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Whimsical Sculpture of Japan's History
They are a curious mix of animal, human and the super-natural. They are called Dogū (土偶, caly figure) and perhaps the most remarkable representation of Japan's Jōmon culture (12,000 BC), a Neolithic era before the advent of rice cultivation.
The dogū are humanoid clay forms, richly decorated or homely and unadorned. Some 18,000 of them have been unearthed to date, in Jomon-period settlements stretching from the southern island of Kyushu to the subarctic regions in Hokkaido. The oldest are nearly 14,000 years old, the youngest a mere 2,300. Still relatively unknown in the Western world, and despite their advanced age, they're an integral part of Japan's living culture today.
The dogū are oddly hypnotic, beautiful, brutal and uncanny: a cat-faced dogū, designed without legs; a humanoid with an outsize heart-shaped face; a sturdy dogu wearing an enigmatic triangular mask, and perhaps most famous of all, a "goggle-eyed" dogū which continues to inspire modern artists and manga creators to this day. There are dogū with horns, with flat heads, bow-legs and ones wearing knee-pads.
"The Japanese archipelago during the Jomon period was occupied by a large number of different groups of people, or different societies. They probably spoke a number of different dialects and expressed themselves through a huge range of pottery styles," explains curator Dr. Simon Kaner, an archaeologist of the Sainsbury Institute who specializes in the prehistory of Japan.
A Shared Neolithic Heritage
The dogū, though intensely local to Japan, indeed manifest a shared urge by Neolithic peoples around the world to represent the human form in clay. Humanoid figures of a comparable age have been found as far afield as Mexico, Turkey, Ecuador, Romania and Egypt.
The function of dogū remains mysterious. Many were undoubtedly "everyday" objects, used by common people for largely yet unknown reasons — the majority have been found broken, some in heaps. If they were toys, what does that imply about the status of children, or the very idea of childhood, in Jomon cultures? Some dogū were certainly given special treatment — placed alongside burials or "enshrined" in pits. Whatever their ritual or workaday function, the dogū are also irresistibly art.
Dogū still speak — albeit through rather different media today. They feature in the "Understanding Japanese History" comic-book series narrated by cult robocat "Doraemon," whose human sidekick Nobita remarks that they "look like aliens." In the Play Station game "Dokioki," the dogu are indeed aliens. Shinji Nishikawa's "Dogū Famir," a seven-volume comic series, features a family of figurines trying to fit into everyday life — shopping, attending school and protecting the usual assortment of manga characters from an evil, UFO-controlled dogu, and "Dogū-Chan," the scantily-clad heroine in the TV series "The Ancient Dogū Girls."
Effect on Modern Art
The dogū have inspired numerous modern artists. Among the most remarkable is Taro Okamoto (1911-1966,) a post-modern Japanese artist noted for his abstract and avant-garde paintings and sculpture.
Okamoto's work, both painting and sculpture, was profoundly influenced by his affinity with Jomon design. He wrote of one encounter with a piece of Jomon pottery: "My blood boiled to a tremendous heat and then burst into flames." On another occasion, he reflected: "The violent existence of Jomon ceramics manifests itself in a pulse of energy that can never be grasped by normal aesthetics and intellectual control."
Another Jomon enthusiast was Nobel prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata, who had a dogū on his desk. It is a curious figure with a heart-shaped face. Kawabata used to tell everybody how "it is sitting here in front of my writing papers and speaking to me."
Haniwas (埴輪, Ring of Clay) are unglazed terra-cotta sculptures from Japan's late 3rd through the 6th century Kofun period.
Thousands have been unearthed. Many are nearly life-sized and were found around mounded tombs (called kofun), ostensibly to guard and be of service to the deceased in the other world.