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Sunday, July 30, 2000

A dollhouse of sorrow and villainy

Craftsman explores Japanese puppetry as an art of provocation


Staff writer

Dolls of Japanese warriors Oda Nobunaga and Takeda Shingen from the Sengoku Period are on display at doll museum Jusaburo-kan in Ningyo-cho, Tokyo. TOSHIKI SAWAGUCHI PHOTOS

Although the face of the kimono-clad puppet is set, Jusaburo Tsujimura deftly manipulates the two wires controlling its hands and head to express the sorrowful feelings of a heart-broken woman.

The heroine's lament is punctuated by a "chanson" singer, who belts out the words of unrequited love.

The audience sits transfixed.

"I like this unusual mixture of chanson and Japanese puppetry. I really enjoy it every time," said Masumi Seshimo, 58, who regularly attends the monthly performances at Jusaburo-kan, a tiny doll museum in Ningyocho, eastern Tokyo.

Jusaburo-kan is uniquely suited to Ningyocho, which means doll town in Japanese.

Though its historical link with dolls is now almost gone, the town once flourished as an amusement center during the Edo Period. Puppet theaters were ubiquitous.

"I wasn't particularly looking for a place in Ningyocho when I thought about opening a doll museum," said Tsujimura, a well-known doll and puppet maker and theater art director. "But when I was tired of looking for a place, a realtor happened to introduce this place. I guess something like God's hand led me here."

The museum, set up in December 1996, is filled with Tsujimura's creations, many of which are dolls of Japanese historical figures and characters in famous novels.

Among the dolls on display are Oda Nobunaga, a brutal warlord and the prime mover of Japan's 16th-century reunification after a hundred years of strife during the Sengoku Period; beautiful princesses from the 11th-century novel "Tale of Genji"; Kukai, a Buddhist priest and founder of the Shingon sect; and even Puyi, the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty of China.

Tsujimura's dolls are very realistic.

Their heads -- which are made of cloth, filled with wood shavings and covered with human hair -- are solid. The doll's exquisite kimono are made of silk cloth from real kimono of the Edo Period and Meiji Era.

Because the first floor of the museum is also Tsujimura's workshop, if visitors time it well, they can watch him at work.

"I make dolls with the hope that people who look at them will feel something, such as joy," Tsujimura said.

Doll maker Jusaburo Tsujimura carefully manipulates a puppet during a performance at the museum.

Tsujimura has made so many dolls in his lifetime he cannot even count them. Born on Nov. 15, 1933, in Manchuria, he began making dolls as a hobby when he was still a child.

"I don't know why, but I always had a feeling of comfort when I was touching or playing with a piece of kimono cloth," he said. "I guess that habit developed into a career."

He returned to Hiroshima in 1944, and after graduating from junior high school, he joined an amateur drama group. In 1955, he started making kabuki props at Fujinami Kodogu, a company which provides props.

At the age of 27, he became a professional doll maker.

"Until then, I was a salaried worker, but I guess I wasn't the type who could conform with society," he said. "When I thought about what I could do if I quit my work, there was nothing but making dolls."

He was thrown into the limelight after making 350 puppets for NHK's TV puppet show "Shin Hakkenden," which first aired in 1973.

In the process of making dolls, Tsujimura has created a new art form.

"Dolls have long been considered mere toys for children, but many people from all over the world have come to me to learn how to make dolls," he said. "Today, many people make dolls to express their feelings, and many of (their dolls) are now considered works of art."

He said that anything can be made into a doll or puppet -- any object big or small, Japanese or foreign.

When making dolls, Tsujimura does not need to draw a design. Once a clear image is formed in his head, he takes scissors and a needle with thread and completes the doll within four to five days.

The prolific artist admitted that he tends to make more dolls of villains in novels and history because they have a special appeal.

"I think villains or bad characters have a strong energy that other types of characters do not possess. I sense some kind of power in them," he said. "Good characters are good no matter who is judging them, and I see nothing interesting about them."

His recent activities have included designing costumes for movies, TV dramas and musicals, and performing puppet shows in Japan and overseas.

"When I did a puppet show with a chanson singer in Paris, the French loved it and wondered why the combination of Japanese dolls and a chanson go so well," he said. "When the puppet action is combined with the song, the lyrics seem to be delivered differently and appeal considerably to the audience."

Yet, Tsujimura never stops trying to be innovative.

In addition to the once-a-month chanson show at Jusaburo-kan, he is planning a show with a jazz singer in autumn.

He is also scheduled to do an opera of "Tale of Genji" with his puppets in September and will soon be busy making dolls for the show.

But no matter how busy he gets, he never seems to tire of making dolls.

"As long as I am making dolls, I never feel stress," he said. "I will probably continue making dolls until I die. If I stop, it will not be me anymore."

Jusaburo-kan is a three-minute walk from Ningyocho Station on the Hibiya subway line. For further information, call the museum at (03) 3661-0035.


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The Japan Times

Article 13 of 16 in National news

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