Iki Ningyo 生人形
During the Meiji Period Japanese armour had become defunct as the samurai class was abolished. Suits of armour were sold to merchants who exported to the west as items of curiosity.
Armours were often displayed on mannequins known as iki ningyo, meaning life size doll. The appearance of these dolls are somewhat cartoon like, maybe influenced by samurai woodblock prints, noh theatre masks and Boys Day festival miniature dolls.
Only Iki Ningyo are uncommon in japan where armour was displayed on wooden stands, making these very much a western product. Examples appear in many collections throughout the world from the Stibbert Museum in Italy to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, to the Royal Armouries in England.
The actual construction of these pieces are made from wood, plaster and paper, making them rather fragile. With these being so easly damaged they have become somewhat of a rarity. As a result they have become highly collectable and very expensive to acquire.
Sourcing An Original
I’ve been collecting Japanese Armour for over thirty years, during that time I have only ever seen two Iki Ningyo heads for sale. They were incredibly expensive to the degree that I could not justify or afford to procure one. In late 2016 something incredible happened, I was searching ebay for a samurai book and to my amazement a seller had listed a head on a ‘buy it now’. And better still the sellers location was just a few miles from where I live. I purchased the head immediately. When it arrived it was damaged, the seller had advised me that it was falling apart. However I was pretty confident that I could make a suitable repair. i also discovered that it was made by the artist Kamehachi Masahiro.
As I was unsure of the internal structure I decided that the best course of action was to take a mould of the head, that way I could make a copy of the surface should I run into any problems. Luckily for the repair I did not need to use the copy for reference. I removed all the damaged areas and filled them with plaster. After some rubbing down I was able to repaint the surface and even add a patina. Now owning the head was a start, but I’ve always wanted the entire thing. I started to call around my contacts and within a few months I had sourced a pair of hands and feet. With the main components secured my next step was to make a body and bring the entire project to an end.
Creating A Reproduction
My Iki Ningyo looks great displaying armour, visitors to my house and fellow collectors have remarked how nice it would be to have one of their own. I kept being asked if I could somehow recreate a reproduction based on my example.
By chance back in my mid twenties I learned how to make silicone moulds how to work with resins and fibreglass. After a dusting of the memory banks I made a hollow cast copy of the head from the first mould I took. Then the hard work begun. I worked the entire outside and inside surface so that it was perfectly smooth. I also made a special location indent to ensure that the eyes and teeth could be positioned correctly each time. This final version was once again moulded and now a production run could commence. I also reproduced the hands and feet. The biggest challenge was the eyes. Original Iki Ningyo have thin glass eyes that are oval. It was impossible to source anything that was suitable, so I decided to mould them from a thin clear plastic.