Photos courtesy of Arisa/Taeko Watanabe
Theatricality and creativity go hand in hand; and in the case of Japanese bear artist Taeko Watanabe, they go hand in paw. Making bears and their exquisite costuming since 2005, Watanabe doesn’t conjure up critters that are cute and cuddly. Yes, some of her pieces are adorable and are hug-worthy, but the majority strike dramatic poses, clad in kimonos that tell a tale of her homeland and of her heritage.
“I am especially interested in the style of the Edo Era,” she told me in our interview. “That is the time period of 1603 through 1867. I am very interested in that era, so I often study about it, going to public libraries and museums.”
Watanabe is intrigued by the culture of her nation. At the time of our conversation, she resided in the Saitama Prefecture, Japan. She envisioned a field of ursine artistry where the bears showcase beautiful fabrics and wardrobes that link to her culture and genealogy.
“I want to adopt the fashion of people from the Edo Era in my work. I get inspiration from thinking about my work and that my kimonos are going to be worn by real kabuki actors,” she revealed.
According to the talented artist, she considers kabuki to be among one of Japan’s most famous and revered traditions. Kabuki is Japan’s classical form of dance-drama. It is distinguished by the highly stylized nature of its drama, as well as the bold and elaborate cosmetics that its actors apply to their faces. Oftentimes, linguists translate kabuki as “singing,” “dancing,” and “skill.” Watanabe’s bears embody all three segments of that definition. They appear as if they are about to break out into an aria or parade off the tabletop. They epitomize the performing arts.
“The costumes, the wigs, and the accessories for these bears are very unique,” she told me. “When I decide to make these, I picture in my mind what real-life actors would wear and how they would look. I want that kind of realism in my work.”
Over the years, Watanabe has been nominated for a host of international awards. Critics and collectors respond to their evocation of a long-ago century, a way of life that is only preserved now onstage and in the cinema. “It sometimes takes me a long time to create my pieces,” she shared. “It has taken me as long as three years to make six bears — the ones for ‘Oiran-Dochu’ — because I wanted them to look exactly right. While I was making them, I honestly felt like I was traveling back in time to the Edo Era. I felt like I am enjoying being a part of that world, and being a part of that pageantry.”
There are times when Watanabe creates a very young-looking bear, a definite tribute to a child of centuries ago. She envisions these youthful creatures cradled in the arms of a doll that would be similarly dressed, a tiny bear made for a delicately-garbed companion, a messenger from the 18th or 19th centuries.
“I would love it if an adult doll collector would buy one of the small child bears and match it with a doll that reflects the Edo Era. That would be quite fulfilling,” she mused to me. “My work is made for the adult collectors. They are meant to be gently handled and to be surveyed and appreciated, not played with roughly. I would love it if the bears started a conversation between adults and children,” she added.
“I hope the adults teach the children the history of our country. I hope they learn about their country’s heritage and the personal history of their ancestors,” the craftswoman said sincerely. “By having my bears, and showing them off proudly and with purpose, I hope the adults teach the children what it means to love something, to appreciate it, and to take care of it.”
When questioned what she hopes the legacy of her Arisa teddy bears should be, Taeko Watanabe did not hesitate at all. “I want them to teach the generations about love and appreciation. Love and appreciate the bears, and love and appreciate the culture of my country.”