These life-size dolls, ranging from grandparents to children and teachers, remember past inhabitants who have either passed away or left the village in search of employment opportunities in Japan’s larger cities like Osaka or Tokyo. In Tsukimi’s efforts, these dolls have attracted artists and photographers from all around the world, bringing with them their deep curiosity to explore the village’s unique existence amid its beautiful surrounding landscape.
In a new documentary titled The Valley of Dolls by German filmmaker Fritz Schumann, Tsukimi explains how she started out by originally making a scarecrow in the likeness of her father for farming purposes, but over time her motivation changed, and she eventually started making more and more dolls. As she began to fill the town with these life-size dolls, she found that the nearly empty village seemed less lonely with them around.
While many visitors who make their way to the village find these life-size dolls eerie, others from Japan and abroad simply see the gesture as a sad reminder of the old village’s transition throughout the years from a commercialized, industrial area with a large company to support the local population to a mere isolated ghost town with vacated buildings. The dolls fill any guest in town with a nostalgic feeling of the past, along with awakening views about existence, industrialization, and death.
When addressing the fact that others deemed her doll-making activities “creepy,” she responded that she has no taste for “weird or creepy dolls. They are simply meant to blend in with the scenic location as their human counterparts would have done,” she said. In the first part of the documentary, she explains how when she makes dolls that look like dead people, she thinks about them “when they were alive and healthy.” She goes on to explain how she feels that the dolls are like her children.
She especially enjoys creating grandmothers’ faces, claiming to be particularly talented in making their faces very life like. Making the lips, Tsukimi states that the material needs to be altered just right, or they would appear to look angry. Because the dolls are left outside, and are exposed to all kinds of weather conditions, the dolls usually last around three years before she needs to replace each one. Using old clothes, rags and hay, she continues to produce the life-size dolls, adding to her vast collection of over 350 dolls.
According to Ken Osetroff, director of a travel company, travelers going to Japan can now book tour packages that include a trip to Nagoro to see the dolls during the autumn season. Since Nagoro cannot be located on a map, it has become a very challenging place to get to for travelers, and will most likely be abandoned due to older residents passing away, as well as the remaining younger people leaving.
However, thanks to recent media coverage of the village in Japan, Tsukimi is delighted to see human faces in Nagoro again, aside from her life-size companions. Because she lives surrounded by frozen faces stuck in time, Tsukimi finds herself pondering such complex topics such as existence and mortality. The 64-year-old woman who fills the village with lifeless dolls jokingly remarks in the video regarding her own inevitable death: “I will probably live on forever.”
By Scott Gaudinier