. As he was carrying the statue it grew inexplicably heavier and heavier. Fatigued, he set the shrine down and from out of the shrine miraculously emerged Kannon herself. Amazed and stunned, Nobumitsu followed the Kannon as she led him for 5 li until she reached a place called Tanikumiyama. Standing there, from out of her lotus dias emerged a fount of oil which Nobimitus used to create an everlasting lamp. He decided to build a temple there, in her honor and in recognition of the miracle he just witnessed.

In addition to the Tanikumi Kannon, the exhibit contained 8 other images of Kannon in various guises. Accounts from the period indicate that people were so struck by the beauty and realism of Kisaburo's figures that in addition to paying the entry fee to view the exhibit, they cast offerings at the feet of the various Kannon in hopes of gaining merit and as a way of venerating this spectacular manifestation of Kannon in their midst.


Misemono

Kisaburo's Saikoku sanjusan was just one of the many misemono (exhibitions) held at Asakusa Temple during the 19th century. Misemono were temporary exhibitions or performances frequently associated with temple fairs called kaicho. Held at various times of the year at Asakusa and other temples across Japan, kaicho were originally an occasion when a particular, rarely viewed Buddhist relic or image from the local temple, or, occasionally, one brought in from a distant temple, would be displayed for the public. Seeing and venerating such an object was felt to bring great merit to the viewer, and the donations which poured forth during these occasions from the visiting masses dramatically swelled the temples' coffers as well. As they developed over the years, more and more external forms of entertainment were gradually attached and the kaicho became much-anticipated social events as well, attracting visitors from far and wide. Initially kaicho were held only infrequently, but due to the great profits earned by the temples and the strong economic benefits felt by the surrounding community, which provided food, lodging, and other services, kaicho became more and more frequent. This was especially true for Asakusa Sensoji and Eikoin at the Ryogoku Bridge, also in Tokyo. Here temporary booths, impromptu displays of legerdemain, physical oddities, animal acts, and special crafts were permitted and encouraged by the temple authorities who allowed artists, jugglers, bards, and nearly every imaginable form of entrepreneur to stage performances and exhibitions for the viewing public in exchange for donations or, in the case of more elaborate exhibits like Kisaburo's, for a small entry fee.

Although these displays of popular entertainment had existed for centuries, the misemono of the late Edo (1603-1868) and early Meiji periods, benefiting from relative long-term stability and economic prosperity of the country as a whole, had developed into quite elaborate displays of technology and craft. The presentation of saiku (fancy craftsmanship) to temples had long been a way of gaining merit. But over the years, the tradition of donating relatively small-scale saiku gradually expanded from donation to display. Ultimately these displays took on very dramatic forms and were at times presented in what Markus refers to in his work on Japanese misemono as being on a "meglomaniacal scale," becoming significant attractions in an of themselves and in some ways competing with the kaicho's supposed main focus of attention, the religious images and relics. Saito Geshin (1804-1878), the 19th century chronicler of Edo life, personally enjoyed attending the various misemono.

From his recollections and observances recorded in his Buko Nenpyo we can gain an idea of the immense variety of things presented to entertain and tantalize the Edo populace: in 1776 a giant toad of velvet; in 1798 a 159 foot tall rendition of the Viarocana Buddha constructed out of basket material; 1815 a 22 foot tall embroidered of the god Daikoku. Materials varied greatly: a giant Dutch ship composed entirely of glass, complete with sails, scurrying figures on the deck was displayed in 1847, in 1853 the paragons of filial piety crafted out of dried kelp (konbu) were displayed, and images crafted from whale whiskers by Takeda Yoshisaburo in 1852.

The moneymaking opportunities present in these misemono attracted individuals and aspiring artists from not only the immediate Edo area but far beyond. In addition, impresarios recruited particularly promising artists from around the country, helped in advertised their upcoming exhibits through the commissioning of advertising prints called hikihuda, and shared in the profits, which could be quite substantial. Kisaburo himself, under the steward-ship of Shinmon Tatsugoro, a celebrated fireman turned promoter who held a virtual monopoly on misemono held within the temple precincts of Asakusa Sensoji had risen from being an obscure ningyo artist in Osaka to a place of prominence within the world of misemono. His exhibits of highly imaginative and expertly rendered iki ningyo from 1854 to 1875 brought repeated praise. Some of his exhibits went on to tour the country with return engagements in Edo, some enduring for 10 years or more, virtually unheard of in the jaded culture of Edo misemono.


