Doll Cafe, Or Deities to Composure


Printed in siren issue 8

Cafe stools teeter in twos and threes in a well lit room in Nishiogikubo, Tokyo. Upright, heels dangling, sit six Japanese women, sipping honey milks with eyes closed, flicking at iphones, and whispering at intervals. They're unusually well framed for viewing, the cafe's white washed walls goading forward their poreless skin and black hair. In the corner chairs young women balance bright white beanies on the crests of their skulls, breath held there isn't reason for any involved head whipping, or the sabotage of a fallen spoon. Beside them, a slightly older pair confer in gold-clasped cardigans, resetting watches and sharing hygiene secrets. Their eyes linger on the table as they tap their smile lines. They don't miss a minute with their ancient meridian-based morse; stimulating blood flow in their faces' neglected crevices, they delay the downward tread. It's almost as though time isn't passing.

The foreground hosts a mother and two year old sharing a cornmeal scone, two generations of standouts in the Japanese “crochet everything” subculture. The daughter, petite curls poking out of her crochet beret and baby fat bounded up in a crochet vest, is calendar-caliber cute. The mother is – less so, all the loose knots on her ultra skinny dimensions accumulating to an unfortunate Bahama Breeze Barbie impression. They move their mouths at each other but no sound seems to come out.

A white cat and petite Shiba face each other in the corner. They have bells around their necks that tinkle when they turn their heads or stretch. The cafe's tea matron sweeps in periodically in breezy linens, dipping between tables in the narrow space. She must be pleased with the day's turn out, the cafe scene that actualizes exactly what she'd imagined her cafe might be.

The cafe actually, is themed – doll-themed. On the wall opposite the women, stand one hundred and thirty-eight wooden Japanese folk dolls, called kokeshi. The cafe is even called “Kokeshi Cafe.” The dolls are upright, balancing atop cardboard-thin scalloped shelves. Their bodies are delicate cylinders or cones but they have great round heads, threatening to drag them head first into a latte. Their faces and clothes are painted in matte reds, yellows, blacks, and greens. Their wooden frames and patterns remind one of Russian nesting dolls, but their quiet deviations, crinkled eyes, dot mouths and only two lines of hair, are exotic curiosities that draw the eye.

Looking up at them, through American eyes, I scan their faces for a secret affliction – a depression in the downward slope of an eye, a covert love affair whispered in the curl of a mouth. There's nothing like that, though. Their faces are placid and unambiguous. Just a glimmer of a story appears, though, when they're viewed as a collection. The patterns of triangles and dots on their bodies weave into each other, organized and visually efficient. Toes flirting with the edges of their shelf cliffs, they flaunt a compact of good behavior. They are cooperative little idols, deities to composure.

Looking back at the women, I realize they mirror the doll tableau impressively. Clean, compliant, pleasant—but not also with barely detectable fissures in their veneer? A grimace? A high pitched snorted laugh? The facial cotton-wadding of depression? Or has nothing bad ever happened to them? And is that worse?

The dolls look down at the cafe's quiet action.

The phone of one of the cardiganed ladies begins to buzz on the table top. It rattles loudly on the light wood and the woman fumbles to stop it, tensing in embarrassment. In such a small cafe, the sound is noticeable, and the woman hates to think she's disrupting the cafe ambience. When she finally silences it, she bows deeply to her tablemate and nods to the neighboring tables too. I was so rude to interrupt you.

A disturbance rises at the crochet table too – the daughter jumps for a kokeshi shelf and whines madly, flaring in toddler tempest. “Bad, Emma-chan!” the mother whispers, “They're not toys!” The girl continues to snarl and reach, however, while the mother tries to contain her in her arms. Emma-chan makes a last desperate leap, hurling herself at the wall and bumping the bottom of the kokeshi shelf. The shelf's three dolls wobble and then domino down; two settling on the shelf while the third rolls off and plummets for the floor. The mother, already cradling her daughter's bumped head with one arm, swipes the doll with the other, narrowly saving the relic. Hardly pausing to revel at her own stellar reflexes, the mother hisses “Bad, Emma-chan!” at the wailing child, “That's enough! Too loud!” Emma-chan gulps back her tears, apparently ashamed she has gotten so out of control. The tea matron hurries over to help replace the doll and the mother spouts apologies, a frenzy of contrition. The tea matron deflects the apologies graciously, “Absolutely no problem,” she reassures her, “Nothing at all.”

Returning from the raucus, I stare up at the dolls, see their storyless arrangement and placid smiles, and agree with the mother that they're not toys. I do wonder about their purpose, though. The point of making human-things, I would think, is to represent, and somehow work through, human struggles and tragedies. And don't we learn how to be with each other by playing with dolls? My fourteen year old sister was certainly working through something when she'd rub Barbie and Ken against each other feverishly in the entropic ends to our Barbie games. She'd bend Barbie's legs and open her arms and contort her into the vilest of positions, and then I'd know, once and for all, I never wanted to do what Barbie was doing. But the kokeshi aren't the type of dolls you'd rub against each other. They aren't displayed at angles to suggest interaction, or alternatively sitting or standing to suggest roles or status, they are all in a line, facing out, arms at their sides and fingers interlaced, lacing up the secrets, locking in the tragedy, performing order and simplicity.

