And you thought an army of dolls must be sinister ...

And you thought an army of dolls must be sinister …

Today I visited Meiji Jingu to attend one of the stranger rituals I have seen in Japan: the Doll Appreciation Ceremony (oningyo kanshasai,お人形感謝祭). This ceremony takes place once a year under the sponsorship of the Doll Appreciation Society, and is held to venerate those dolls that are being passed out of use. The information we received when we entered the shrine told us that many Japanese people believe that dolls have souls, and that many shrines hold ceremonies to venerate or consecrate dolls when they are thrown out. The basic process is you bring your dolls (as many as you want) in a plastic bag, and get charged 3000 yen (about $US30) per bag. You are given a doll-shaped piece of paper to write a message on, and then the priests very carefully arrange the dolls within the shrine precinct. Once the viewing period is over, the good wishes you wrote on the piece of paper are incorporated into a ritual of consecration, and then the dolls pass on. It’s not clear what happens, but I’m guessing they go into landfill. But appropriately consecrated.

Were sacrifices ever cuter or more numerous?

Were sacrifices ever cuter or more numerous?

This is a very sweet idea for a ceremony, and very well attended by people of all ages and descriptions. The dolls were arranged carefully in the eaves of the inner wall of the Meiji Jingu main compound, and there were so many by 2pm today that they took up two whole sides of the compound (which is not small). Interestingly, the shrine workers laid them out very carefully and respectfully, with that careful attention to detail that Japanese people always apply to any task that they consider responsible for.

The "traditional" section: new year's animals and hina matsuri dolls. Disney was on the top shelf!

The “traditional” section: new year’s animals and hina matsuri dolls. Disney was on the top shelf!

They also arranged the dolls in related categories as much as they could. There were whole sections full of Disney characters, a huge swathe of hinamatsuri dolls, squads of Doraemons and Winnie the Poohs, and of course lots of animals. Even toy soldiers and lizard souvenirs from museums were on display.

The bears await their fate

The bears await their fate

I think one year a group of war-gamers should get together all their old and unwanted warhammer figures and bring them along. Then they could watch as the shrine workers meticulously laid out huge armies of skaven and undead, knowing that after years of war and struggle those exhausted soldiers would be vouch-safed eternal rest, protected in the bosom of Japan’s 8 million gods: surely a worthy end for every war-gamer’s most dedicated heroes!

Whatever happens next won't be as pretty as they are

On Friday night I attended the Kagurazaka Festival in Idabashi, Tokyo. In this famous festival, groups of performers dance their way around a course through the streets of a famous part of old Tokyo; the most significant part occurs on the famous “Kagura Slope” to a backdrop of drumming and Japanese pipes. The procession alternates between groups of men carrying lanterns, and groups of women in the outfits shown above, whose dance primarily consists of movement of their hands and a strange, shuffling walk on the tips of their geta shoes – an extraordinarily difficult dance to maintain for two hours, especially given the oppressive heat of this season. The crowd of onlookers is drunk down to the last tottering young lady, and the dancers are carnivalesque, leaping on members of the crowd in a group or giving lewd and suggestive movements to admirers in the crowd. At times the women draw up into a phalanx such as the one pictured, and the men dance around them; or the women themselves suddenly surge forward to wave their hands at the crowd. The rhythm and style of the dance can be viewed here, and some interesting pictures here. As ever with Japanese drumming, the full force of the drums are not captured in amateur film. A slightly more professional depiction of the same dance from the seventies can be viewed at the 10’05” mark of the movie Sans Soleil, which is viewable here. Notice how in the first video the dancing girls bunch together into a tight phalanx of kimono, pointed hats and arcane hand movements.

Seeing this, I asked my friend Sergeant M (who used to role-play with me) how he thought a group of my players would react if, in the midst of a battle-scene, the serried ranks of their enemies parted to reveal a group of these women, moving slowly forward on their tip toes, arms moving in strange patterns, seemingly completely unarmoured or unprotected in any way, perhaps followed by a group of drummers, whose rhythms had preceded the girls onto the battlefield. Packed into a tight phalanx, staring at the characters and apparently in the midst of some powerful invocation, what exactly would my players think? The sergeant broadly agreed with me that, given the general lack of trust that my players have for me as a GM, their general expectation that nasty and infernal things are going to happen, and the ongoing fear my players usually have that more is going on than quite meets the eye, they would greet the arrival of a phalanx of dancing girls like this with extreme trepidation.

From this I imagined this monster, consisting of a group of these fiendish young ladies, their magical power enhanced by the tight group membership, the mysterious combination of hand movements, the ritual garments and the music. Perhaps sometimes they are led by a wild-eyed man in festival clothes, carrying a pole-arm decorated with a lantern, and followed by a small band of musicians. They fight exclusively with magic, but so tightly coordinated and close-knit is their unit that killing any one of them makes no difference to their morale or powers. To win a battle against the Kagura Dancing Maidens, you need to kill all of them before they can complete their invocation. Of course, with dancing lantern-man fighters surrounding them, and a shield of protection drawn by their musicians and their own magical powers, killing even one of them is not easy. And woe betide the hapless group of adventurers who experience the full brunt of their completed invocation … or the army that faces a full dance troupe adequately protected.

Perhaps also they have powers of magical fascination, their weaker-willed opponents brought to a halt by the sight of those strange, dancing hands; maybe they are accompanied by the spirits of the forest and the servants of the gods they serve; and perhaps they are equipped with a range of powerful protective items (the straw hats, the pouches hanging from their obi, the obi itself…) The beleaguered adventuring group needs to find their weakness and exploit it ruthlessly – perhaps they are vulnerable to a particularly charming man, or wither in intense heat, or cannot run faster than their strange tip-toed walk allows them; maybe their entire power depends on the drummers who follow them. Or maybe they are just a very powerful, arcane opponent, that only the most powerful of adventurers can defeat…

The last dance

The mystery of the ritual and the massed women gives this opponent lots of power to unsettle players and confuse them, particularly the first time they encounter it. Played well in the right setting, I think it could provide a disturbing and exciting encounter.