Tokyo Doll at the Design Exchange (234 Bay) to October 25. 416-363-6121, 416-597-9302. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Barbie and G.I. Joe ruined it for North Americans, but in Japan doll-makers have long been respected as artists. Little wonder after witnessing the fantastic array of shapes, sizes, ideas and materials that have been used to construct the ningyo (dolls) for the ongoing Tokyo Doll exhibition. Curated by Rafi Ghanaghounian of Anoush Gallery and Tomo Lennon of Studio 2/Artic , this show is a sparkling little adventure. These dolls engage the inner child without alienating the outer adult. Though silly and fun, they are intelligently crafted, mixing the traditional with the contemporary. They are fabulous.
Near the door, you're greeted by a series of sleepy heads; dolls by Mitsuhiro Yamadiwa walk along a plank with heavy heads, droopy eyelids and yellow caps caught in gravity's pull.
Across the way, nine of Hirohisa Kadomatsu 's Yellow Boys huddle on stunted legs in an acrylic cage, their big blue eyes staring up, pleading to be released. Like dogs in a pound, the little plastic objects make you feel sorry for them. Arata Anzai 's creatures are pink, bulbous, armless ceramic figures with ears like the end of horns.
All of these designs display the typically Japanese figurative technique of rounding off the body's features, but perhaps the best example of this is the work of Katsutoshi Nakano . The three figures on display look like strangely mutated babies. One has four legs like a centaur, another has a rocket stuck in its forehead, and a third has extra limbs splayed out beneath its dress. Made of white ceramic flecked with colour, they are wonderful pieces.
Fabric is also a dominant material here. Yuki Kita covers small inflatable dolls with fabric to cover their hockey-puck-shaped heads with sleepy-eyed faces. Seth Scriver of Toronto shows Japanese-influenced dolls that look like lumpy sock puppets with winning smiles and funny caps. Wonder Farms farmers "hand grow" furry spheres with eyes that pop out on stems. The most inventive are the little hand-knit creatures of Okikokiko that have casters for ears, screw eyes and assorted hardware for hands and feet. The makeshift creatures are almost cuddly.
For pure joy and high cholesterol, no doll can top that of Jin Arakawa . The plastic piece has an egg head with a crack at the bottom, a torso made of yolk and egg-white limbs.
Hironori Tsuchida 's little realistic figures have straps so they can be hung from mobile phones if you so desire: there's a man reading while wiping his brow, a tentative schoolgirl, a rickety old man and a tea server. Tsuchida has made action figures out of everyday Japanese life.
Several pieces stand apart, forming their own little elite ningyo clique. The wooden dolls of Takeji Nakagawa are superbly crafted pieces with intricate woodblock layering held together by traditional rope binding to form elegant robots. It's a stunning display of workmanship.
Akira Wakui 's Zero Fighter (which is being raffled) is a delicate robot constructed from a metallic model of a second world war Japanese fighter plane. Even as a robot, the plane looks hostile.
Then there's Kyoko Ookubo 's beautiful paper doll - a near-naked girl who stands nonchalantly as a goose-like bird swoops through her hair like a runaway hat. A desperate hare hangs from her neck, its mouth clamped just beside hers while its dangling back feet push down her white underwear.
This piece is more unexpected and more profound than the rest. It's both sadder and sweeter.