Kumamoto

According to family documents originally held by Kisaburo’s descendant Serikawa Saburo and reviewed by Kuboto Beisho in his work Ningyo-shi, [Tokyo, 1937], Matsumoto Kisaburo was born on February 15, Bunsei 8 (1826) to an oil salesman named Matsumoto Hambei living in the Ideguchi area of Kumamoto, Hijo Prefecture. Early in life he showed great promise in carving and was apprenticed to a local scabbard maker. His talent and rapid progress soon earned Kisaburo the enmity of his fellow apprentices and abuse at their hands eventually forced him to return home where he crafted lanterns and paper stencils for textile dyeing. At this point he also began to turn his artistic focus on the creation of dedicatory figures called hono ningyo. A local festival tradition venerating the Buddhist bodhisattva Jizo (Kitshigharba) involved the creation of these hono ningyo which were carved and displayed in each neighborhood before being presented to the temple. Competition between the various neighborhoods was quite lively and Kisaburo along with another young artist by the name of Yasumoto Kamehachi soon distinguished himself as a superior artist, each reportedly challenging the other in the creation of increasingly sophisticated forms of ningyo.

 

The first recorded ningyo display by Kisaburo which may be classified as iki ningyo was executed sometime in the early 1840’s and was of a well-known scene drawn from history involving Akechi Mitsuharu (d.1582) crossing the Lake Biwa narrows on his horse, Okage, near the Karasaki Pine. To set the scene, Kisaburo chose to stage this particular tableau on the shores of the Shirakawa River which ran next to the Jizo Temple where there grew a large pine tree.  This hono ningyo display drew particularly high praise and further inspired Kisaburo to focus on his growing skills as a ningyo-shi (ningyo artist).  Importantly, this also illustrated a growing sense of theatricality in his creations and methods of display. A second noted tableau done sometime thereafter was placed in the gardens of the Hosokawa daimyo family where Kisaburo crafted a hono ningyo that amazed the local populace due to its high sense of realism in which everyone could easily identify the young maid from the Hosokawa household who he used as the model.

Osaka

Kisaburo married a local girl by the name of Machi and seemed to settle into a simple life in Kumamoto. But the death of their daughter at a very young age followed almost immediately by the destruction during a heavy rainstorm of an elaborate iki ningyo tableau featuring Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611), for the gogatsu (Boy’s Day) celebration, led Kisaburo to think of leaving the Kumamoto area for the city of Osaka. Reportedly obstructed in his intentions by his in-laws, he eventually divorced Machi and moved to Osaka on his own at the age of 26 in Kaei 2 (1850). With little money of his own, he is said to have borrowed a silver coin from an inn clerk in Osaka and purchased wire and silk crepe fabric (chirimen), setting out making hair ornaments which he sold to a local haberdashery. His pieces were well received and he soon had sufficient income to bring his parents from Kumamoto to stay with him. On a trip with his father, a devout Buddhist, to Hoganji (head of the Jodo Sect) Kisaburo presented a group of artificial flowers which he had created as an offering to the temple. These evidently drew the attention of the abbot who soon began ordering flowers from Kisaburo. From these small starts and the quick recognition his skills received, Kisaburo was soon able to save up enough to purchase the required materials and developed the confidence in his abilities to return to what was to become his life’s passion, iki ningyo.

In Ansei 1 (1854), Kisaburo staged his first ningyo misemono in Osaka. By this time he had again married, this time to an older woman by the name of Ohide who was the daughter of the next-door neighbor. She is reported to have frequently served as a model for his works, and while we do not have specific details concerning the Osaka exhibit it is assumed that it was of Ohide, possibly portraying a courtesan. The exhibit was evidently a great success, prompting Kisaburo to think of exhibiting in Asakusa Okuyama, the epicenter of 19th century ningyo misemono. He petitioned the above-mentioned promoter, Shinmon Tatsugoro, sending along a small ningyo as a sample of his work. Tatsugoro was greatly impressed and showed the piece to other ningyo-shi in the Asakusa area to gain their approval for Kisaburo’s inclusion in the next scheduled kaicho. They were initially quite skeptical that any provincial artist from Kumamoto could have much to contribute to the various ningyo misemono displayed at Asakusa, which at this point had developed quite a reputation and following, featuring such renowned karakuri ningyo (mechanical doll) artists as Takeda Kamekichi and Takeda Nuidonosuke of the illustrious Takeda family from Osaka. But, reportedly, upon seeing the extraordinary quality of the

small sample ningyo, Kisaburo’s ingenious use of silk crepe to create moveable arms (an invention attributed to Kisaburo), and the extremely skilful rendering of the face, the other artists were quick to recognize his talent and give their ascent for his participation.

