Culture At Large

Death without hope in Japan’s valley of dolls

Derek Rishmawy

There's a village in Japan where there are more dolls than people. Fritz Schumann's short documentary Valley of Dolls, embedded below, tells the story.

Nagoro, a small town situated in the Shikoku valleys, once was prosperous and lively, thriving off of the local industry connected to the nearby dam. Hundreds dwelt there. When Ayano Tsukimi returned to her home village 11 years ago, though, she found it dwindling, as older residents had passed away and the young had moved out to the cities in search of work.

In order to fill time on her return, Tsukimi decided to make a life-size scarecrow based on her father. Now, 10 years later, she's made more than 350 of these beautiful and haunting dolls to replace the people who have died or moved away. The figures fill the town.

Though Nagoro has only 37 living citizens, you can walk through the streets and get a picture of what the town must have looked like in its heyday. The dolls blend into the scenery, imitating real life as it was, or as it could be if Nagoro weren't dying. Enter the school and you’ll find classrooms full of students and teachers, crafted with care and precision. Farmers work in their fields. Grandmothers sit outside their houses, knitting and smiling. People wait at the bus stops. Hunters sit in trees, eyeing the prey that survives even while they have not.

In the valley of the dolls we find a peculiarly vivid manifestation of the choice we're given in the face of loss, especially in the case of loved ones and cherished ways of life. The living can either inhumanely reject memory, or cling to it and let it crowd out life.

Cutting ties with the past initially seems healthiest. But to do so, to make an effort to forget what has been precious to us, what has shaped and given life, is a denial of our very selves. Cultivating memory is, of course, the other option. It's a way of allowing those we lose to live on - even if only as ephemeral shadows - as a part of our lives. If we do that, though, the danger is that the ties of the past, which keep us rooted, also prevent us from moving forward. Without a deep, forward-looking hope, roots become chains.

What we see in Nagoro is an exercise in the cultivation of memory that has turned a town into a mausoleum for the dead. The apostle Paul offers the grieving a different way forward in his letter to the church in Thessalonica:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.

In light of our resurrection hope, Christians have a unique way forward in the face of loss. Instead of completely cutting ties with the past, we can remember those who are "asleep" because we know their absence is not permanent. And indeed, we can move forward with hope, not obsessing with their loss in the present, because we know that in Christ, we will see them again. With that hope in our hearts we are able to grieve well, even as we move on with our vocation of building a city for the living, rather than a mausoleum for the dead.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology, News & Politics, World