Faces in Japanese Art

Take a look at the many Japanese faces we have in our World Cultures collection, from dolls to theatre masks.

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As a keen reader of Japanese manga and a fan of Japanese style, I was interested in looking at the range of masks and dolls in the Leeds Museums and Galleries collections.
I wanted to investigate how the different styles of faces varied in preparation for the ‘Making Faces’ workshop on 19 February at Leeds City Museum (accompanying the Changing Faces of Leeds exhibition, which is on until 5 June 2016).

Leeds Art Gallery has one Japanese woodblock print by the artist Kaoru Kawano featuring the distinctive Kokeshi dolls: simple wooden dolls with a limbless turned wooden body and a spherical head. Kokeshi originated amongst the villages of rice farmers near Tohoko in northern Japan, and there is now a huge literature on them, as collecting them became a craze a few years ago. 

The face on this print has just a straight line for the eye line, and two dots for the nostrils. The few Kokeshi in the Leeds collections are quite small. My favourite set is a male and female pair, both nested dolls, as indicated on the box cover. They have high arched thin eyebrows, two simple lines for the eyes and a double red dot for the mouth.

No Theatre Mask (1980)

A mask
Japanese No theatre mask, 1980

Compare the Kokeshi dolls with the face on the No theatre mask from 1980, representing a beautiful young woman. The eyes are narrow half-ovals, blackened with pierced pupils. The nose and mouth are realistically modelled and the blackening of the teeth shows a traditional practice. 

High eyebrows were much admired and known as Hikimayu, Okimayu or ‘Skybrows’. Many geisha and upper class beauties would have their eyebrows shaved and then pencilled in to make them appear higher. By the Edo period this practice was restricted to married women, and in 1870 it was banned.

Kimekoni dolls

A Japanese doll
Kimekoni doll purchased from Liberty’s, 1980.

Many modern Japanese dolls have just slightly high eyebrows, all pencil thin well-defined curves, rather than the Hikimayu. One of the best Japanese dolls at Leeds is this doll above, of a type called kimekoni, made of compacted sawdust, silk brocade and paper.

For years we thought this was a court servant doll, as displayed in wealthy homes at the Girls’ Festival on 3 March. At the Girls’ Day festival dolls are set up on a tiered plinth or set of shelves to represent the emperor and empress of Japan, their courtiers, servants and possessions. The Hina-Ningyo were seen as Yorishiro, a temporary resting placed for the imperial spirits to come down and bless the home. 

However, in Alan Scott Pate’s Japanese Dolls, The Fascinating World of Ningyo, we noticed that Scott identifies two dolls carrying pails, as the character Matsukaze, from the play Shiokumi.             

In Japanese, ‘Kimekomi’ means ‘tuck in’ in Japanese. The clothes made of silk brocade are attached gradually. The doll’s face is covered in highly burnished gofun (crashed oyster shell) and hand-painted artistically and the wig is made of artificial hair. One cannot tell from the length of the hair or the facial features whether these dolls are male or female.  The red hair seems to be a symbol of spiritual power or special skills. It’s really popular as an ‘alternative’ colour in cosplay and modern teenage fashion. 

Faces in Manga

A comic book with a manga drawing on the front and the words Naruto 30
Naruto 30 comic

Faces in Japanese Manga can also be semi-realistic, or very abstract. I 
picked out two new manga for the Leeds Museums & Galleries collections. They included Tokyo Ghoul 3, by Sui Ishida and Naruto 30. 

I love the ‘Naruto’ stories by the artist Masashi Kishimoto. Naruto is a ninja in training. We chose number 30 because we liked the image of the strong female protagonist, Sakura, with the black gloves and pink hair on the cover. Her downturned mouth curve shows her grim determination. 

By Becky Stone, Placement Student.

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