Edo

Kisaburo’s first Edo exhibit opened in the Okuyama on February 28, Ansei 2 (1855) as part of an 80- day kaicho being held at Asakusa Sensoji honoring an image of Kannon [Gesshin, p.143]. Kisaburo’s work was one of three principal exhibits featuring ningyo. Takeda Kamehachi’s exhibit was set up in an enormous tent in which he displayed a giant elephant 14-15 ken high on top of which rested a large pavilion in which dancers moved about. A hikihuda exists from the period and shows an enormous white elephant lying down with its trunk curved back along its body. Young children dressed in Chinese style with exotic hats and trousers are shown dancing in an elaborate pavilion atop the arching back of the huge beast. Takeda Nuidonosuke presented a very popular exhibit depicting the actor Ichikawa Danjuro VIII (1829-1854) whose recent suicide in Osaka had created quite a sensation. The exhibit showed scenes of the kabuki theater including actors in make up, scenes from behind the stage, with the culmination being Danjuro himself and his imagined trip to heaven following his suicide to become a Buddha. Kisaburo’s exhibit included a famous beauty from the Maruyama entertainment area of Nagasaki emerging from her bath and also featured grotesque figures from foreign lands drawn from literary classic Sangakyo including: men with no stomachs, men with long arms (tenga) and men with long legs (ashinga), exotic figures form Cochin China, among other novelties.

And while none of these figures remain, hikihuda of this particular exhibit dating from the period show an exotic scene featuring two men carrying a third figure on a pole which passes through the hole in his stomach, tenga grabbing fish from a river, all set against an exotic landscape.

Contemporary accounts describing all three exist. And while the great size of the elephant exhibit and the scintillating nature of the Danjuro exhibit created much talk, the general reaction seems to be an overall recognition of the superiority of Kisaburo’s figures.  The celebrated bronze sculptor Takamura Koun (1852-1934) was said to have seen these figures as a young man and reported that the doll makers of Edo were stunned by the true-to-life impression given by Kisaburo’s creations. He recounts:

...a figure of a geisha from the Maruyama area was seen naked in a bathhouse setting. Behind her was a young servant girl holding a kind of washcloth. The geisha appeared to be about to enter the water, with a towel just barely covering her private parts. Two more figures had just come out of the water and were arranging their hair and putting makeup on in front of a mirror. The exhibit was very enchanting; the figures of this display were especially highly praised. [Cited Nishiyama, Edo Culture, p.235]
Gesshin as well was on hand to see this particular display and recorded the following:
...”living figures” from Osaka were put on display at Asakusa Okuyama. These figures were manufactured by Matusmoto Kisaburo from Bingo (sic) in Kumamoto; they are said to be made, not of wood or clay, but rather of paper mache. Many figures were exhibited: inhabitants of the island of long arms, the island of long legs, the land of perforated chests, the land of no stomachs, and other figures from exoticlands. Figures and courtesans from the Maruyama area[of Nagasaki] were also displayed. All of these figures, both men and women, are completely lifelike. [Gesshin, Buko Nenpyo, vol. 2, pp.143-144]
Another period observer, Komiuchi Nanryo in his Edo Kenbun records:
...outside the tent [containing the elephant exhibit] was a large signboard showing foreigners playing paper-rock-scissors. Inside were dolls depicting beings with no chest, with long arms, long legs, foreigners from Cochin and of a beauty from Maruyama in Nagasaki. Looking at the color of the skin, the nails, they all looked so alive that people called them “iki ningyo.” [Cited Beisho]
Miyakwa Seiun in his Hoshoan Zuehitsu stated:
...a  year before I saw a show called “iki ningyo” at the Asakusa Okuyama. Because of its reputation those who did not see it would have been ashamed. People gathered in hoards and it was altogether an unusual happening. The artist is rumored to be a very filial person, simple and pure in nature. His skills in rendering these ningyo so naturally was such that it is said that his iki ningyo of a figure carrying firewood opened its mouth to exclaim: “this is so heavy!” I also saw these figures and were very impressed.” [Cited Beisho]
Part of the beauty of Kisaburo’s pieces was the intense attention to detail that he exercised on his creations, adding discrete elements to the piece to heighten its authenticity, even in places that were not to be seen by the viewing audience. Seiun goes on to recount how an individual he knew actually had the opportunity to observe Kisaburo at his work. With that particular piece Kisaburo was adding a tattoo on a portion of the body that would ultimately be completely covered by textiles. The following exchange is recorded:

