Pop Culture and Japan

Appreciating The Beauty And Craftsmanship Of Jizai Okimono

Japan is known for having some of the most unique art in the world. Building on centuries of feudal culture, Japanese art has its own style. A famous example of Japanese art is jizai okimono, which translates to ‘move freely decorative object.’ Jizai okimono involves the crafting of articulated sculptures. Beginning in 17th century Japan, the art form is highly specialised and fascinating.

But what are the origins of this beautiful artform and how has it evolved in modern times?

Intricate craftsmanship

There’s a great deal of speculation about where jizai okimono originated. But it’s generally accepted that the art began at the end of the Edo period. During an age of peace, samurai armour makers needed to adapt their skills. They turned to creating detailed statues of animals with moveable limbs. The earliest known jizai okimono is thought to be an articulated dragon that was made by Myochin Muneaki. Dated 1713, the dragon can be found in the Tokyo National Museum.

A jizai okimono collection in London.

The Myochins were a reputable family of samurai armourers who took pride in their work. A high level of craftsmanship went into making the dragon. Made from iron, the creature has beautifully detailed features. The eyes are made from a copper and gold alloy called shakudo, while the spine is crafted from hammered plates. The flexibility of the plates allow the body to bend and contort.

Other popular designs included lobsters, butterflies, snakes and crabs. By the 19th century, jizai okimono had become desirable collectibles for the Western market. The term ‘jizai okimono’ is considered to be relatively modern. In 1893, a craftsman called Itao Shinjiro showed an articulated eagle at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. He described it as kushin jizai tsubasa no okimono (an okimono with wings that could move).

A modern jizai okimono dragon with an articulated, moving body.

Modern day art

Jizai okimono has experienced a resurgence, especially in the pop culture market. Japanese manufacturers Kaiyado specialise in creating different figurines. One of the best examples is their dragon, which is fully articulated. Each body part can be moved separately and the amount of detail is stunning.

Japanese artists such as Ryosuke Ohtake have also created jizai okimono. On his first attempt, he crafted a wooden lobster. Ohtake’s skill is impressive because wood is considered to be one of the most difficult materials to use. He sculpted the lobster for a Tokyo exhibition and it remains one of his most recognised pieces.

Japanese articulated figures are regularly sold for high prices at auctions. Given the amount of detail, it’s no surprise. Jizai okimono is among the most spectacular Japanese art. If you ever get the chance to see one, I’d recommend taking the time to appreciate its beauty.

Interested in owning a jizai okimono figure? Be sure to check out my review of the Kaiyado dragon to see how it’s been crafted!

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