The linened tea wraith billows in from behind, placing a tea cup, date cracker, and wet tissue in square angles in front of me. I decline the plastic wrapped wet tissue, which makes her pause. “Irimasen,” I repeat, “I don't need it.” She apologizes and retreats, her ethereality punctured a little. This kind of interaction hardly surprises me anymore – moments when my Japanese is sufficient but my weird American decorum makes people freeze up. I've come to see it less as xenophobia and more as my tripping up their social choreography, violating their exhaustive tissue codes.

The deflated cafe owner returns to the kitchen to tend a kettle. In the hush of the post- whistle, Emma-chan begins squirming in her chair again. She climbs up her mother's shoulder, tugging at her hair to reach the wall. Before her mother can resume remonstrance however, the white cat's bell sounds as he bounds onto their table, upsetting a vase and sending a spoon to the floor. The Shiba perks up in echo, scratching the floor restlessly and then scrambling to the door, yelping a guttural “let me out” plea.

The commotion foretells the swaying by only a second. An almost imperceptible keeling begins; the cafe's narrow walls warp in and out, producing a funhouse effect as yet confusable with a bout of vertigo – until the shaking starts. The ground grumbles and tilts, and we finally register what's happening. Everyone reverts to the protocols taught in elementary school; I duck in the kitchen doorway with the cafe owner and she gestures over the mother and daughter. They remain in their corner, however, the mother crouching and shielding her daughter's head as the girl cries. The other women plant themselves low too, huddling close but not acknowledging one another. Each covering her own head, we're reduced to our auditory sense – the banging of the kitchen pots joins the ground's mangled symphony and the wooden beams loose stress calls. The ground moans deeps into a minute, much longer than I've experienced before. My eyes are pinched close; I wonder how long this can last.

And then the whole room swells in a chatter as the dolls start their percussive rattle. They shake in time like a chorus of crazed tap dancers, the maracas of angry gods. I look up as the kokeshi wobble out the frustrations of their demure silhouettes; they rock and vibrate, finally in sync with their original chaos, excorcising the pain of ever being carved. A pale doll in a shawl and bowtie dances to the edge of her shelf and shimmies right off, diving for the floor – she is the first one to smash. Then, conforming in a finale of suicides, the other one hundred a thirty seven dolls jitter for the edges of their platforms and jump all at once, evacuating the walls in downpour and hurling toward the loss of themselves. They fly in the ecstasy of their unshaping, and every one shatters on the floor and table tops.

The rumbling stops. The walls and ground, pots and tables insulate us in silence, only the air still crackles with the static of the last dust. We slowly wake up, and venture slight movement. Our minds dislodge themselves from the atrophy of crisis and our eyes wade through the sea of bright wooden shards, still with the decipherable zigzags of dresses and arcs of eyes. I frown at the still-smiling doll remains.

Moments pass and I expect a rally to group-hug, but am surprised to see the owner instead walk to each party separately and check that they're ok in whispers. I try to meet eyes with the beanie girls or the cardigan ladies, for the relief of a shared sigh, but everyone seems intent on keeping their own bubbles unpierced. They unwrinkle their skirts, or superficially reposition the salt shakers at their tables. Yes, that already looks neater. Crisis so quickly gives way to awkwardness – in such a rubble of doll faces, it's as if they've caught a friend's mom with her makeup off. We've experienced something so scary with each other, but with no casualties, the earthquake falling a couple fractions short of disaster, there's no obvious good semeritan response. So the women begin to gather up for the door, mumbling excuses like “I should call my husband” or “they may need me at the office”.

I join the younger women on their knees trying to unpuzzle some of the shards. The dolls are in so many pieces, though, the exercise is futile. The tea matron thanks us but says she'll close the shop and we ought to tend to our homes and families.

“I'm so sorry,” I tell her in Japanese, “It was a stunning collection.”

“I have a hundred more boxes of them,” she says with a faint smile, “I'll visit my parents in Sumida Ward this afternoon and bring them back to the shop.”

Leaving the cafe, on the street everywhere people are recomposing themselves. The produce seller rearranges a toppled fruit display, the fish vendor packs salmon slivers on new ice. Resilient kids already run and slide in the park and seniors resume their ancient grocery cart orbits. Everyone is as silent as usual, resuming a choreography I don't know the steps to, returning to the roles they've always played with integrity. There is no weeping, no panic, no gaudy sympathy.

Here, I guess, the drama has always waited just outside the human frame. To host it, give it words, or carve it into a doll would be unhumble. Unconcerned with our contortions and moans, the tragedy hums outside of us.