Japanese netsuke. A little demon (Oni) captured a man (Shoki) in robe with surprising facial expression in a basket.
Mythical characters of Chinese origin captivated the Japanese imagination and permeated the culture. According to Chinese legend, the Tang emperor, Ming-huang, dreamed of a wily demon wreaking havoc in his palace. An imposing figure dressed in the robes of a poor official intervened and rid the emperor of the menace. The heroic figure then identified himself as a man who had committed suicide after being denied first place at the civil service examinations, an honor he rightfully deserved. Subsequently, the emperor granted him an imperial burial, and in return, Shoki vowed to protect him from the evil Oni. In this netsuke, however, the artist humorously depicted Oni capturing Shoki, the demon queller, instead.
A variety of materials were used in the making of netsuke, reflecting the creativity and superb skill of the artisans. Ivory and wood were most often used due to their fine grain and smooth surface, an important consideration due to the constant handling of the small toggles by their owners. Ivory could easily be toned or painted to brighten up the figure and was sometimes used in tandem with other materials such as wood, bone, or metal. Significant attention was also given to the symbolic aspect of the material. An example is the rare and precious ivory from the tusk of the narwhal which was believed to possess mystical medicinal powers.
Certain materials were suited for particular styles of netsuke. While all netsuke shared a common function, to anchor the sagemono (‘hanging thing’) suspended from the belt, a wide range of forms, sizes and shapes existed. The earliest netsuke tended to be slender, simple, sturdy objects crafted from bamboo that resembled a modern day paper clip. By the close of the eighteenth century, new forms and materials showcased the artisan’s virtuosity and imagination. Stains and inlays added dramatic flair and allowed for increasingly meticulous detail, especially in the features of humans and animals. Forms ranged from traditional long slender types to round, dumpling shapes. While decoration and visual delight became increasingly important, function remained the primary goal with some craftsmen going so far as to create versatile netsuke that doubled as ashtrays, compasses, abacuses, or magnifying glasses.
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