When [Kisaburo] was criticized for taking his perfectionism too far, he replied that it was the same as fully rendering a face of a figure even if it was to be wearing an amigasa [a Buddhist straw hat that hides the face completely]. I was so impressed with what I saw that I myself would not have been surprised if the dolls started speaking...[Beisho]


Iki Ningyo

By Kisaburo’s time, iki ningyo themselves had had a long history of development, though tradition claims that it was the popular reaction to Kisaburo’s particular brand of hyper-realism that fist elicited the term “iki” or “living” ningyo to be applied to the form. Hidari Jingoro (active1596-1644), a temple carpenter (miyashi) by trade who also crafted life-sized ningyo on the side, is probably the earliest documented carver of what were later to be termed iki ningyo. His 7th generation descendent, Hidari Matsumasa (active 1704-1716) took the craft a step further, abandoning the miyashi trade of his family, setting up a shop in Kyoto near Imadegawa, and focusing solely on these forms. [Beisho, 1937] Exactly who his clients were and what specific forms of ningyo were produced is difficult to determine. But perhaps it was such works of the Hidari family that Ihara Saikaku (1641-1693)  had in mind in his novel “Life of an Amorous Man[Koshoku nidai otoko] when the protagonist, Yonosuke, unveils, to the delight of a group of Nagasaki Courtesans, a group of 44 life-sized ningyo brought down from Kyoto displaying the likenesses of famous courtesans in Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo. (p.228). In the novel, the figures create such an impact that they go on to be displayed in the town of Nagasaki where it became a popular exhibit.

 

One of the difficulties in tracing the development of iki ningyo as distinct from other forms of ningyo is the paucity of historical records. Few early studies seem to have been undertaken with specific regard to ningyo which would enable us to verify the development of specific ningyo forms, their overall construction, and use. The development of ningyo, that is the use of human-shaped figures in various ritual and play contexts, can be said to date from some of the earliest periods in recorded Japanese history. In the Jomon Period (1st millennium BC), small human-shaped figures fashioned of clay with raised designs, usually female, called dogu have been found in relatively significant numbers and are believed to have been employed in rites associated with fertility. Later in the period we find the widespread use of larger figures called haniwa (lit. “circle of clay”), which were much more sophisticated in execution, representing various figures male and female, some elaborately decorated with designs implying jewelry, swords, armature, etc. Haniwa are closely associated with funerary activities and are believed to have been buried along with the deceased to provide support and companionship in the afterlife, thereby representing a certain level of wealth and status within the community.

The first documentary evidence of ningyo use in ceremonial contexts dates from the Heian Period (794-1185) and  reveal the wide spread practice of using flat, board-like figures in roughly human form called hitogata or alternatively katashiro. These early ningyo figures were crafted of wood or iron approximately 1 shaku high and 1 shaku wide and sometimes covered in gold or silver leaf, wrapped in textiles and placed directly in coffins during funeral services. Documents such as the Engishiki published in the Engi Era (901-922) listing court ceremonies and audience regulations show hitogata were ordered from the Mokoryo [Department of Wood Carving] or alternatively from the Uchikuraryo [Department of Finance for the Imperial Palace] [Kitamura, 1967]. All of these forms appear to be the direct descendants of the early haniwa forms and would have been created by unknown artisans employed by the various bureaus and departments involved. Literary sources from the period including Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monagatari, Sei Shonagon in her Pillow Book, make frequent mention of hihina or “small, lovely things” and hina asobi or “display of hina” and indicate a lively ningyo culture within domestic circles at court as well.The earliest recorded, specifically named ningyo maker appears in the Shokusho tekagami [Great Mirror of Craftsmen and Merchants] dating from the Meio Era (1492-1501) during the Muromachi Period (1392-1568) which lists a Shioyaki Kajiko under the category of ningyo tsukuri (ningyo maker). [Tekiho, 1956] The “kajiko/ku” ending to his name seems to imply a metal smith and from this one can reasonably be deduced that he crafted hitogata

During the Edo Period, documents associated with ningyo and their craftsmen become much more frequent. 

