Koharu Deserved to See Cherry Blossoms (CW: Puppets/Dolls)


So for my third unessay I decided to try and create a bunraku puppet of Koharu from The Love Suicides at Amijima. I ended up creating something very similar/ close to a bunraku puppet but it’s more like a doll. It’s also a lot smaller. I found out bunraku puppets are nearly 2 feet in height and that would have killed my wallet in terms of fabric. I tried to do everything “traditionally” in terms of creating the bunraku doll. I think I mostly succeeded. The major differences in my doll are that the hands and head are made from premo!Sculpey polymer clay rather than wood. The hair was also not done traditionally. I cut a lot of corners with it because it was driving me up the wall. I spent probably three hours before giving up and gluing hair onto the correct shapes rather than trying to tie the hair in the same way Koharu would have had to.

I believe visualization is an extremely important part of literature. Visualizing a text can help a student understand a lot about it or help them notice something they might not have before. Much of the text I read as a kid was in comic form, which influenced me greatly. Literature doesn’t have to just be words on a page. In fact, because this is a bunraku puppet play, it should probably be viewed in play form for the best effect. I also believe that trying to create the bunraku puppet and talking about the process gives a better appreciation for the medium as a whole. I can’t imagine how long it takes to make an actual bunraku puppet. The process I had to go through was immense. There’s a reason people specialize in this stuff.

About the way Koharu looks and my process:

So, aside from how bunraku puppets actually look, I had to find out what Koharu would have looked like in real life. The play takes place in the Edo period of Japan. Koharu is 19 years old and a courtesan who is owned by someone who is not the “pleasure quarters’” owner. This is all extremely important information because the way that they are dressed, their make up, and the style of their hair is all influenced by their rank. The biggest thing that tipped me off to Koharu’s rank was this line at the beginning of the play. “”Here is Koharu of the Kinokuni House, now graduated from the smock of a bath attendant in the South to the garments of love in the New Quarter” (Chikamatsu, 172). In the footnotes it says “The ‘south’ refers to the Shimanouchi Quarter, a section of low-class brothels which originally had been bathhouses. Sonezaki Quarter was north of this section” (172). Considering she was just recently promoted, and how old she is, I took a guess that she must not have been the lowest ranked courtesan but she was not a high ranking courtesan. It does mention she belongs to a house, but she doesn’t seem to have the power to reject customers and there’s no mention of an “application process” to meet with her. I decided she must be tsubone rank (the level 2 rank). The ranks before 1750 were (from lowest to highest): hashi, tsubone, kôshi, and tayû (The Samurai Archives). 

It was insanely hard to find out how these people would have dressed because everything was through a male lens. All the information we have about Edo period courtesans was through paintings or written works by men who were romanticizing the entire ordeal. Because of this, a lot of information is also about tayû, the highest rank courtesans. Tayû wore around 4-5ish kimono and their hair was styled extremely intricately, full of turtle-shell hairpins and other kanazashi that indicated their rank. Their outfits as well as tips/ fees to their attendants (at higher ranks) resulted in more debt. If they failed to meet their daily quota for customers, they would be fined. (Hix) Lower ranked courtesans had to rent a room to entertain guests or ask to borrow another courtesan’s room. This probably adds to Koharu’s debt.

Considering how many kimono tayû wore and how intricate their hair was, I decided Koharu would wear a total of 3 kimono, including the under kimono. The very bottom kimono is white, the second one is red (which only courtesans wore), and the third is a kimono to cover all that up. I wasn’t actually sure if this would be a kimono or a “covering” that tayû seemed to wear. It was hard to figure if lower courtesans wore them. To save myself the trouble, I didn’t sew the sleeves on the red kimono, since it wouldn’t be showing. As for her sash color, it’s mentioned when they’re committing suicide. Jihei hangs himself with it. It’s actually referred to as “fresh violet,” (205) but for some reason I thought it was lilac when I went shopping for fabric. I tied it with a regular “unmarried woman” style bow because I couldn’t find any info on it and it makes sense considering she’s unmarried. I also already knew how to tie it. Typically kimono sashes are tied in the back, but I read that courtesans specifically tied their sash in the front.

I spent ages trying to find out what kind of hair she would have worn. I noticed when Koharu and Jihei are committing suicide, Chikamatsu refers to her hair as a “shimade coiffure” (205), so I looked that up and found out it was just a Japanese term for hair. However, it did lead me to several different places that told me a bunch of hairstyles that courtesans wore. I came to the conclusion that Koharu would have worn the mitsumage hairstyle. There were zero Youtube clips showing how to tie this beast and only one (1) good reference image for it, which happened to be by a Tumblr user who seems to be a fan of Japanese courtesans. I didn’t hand sew the kimono because I don’t have that kind of time. Traditionally, the kimono would all be hand sewn for the puppets. I did paint the face and lacquer the hair. Would they have lacquered the hair? I don’t know but there was a cool as heck youtube clip about Maiko (in training Geisha) in Japan today in which they put some stuff in their hair. It seems to make it shinier. Their hairstyle is not the mitsumage but it’s so similar that it was a good reference. Also, please note that Maiko/Geikan (Geisha) are not courtesans. Geisha are entertainers and they do not participate in sex. There are Oiran (common word for courtesan) re-enactors, but they also do not participate in sex in modern day Japan. 

