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Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2001

JUST CHILD'S PLAY?

Teddy bears dress for success


The great attraction of the Mona Lisa is the ambiguity of her expression. This allows the viewer to imagine, construct or project their own feelings onto the woman's face. This quality, which Da Vinci was only able to create by skillfully blurring the corners of the Mona Lisa's eyes and mouth, is perhaps also to be found in the typically blank face and inverted mouth of the teddy bear. For the past 10 years, this humble stuffed toy and its accouterments have served as the artistic vehicle for the increasingly imaginative and spellbinding productions of teddy bear artists Michi and Hiro Takahashi, whose work can currently be enjoyed at Yokohama's Doll Museum.

Bear essentials by Hiro and Michi Takahashi
"Akane"
"Keep My Sweet Little Thing"
"Look Here Bees! I'm Good Boy Takuya"

In the exhibition there are bears wearing kimono and dinky little bow ties, big bears, miniature bears, bears in all sorts of poses, bears with wings, and even bears with their own teddy bears! Often, as with "Look Here Bees! I'm Good Boy Takuya" (1996), there is a story.

"This is my masterwork," Michi explains, indicating the 30-cm-tall bear with a little dog cowering by its side. "I chose the name Takuya from the popular Japanese idol, Takuya Kimura. Takuya and his best friend, a puppy, always play together. One day, bees started attacking them, and the puppy hoped that Takuya would drive away all the bees. But the bees were too big for him."

For a couple able to inhabit their chosen dreamland, the story of how Michi and Hiro began making bears is also suitably romantic.

"In 1988 we went on our honeymoon to Vienna," she fondly recalls. "In a shop window we saw a mohair teddy bear. We didn't think of it as just a stuffed toy, but as something very artistic."

Inspired by this, Michi decided to make her first bear which she presented to husband Hiro. Three years later he returned the compliment by presenting her with his first bear as a surprise anniversary present.

Working together under their own brand "Fairy Chuckle," they have developed different styles.

"My specialty is female bears with nice dresses and kimono, while Hiro's bears are nude and sometimes realistic."

A good example of this realism can be seen in "Keep to My Sweet Little Thing" (2000) which shows a ferocious-looking mother polar bear in straight white German mohair protecting her cub. If possible, Hiro likes to include an ecological message in his works. "In the same way that the mother defends her children," he explains, "the human race must protect nature and the Earth."

Unlike a painting, which only appeals to the visual sense, teddy bears are tactile objects made to be touched and emotionally interacted with.

"Our intention," Michi tells me, "is to create bears that you can enjoy looking at from a distance, then touch and cuddle, and talk to, looking at their eyes. This is the teddy bear spirit."

Hiro and Michi use a variety of the finest mohairs, such as German feathered mohair, to make their bears huggable, and Michi takes great trouble over clothing -- as with her kimono bears, of which she makes just two a year.

"To get my bear's kimono looking just like a real Japanese girl's, I have to commission a craftsman to create special cloth, as the patterns on human-sized cloth are too big for a bear. Once the fabric has arrived, I start making the kimono and undergarment, which are both lined in silk, and the sash. Like the bears, these are all stitched completely by hand."

The results of her meticulous work are impressive. The shape of the bear includes sloping shoulders that help show the kimono at its best, as in the exquisite "Akane" (2000), whose expression is as charmingly vacant as that of a real maiko.

But isn't it a bit childish for adults to be messing around with teddy bears?

"We never think of teddy bears as childish," Michi contends. "In Europe or America teddy bears are often passed down from generation to generation in the same way as hina dolls or gogatsu dolls are in Japan. Such things can be very precious treasures."

Whether you think teddy bears are serious art, family heirlooms, or merely child's play, there is no denying the strong passions they stir. Indeed there is a whole international subculture devoted to them, with conventions, magazines, and annual awards -- many of which Michi and Hiro have won.

Clearly the teddy bear fills a deep psychological need for many people. Not only does its cute, cuddly nature allow it to serve as a child substitute, absorbing the maternal love meant for real children, but its robust gruffness can also seem to set it up as a kind of father figure, giving lonely children or even adults a feeling of security.

In a country like Japan, where there are many childless couples and where children see little of their fathers, the future of teddy bears seems guaranteed.

"The World of Michi and Hiro" runs till Sept. 2 at the Yokohama Doll Museum (045) 671-9361, 18 Yamashita-cho, Naka-ku, Yokohama-shi, a 12-min walk from JR Ishikawacho Station, Keihin Tohoku Line or a 10-min bus ride from Sakuragicho Station, JR and Toyoko lines and Yokohama Shiei subway line. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., admission 300 yen, junior high and elementary school students 150 yen. Closed Monday.


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