In the Jinrinkinmo zui [Moral Pictures for Children] published in Genroku 3 (1690) we find several terms employed regarding the makers of ningyo. Ningyo-shi are said to have made various ningyo forms, including finger puppets, tiny forms called kesi ningyo, and marionettes. Hina-shi are said to have made ningyo such as paper (kami) hina and shozoku hina (costumed hina) which were forms more closely associated with the hina matsuri or Girl’s Day ningyo display held on the 3rd day of the 3rd month. But hina-shi are also listed as making hoko which were stuffed silk dolls with painted features and attached hair that were often presented to female children at birth and seen as exercising certain talismanic properties. Significantly, hina-shi are cited as making parts for ningyo such as the heads which were in turn sold to a hinaya which then sold them to
the end user. It is impossible to know how clearly distinct these two categories were during the early years of the Edo Period and exactly what structure existed within the trade linking craftsmen to seller to buyer. A third category, doningyoshi, is listed as having made life-sized ningyo that were anatomically correct which were employed by physicians. Doningyo seem the most likely the precursors to the iki ningyo, and it is possible that some of the ningyo created by the Hidari family listed above were used for medical purposes. Kisaburo himself crafted an iki ningyo for the new medical college in Tokyo. This was subsequently transferred to Kumamoto where it was tragically destroyed during the bombing raids of WWII.

In lists of shops and craftsmen in Kyoto and the Osaka area, such as the Kyohabutai, Naniwa marukoomoku[An-ei Period (1772-1781)] we begin to learn more of specific ningyo craftsmen and where their shops were located. For Edo the most accessible
source is the Bukan for various years which list the official suppliers for the shogunate. Here we find specific ningyo-shi indicated as working for the bakufu such as Izutsuya Kozaemon whose shop appears in the Ho-e 4 (1708) Bukan. However, one problem regarding these records is that they rarely employed much in the way of differentiating terminology. Indeed, aside from ningyo types associated with the various ningyo festivals involving hina or kabuto ningyo it is difficult to know exactly what forms of ningyo are being described or referred to at any given time, or whether they are of clay, paper, textile, etc.

 

It is not until the early 19th century that descriptions sufficient enough to identify the figures as iki ningyo are readily available, and these are largely in connection with the misemono exhibits of Asakusa and other areas of Edo.

NINGYO MISEMONO LISTING
YEAR
EXHIBIT
TYPE
ARTIST
LOCATION
1776
Giant velvet toad
1798
159 ft Tall Viarocana Buddha
22 ft High Embroidered Daikoku
1818
Laughing Hotei
Karakuri
Takeda Nuidonosuke
1819
95 ft long Parinirvana Buddha
1822
Chabanzaiku ningyo
Karakuri
Tsutsumi Shinsensai
Asakusa
7 Ningyo depicting Ono no Komachi
Karakuri
Hara Shugetsu II
Asakusa
Cherry Blossoms in the Rain
Karakuri
Kinkitsudo (Osaka)
Asakusa
1838
Mutilated corpses
Iki

1844
Momikeshi ningyo
Karakuri
Takeda Nuidonosuke
Asakusa
1854
Six Female Poets
Iki
Oishi Ganryusai
Ryogoku
Miscellaneous ningyo
Karakuri
Takeda Nuidonosuke
Ryogoku
1852
Benzaiten, Tokimasa w/Serpent
Karakuri
unknown
Ryogoku
1855
Ichikawa Danjuro VIII
Iki
Takeda Nuidonosuke
Asakusa
Foreigners/Maruyama Beauty
Iki
Matsumoto Kisaburo
Asakusa
1856
Satomi Hakenshi (novel)ceramic
Iki
Fukugawa Etaji
Narita
1857
62 Historical Figures: Chushingura, Minamoto Tametomo in exile, Kume Senin, Hitotsuya, inside gay Quarters, woman washing clothes
Iki
Matsumoto Kisaburo
Asakusa
1858
Inaka Genji (Rustic Genji)
Iki
Akiyama Heijuro
Asakusa
1860
48 Figures showing a man of woman depicting a range of emotions
Iki
Matsumoto Kisaburo
Asakusa
 
Ghost Stories
Iki
Matsumoto Kisaburo
Ryogoku
Lion Dance
Karakuri
Takeda Kiyokazu
Man and woman
Iki
Akiyama Heijuro
Asakusa
1861
Kato Kiyomasa
Iki
Akiyama Heijuro
Asakusa
1864
Development of a Fetus
Iki
Akiyama Heijuro
Asakusa
1866
Yaji & Kita from Shank's Mare
Iki

