"Valley of Dolls" screenshot (via Vimeo)

“Valley of Dolls” screenshot (via Vimeo)

“I never thought it would turn into this,” 64-year-old Ayano Tsukimi says while surveying her decade-long dedication to making dolls of the dead and disappeared in her nearly abandoned town of Nagoro, Japan. The short documentary “Valley of Dolls” by Berlin-based Fritz Schumann shows the creator of over 350 of these effigies at work, while the dolls themselves are posed on benches, napping, or toiling in the lush valley.

“Valley of Dolls” screenshot (via Vimeo)

The video is definitely unsettling; Tsukimi’s project seems like a sort of Japanese version of the now defunct Possum Trot, an outsider art roadside attraction that tossed you into an uncanny valley of creakily singing dolls. However, those haunting button eyes and sewn, twisted lips capture something about a very real crisis in Japan. Most of the dolls are elderly, their faces pulled in wrinkles (the artist notes, “I’m very good at making grandmothers”). As Tsukimi explains, there was once a dam in Nagoro where hundreds of people worked; now the population is only 37. The school was closed (she’s since filled it with dolls of children, teachers, and a principal), and those still living in town are dying off.

According to the World Bank, just 8% of the population of Japan lives in a rural area, and 24% of Japan’s population was over 65 last year (the highest of any country cited in World Bank data). Tsukimi started creating the dolls as scarecrows to protect her planted seeds, but after making the first one look like her father, she continued fashioning them after all of the vanishing people around her, a memento mori both for the people and the place.

h/t Laughing Squid

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...