I found out that their hair usually has ornaments called kanazashi. I wasn’t sure if they would be flower ornaments as a lot of old courtesan hair ornaments seemed to be wood or gold. However, since Koharu means “second spring,” I thought flower ornaments fit well with her character. I created little bead/wire flowers and stuck them in the hair after it was styled. I macramed a small red cord to get a similar look to the one she might have used in the edo period. I also stuck a gold flower on the back (it’s actually supposed to be tucked into the back of the bun but that wasn’t possible) because they usually had a bit of gold on there. I don’t think she would have had the same turtle pins that tayû seemed to use because it’s a totally different hairstyle. I did notice, however, across all the hair styles they had a little red ball kanazashi. I learned that this was called a tama kanzashi. Typically they were made from jade or coral with the jade worn in the spring and the coral worn in the winter. (Kanzashi). I realize now that it should have been a jade pin due to the fact that cherry blossoms bloom in spring. (but that’s okay cause it’s still pretty) 

In my wild and long research, I found out that the only time Koharu would have been let out of her “pleasure quarters” or place where she was kept would have been for the annual cherry blossom festival, or Hanami,  in Japan. Courtesans would be able to go out and view the cherry blossoms this time of year. I actually find this incredibly interesting because the play opens with her standing under cherry blossoms. I look at it as a symbolism of freedom for courtesans almost. Perhaps that’s what Chikamatsu had been going for, but who knows really. What I’m trying to say is that’s why I did a little photoshoot under some cherry blossom branches. I wanted to give Koharu a peaceful scene where she felt serene and free. I have her reaching toward a blossom because I imagine she’s pondering her freedom, or perhaps the beauty of it all.

I couldn’t help but take work-in-progress pictures/ show you all how I set up the branches because I do not have five hands. Please see them below!

Like I said, I do not have five (5) whole hands for this. There’s a reason bunraku puppets take three (3) whole people each.

Works Cited/ References

Adele Po. (2017, July 30). How to make a wig for a doll? Retrieved November 26, 2020, from https://www.adelepo.com/blog/2017/07/make-a-wig-for-a-doll

“A rare look at the creation of a traditional hairstyle of a Geiko-in-training.”
 Youtube, uploaded by INFRINGE, 5 July 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmkh_XprOFY. Accessed 25 Nov. 2020. 

Chikamatsu, M., & Keene, D. (1998). Four major plays of Chikamatsu. New York: Columbia University Press.

GeiMaiko. (2020, March 29). Tayuu Nihongami. Retrieved November 26, 2020, from https://geimaiko.tumblr.com/post/613874588585197568/tayuunihongamimitsumage

Hanami. (2020, November 06). Retrieved November 26, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanami

Hays, J. (2014, January). BUNRAKU, JAPANESE PUPPET THEATER. Retrieved November 26, 2020, from http://factsanddetails.com/japan/cat20/sub131/item713.html

Hix, L. (2015, March 23). Sex and Suffering: The Tragic Life of the Courtesan in Japan’s Floating World. Retrieved November 26, 2020, from https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/the-tragic-life-of-the-courtesan-in-japans-floating-world/

Hottinger, C. (2005). Antique Japanese Dolls. Retrieved November 26, 2020, from http://www.antiquejapanesedolls.com/takeda_pop/A14A001.html

Japanese Bunraku Puppets. (n.d.). Retrieved November 26, 2020, from https://theworldofpuppetry.weebly.com/japanese-bunraku-puppets.html

Kanzashi. (2020, August 29). Retrieved November 26, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanzashi

Maikoya. (2020, November 02). Are Geisha Courtesans? Oiran vs Geisha and Prostitute. Retrieved November 26, 2020, from https://mai-ko.com/travel/culture-in-japan/geisha/are-geisha-courtesans-geisha-vs-oiran-tayu/

Oiran. (2020, November 16). Retrieved November 26, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oiran

The Samurai Archives Samurai Wiki. (2012, December 13). Retrieved November 26, 2020, from https://wiki.samurai-archives.com/index.php?title=Courtesans

4 thoughts on “Koharu Deserved to See Cherry Blossoms (CW: Puppets/Dolls)

  1. Wow… This is amazing! You did such a great job making this look like a pro did it. I would have thought that this was professionally done. I like your association of the doll with the quotes and context selected. I’m speechless. Amazing!!!

  2. Koharu came out wonderfully. Getting to see in-progress pictures as you worked on her in real time was a delight (despite being unsettled by dolls in general), and seeing the final product feels extremely rewarding. The level of research that went into your piece is truly spectacular – it shows how much you care about the project, not to mention how much you care about this class. The research you present seems extremely gender-specific, and it definitely makes me want to strike up a conversation with you about these cultural practices and how you vibe with them at some point. The artistic choices you made add such wonderful detail, especially in your finished photoshoot, and I love it so much. Overall, I just. Love you and your work so much my dude, what can I say aside from please be safe this winterim and keep being awesome (aka keep being yourself)! Spectacular work!

  3. I was originally scrolling through this post because I saw that you said there were puppets/dolls and I wanted to see what they looked like before reading and holy cow, I am blown away. When I first saw the pictures I thought they were from google or something and then I read your essay and was amazed. You did a really good job on this project, this is literally so cool and I really enjoyed it, it looks so professional!

  4. I’m so blown away by the thought and hard work put into this project. I’m sure it shifted your perspective and appreciation for the art form! It kind of touches my heart that you constructed the doll as traditionally as possible. Things like this are why studying diverse literature is so important. I know you’re fond of Japanese culture outside of this class, but for someone who didn’t have that established relationship, this could have been a great introduction to Japanese culture, kickstarting a passion that may have never been found otherwise. Altogether, you’ve done an amazing job. I am floored.

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