Ushiwaka Maru and Tengu
Iki
Awano Tokubei
Ryogoku
1868
Saikoku sanjusan Kannon
Iki
Matsumoto Kisaburo
Asakusa
53 Stations of the Tokaido Road
Iki
Yasumoto Kamihachi
Osaka
(Early Meiji)
Asahina Yoshihide
Iki
Ooe Uhei
Chushingura
Iki
Ooe Uhei
Sengaku-ji
Hitotsuya, Nichiren in Exile, Amida
Iki
Ooe Kuzan
Pond of Osaka, Echigo Yome Odoshi
Soga Brothers
Mongaku, Watonai
Iki
Naatani Toyokichi
Nagoya
1894
Daikoku
Karakuri
Takeda Kiokane
Asakusa
1935
Kato Kiyomasa Anniversary
Iki
Eijoro Ajima
Kumamoto
The popularity of these exhibitions, and the public’s evident desire to see ningyo of such high realism, lead to the development of what might be considered a school of iki ningyo. Unlike more traditional ningyo forms that were more stylized than true to life, these figures with their glass eyes, ivory teeth, individually inset human hair, and finely worked textiles maintained the extreme sense of realism explored by artists such as Kisaburo. These figures were not always executed for exhibition purposes, but also for the private viewer. Western visitors were delighted with these figures as well and saw them as a perfect vehicle for bringing home accurate images of Japanese life and customs. Jin-rickshaw drivers, basket sellers, trades people, samurai warriors, all became popular subjects. Yokohama became a center for such production. Artists such as Hannenuma working closely with the Deakin Bros created images that were included of the great
exhibitions of the late 19th century where Japan displayed its skilled craftsmanship. Iki ningyo became one of the early lenses through which the world viewed a newly opened Japan.

The Kisaburo Legacy

 The “Miraculous Deeds of Kannon” exhibit was to be Kisaburo’s last in Edo; it was to run for a full seven years. After a very successful career spanning nearly 20 years of creating iki ningyo misemono in Edo, Kisaburo returned to his hometown of Kumamoto in 1879 and shaved his head like a monk. Although his work was to continue there, including an 1884 exhibit celebrating the 250 anniversary of Kato Kiyomasa featuring 73 iki ningyo figures depicting paragons of filial piety from the Higo region, his career was drawing to a close. Matsumoto Kisaburo died on April 30, 1891 at the age of 67 in his home.

Over the some 40 years of iki ningyo production, Kisaburo created literally hundreds of figures ranging from the beautiful to the grotesque, from the erotic to the quotidian. But out of this impressive body of work, only three existing iki ningyo definitively attributable to him remain to attest to his genius: the Tanikumi Kannon at Jo koku-ji Temple, another Kannon image also dedicated to a temple in the Kumamoto area, and, interestingly enough, a male figure at the Smithsonion Institute in Washington DC. The latter being a special commission piece ordered by a gentleman named Kaplan. This piece, remarkable in its attention to detail and its high sense of realism is the only figure known to be signed by Kisaburo, bearing an inset seal on the bottom of his foot.
The art and life of Matusmoto Kisaburo very much reflect the time in which he lived and worked. The end of the Edo period, awash in political confusion and shifting social dynamics, was full of opportunities for a man of Kisaburo’s talents and ambitions. And although much of his legacy remains only in recorded observations and colored handbills, the pieces that do remain attest to his virtuosity at creating the seemingly living beings that amazed and delighted audiences for decades known as iki ningyo.   


*I want to thank Minamishima Hiroshi of Kumamoto for his generousity in answering my many questions and providing excellent guides during my stay in Kumamoto. Also, Sakamoto Tsunemasa-sensei of the Kumamoto City Museum for throwing open the vaults and letting me view a wonderful clock created by Kisaburo as well as fragmentary examples of other iki ningyo artists active in Kumamoto immediately following Kisaburo. Also, a special thanks to Kobayashi Junichiro-sensei of the Edo-Tokyo Museum for his patience and good humor, and for his information on misemono hikihuda.

The author, Alan Pate, is the owner of Antique Japanese Dolls in St. Ignatius, Montana, USA,
Tel +1 (406)-745-7400
E-mail: info@antiquejapanesedolls.com

He received an M. A. in Korean history and language from Harvard University.


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