Though the silk-faced ningyo are often generically referred to as “geisha dolls,” only a few specifically represent the historical type of the geisha. The training (and regulating) of ladies as professionals in the art of pleasing men is an old tradition in Japan, dating at least from the early 17th century when the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter was established in Edo. The Yoshiwara women were vital to the imaginations both of the woodblock artists and of the kabuki drama. A particularly beautiful and accomplished woman of pleasure might be called a keisei, or “castle-toppler.”
The celebrities among these women of pleasure were called oiran; an oiran could pick her lovers among the wealthiest citizens (or love a poor man as well if she chose, especially in a play!), and she might walk out elaborately dressed (brocade obi tied in front, high platform geta shoes, and the most elaborate hairstyle possible), attended by apprentices and little girls. A different class was the geisha, originally an entertainer who played and sang for the oiran and her customers; eventually, however, the more quietly dressed, more variously talented geisha came to be more popular with the men of Edo than the oiran were. (The oiran culture has been supplanted in modern Japan by the geisha, who are still important as women ready to function in public.) A geisha is usually presented as a doll in a rich dark kimono with a simple obi, ready to play her samisen. We must also mention the maiko, a young dancer or apprentice geisha, usually particularly bright-looking with the long sleeves worn only by young girls, often with a parasol ready to go enjoy the world.
The women and girls who lived in the pleasure quarters, or in the schools for geisha, had been sold by their families, or had come there in desperation. Some of them might save gifts or tips from clients in order to purchase her freedom and start a new life; a rich lover who could afford to purchase such a woman for himself was another option.
All these types of women have been portrayed in art and also in doll form. These three images of 20th-century dolls are from Sakura Dolls of Japan (Abston & Uchioke, 1963).
Because the ladies of the Yoshiwara and the teahouses were of such great interest to the Edo consumers, they were favorite subjects of woodblock artists, who would draw their portraits in various complimentary guises, or depict them strolling among the citizens. They were also part of the imagination of popular authors of novels, poetry, and plays for puppets or the all-male Kabuki stage, where a woman’s role was played by a specialist actor, the onnagata.
In an essay, “The Keisei as a Meeting Point of Different Worlds: Courtesan and the Kabuki Onnagata” (keisei means “castle-toppler” and refers generally to beautiful public women), Mark Oshima describes the onnagata’s art: “Today’s onnagata still employ these physical techniques to reshape the male body to suggest a female one. For example, they use the muscles around the shoulder blade to pull the shoulders back and create a sloping line, which they emphasize by wearing robes slung low over the shoulders…. The softness and delicacy of the actor’s movements are counterbalanced by the extreme muscular tension that is necessary to maintain these positions.” (The Women of the Pleasure Quarter: Japanese Paintings and Prints of the Floating World, ed. Elizabeth de Sabato Swinton, 1996, pp. 92-93).
As the art of the onnagata developed, the ladies themselves would imitate the actors who imitated them onstage. It may be difficult to tell, except from the literary context, whether a particular image is meant to portray an oiran, an onnagata, or a literary character who combines aspects of both. Although the sex of the “geisha dolls” is usually assumed to be female, it might be helpful to imagine them rather as belonging to this cross-gendered fantasy world.
Tamasaburo Bando is a Kabuki actor who specializes in onnagata (women’s roles). He is known in the West as well as in Japan, and has worked with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Yo-Yo Ma (dancing “Struggle for Hope” in the Inspired by Bach video series). The pose in this photo is particularly suggestive of the twisted, backward-leaning stance of a typical silk-faced doll. Photographs of this actor in costume have given me a greater appreciation of the combination of elegance, richness, and allusive narrative such dolls offer.
Oiran and Onnagata in Ukiyo-e
The doll depicted here, probably made in the second half of the 20th century, represents an oiran with her obi tied in front. There is a clear relationship to the styles and aesthetic of Haronobu’s woodblock print. The sleek but elaborate hairstyle, the small hands and feet, all add to the impression of a delicate creature bent on love. The print is in fact an illustration of a story in which a girl is preparing for her lover’s arrival.
There is, then, no ambiguity about the sex of the lady in the print. The doll, however, could possibly be modeled on a picture of an actor rather than on an ideal woman.
This lady with a bull is not a lady but the Kabuki actor Segawa Ugiro as depicted by Buncho (1772). The actor’s forelock was shaved, by law, in a specifically masculine style, but was usually covered onstage by a purple cap when he played onnagata roles. Note how similar the hairstyle and clothing style, and even the tiny hands, to those of Haronobu’s young lady.
Torii Kiyomitsu’s woodblock would seem to depict an oiran: the elegant but elaborate hairstyle, the rich clothing and huge brocade obi bow are beautifully rendered. But the 1761 portrait is in fact of Segawa Kikunojo II, in the kabuki role of a young girl, “like a slender twig of plum blossoms,” in love. For this poetic rendering, there is no hint of the actor’s shaven forelock. The artist seems to have combined the elements of the maiden in the story with the actor’s presence and the voluptuous fashions of the Yoshiwara to create a fantasy image that is both male and female, virgin and whore.
The actor Tamasaburo Bando here portrays a troubled woman of pleasure of a later date than the doll above. As can be seen from the mid-19th-century woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada, the look of an oiran had changed by this time; the clothing became heavier, as in the doll at the top of this page, and the high geta (platform sandals) did not add elegance to the bulky form of the well-dressed woman. Instead of being shown waiting or conversing indoors, or posing emblematically with a bull or flower-branch, the oiran were often depicted, as here, strolling to enjoy the cherry-blossoms (just like any citizen), accompanied by an apprentice/servant, the kamuro. There is something a little grotesque about the complexity of the hair ornaments and clothing, but the emotions of the woman are recognizable.