A while ago I was watching Tokidoki, a television program by the Dutch comedian and writer, Paulien Cornelisse travelling through Japan. In one of the episodes she spoke about a small village, called Nagoro, a place found on Shikoku Island, the smallest of the country’s four main islands. With in this village a strange place, called “The Valley Of Dolls’.
Over the years, the people who lived in Nagoro have left for jobs in Osaka and Tokyo or they’ve died. And because of it’s very remote location and with not even a local store, there’s little reason for immigration. Now there are only a few dozen people left, like Ayano Tsukimi.
The 64-year-old returned to her hometown 11 years ago. In the decade since, she brought back ‘life” in Nagoru with an army of handmade dolls each representing a former villager or based on those who have left. She even included enough children, teachers and staff to fill the abandoned local school.
In a new documentary, “The Valley Of Dolls,” Tsukimi shares her world with Berlin-based filmmaker Fritz Schumann. She explains that she started by planting seeds in the emptying village. When the plants didn’t take, she thought she needed a scarecrow. She fashioned one to look like her father, and from there came the idea to recreate all of the people who once lived in the village.
Partly, this was to draw in outsiders. “I thought people will get interested and take photos if I put dolls at the entrance of the valley. I put them on the field doing work, or waiting for the bus,” Tsukimi says.
In this documentary you will see long shots of the dolls looking perfectly natural in their surroundings. Tsukimi is the only voice heard, and her thoughtful musings tackle questions of mortality, urbanization, and the loneliness of human existence.
Tsukimi explains that she isn’t interested in making “strange, unrealistic” dolls. Hers are meant to blend into the scenery as their real life versions would have. She makes them from straw, rags and old clothes, and has turned over some 350 dolls by her count. While the faces are the hardest to get right, she says.
She’s clearly succeeded in attracting some attention. Last year, an Australian newspaper interviewed Ken Osetroff, the director of a travel company that includes Nagoru in a tour package of autumnal Japan, because of the dolls.
Osetroff says the village can’t be found on a map: “It’s one of those places that’s very difficult to get to, and we’re predicting in the next four years it will be abandoned, as everyone’s moving away or dying.”
Even the dolls don’t last longer than three years, according to Tsukimi. She keeps a large number in play by creating new ones constantly. Surrounded as she is by still looking faces, she doesn’t think of herself aging or ever stopping. At one point in the documentary, considering her own mortality, she chuckles. “I’ll probably live on forever,” she says.
All images copyright Fritz Schumann/The Verge.
This whole story has a sort of…sadness over it. But is that true? I’m amazed by her commitment and touched by her perspective of life. But she doesn’t sound sad? Maybe she found the ultimate key to a very peaceful and tranquil life, she actually made herself immortal.