Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Finds: A Japanese Doll

Yaegaki-hime doll (purchased 7/4/24)
photograph by Bronwyn Lloyd

This doll, which I found a few days ago in a Vintage shop, is clearly a rather distressed version of the one in the auctioneer's picture below. As you can see, while her showcase is intact, it appears to have suffered a little water-damage at some point. I guess what attracted me to her most was the curious white-fur-lined horned helmet she was carrying, though.

Yaegaki-hime doll in showcase (late 20th century)

Nor did I realise that the pale cardboard backdrop (in my one - not the one above) was supposed to represent falling snow.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Yaegaki-hime (1852)

This nineteenth-century print gives a better idea of the story, I think. As the description puts it:
In one of the most beautiful prints in the series, an elegantly dressed young lady dances with ghostly fox spirits while holding a samurai helmet above her head. She is Yaegaki-hime, heroine of the popular kabuki play Japan's Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Piety ... The play was originally written for the puppet theater and was first performed in Osaka in 1766; it debuted as a kabuki play in Edo in 1776. The story, which takes place on the shores of Lake Suwa ... is a fictionalized version of the real-life rivalry between the Takeda and Uesugi clans during the sixteenth century.

Brussels Yaegaki-kai: Yaegaki-hime (2011)

But who exactly is she, and what is she doing with that helmet?
Yaegaki is torn by conflicting loyalties to her father, Nagao Kenshin, and her beloved fiancé, Takeda Katsuyori, who has come in secret to the Nagao mansion to recover an heirloom helmet stolen by Yaegaki's father. In the scene known as the 'Fox Fires in the Inner Garden' ... Yaegaki removes the helmet, which is decorated with long white hair, from the shrine in her father's garden where it has been kept. The God of Suwa, who wants the helmet returned to its rightful owners, sends fox spirits as his messengers to help and guide Yaegaki. By following the footsteps of foxes over the ice, she will be able to make a safe crossing over frozen Lake Suwa and deliver the helmet to Katsuyori.

Brussels Yaegaki-kai: Yaegaki-hime (2011)

In her fascinating online article "Identifying 'Geisha Doll' Types," Dr. Judy Shoaf lists the following set of distinguishing motifs, under the general category of "Dance or theater roles":

Woman with helmet: Yaegaki-Hime
A princess (hime) with a silvery crown in her hair. She holds a horned helmet with a tuft of long white hair trailing from it; foxes may also figure in the design in some way. This is the heroine of the play Honcho Nijushiko, set in the 15th [sic.] century. She carries the precious helmet across a frozen lake, with the help of spirit-foxes, to rescue it and also her lover.
So, while the doll I found yesterday is a very different version of the figure, the presence of a horned Samurai helmet decorated with long white hair is quite sufficient to identify it.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Yaegaki-hime (1852)

Burmese String Puppet (purchased 25/5/22)
photograph by Bronwyn Lloyd

So now that I know that, what do I do? Why all this detail about a dusty old Japanese doll, found lurking in the corner of an SPCA shop?

I guess mainly because it's fairly typical of the little knick-knacks I've picked up from time to time to decorate my study.

The Japanese doll, Yaegaki-hime, is particularly attractive to me, especially now that I know who she is. She won't stop moving, for one thing: the little dangling metal strips of her headdress keep on vibrating, whether there's any movement outside to provoke it or not. And the whole subject of spirit-foxes, kitsune, in Japanese folklore also greatly appeals to me.

In fact, I can't recall coming across an object that interested me so much since Bronwyn and I found an ornate Burmese puppet - pictured above - in a Northland Hospice Shop, together with a pair of twin male-female marionettes from Rajasthan.

As you can see, my one is in much better condition than the one pictured above for sale. Mine still has his sword, for one thing, and the intricacy and detail of his costume has to be seen to be believed. He stares down at me as I work, daring me to do a bit better.

Then there are a number of book-ends and figurines of various types I've collected over the years:

Glossy examples of Ancient Egyptian kitsch figure largely, I have to admit, as do such pieces of Chinoiserie as the two temple lions below:

There's nothing really valuable in this collection, I'm sure. But I still like the sense of individuality about the various pieces, crafted initially (no doubt) for the international tourist market, but somehow made special by their peregrinations through the world.

How did they end up in the little vintage shops where I found them? Some are damaged, others pristine, but that just seems to add character.

Edmund Engelman: Freud's desk (1938)

A great deal has been written about the choice - and arrangement - of figures on Sigmund Freud's desk in Vienna. I doubt that any such significance can be attributed to my own selection of mainly Eastern puppets and figurines.

But they all feel like friends to me, and I like to examine them and recall the circumstances of our first meetings ...

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