The Art of Darkness

Spooky Netsuke

November 14th, 2012 by Cobwebs

Rat NetsukeI am on record as stating that I refuse to collect things (on the grounds that I don’t want to dust them), but if I were to ever make an exception to that rule it would probably be over netsuke. They’re small, amazingly varied, and some are marvelously creepy.

Netsuke started out as utilitarian objects: Little toggles to attach 17th-century Japanese men’s purses* to their belts. Like a lot of mundane objects, they eventually became an outlet for artistic expression until they were essentially intricate, miniature sculptures. And since Japan has a rich mythology, much of which is, from a Western viewpoint, frankly insane, many of these teensy sculptures are very gothy indeed.

You’ve got your demons and funky-looking lion deities and big piles of rats. Grotesque faces and ghosts by tombstones and spider monsters.

There are foxes in dresses and skeletons and bats and snakes and some guy who is just entirely too happy to be carrying an octopus.

There are evocative antique ones like this ghost with “a pull-out spine” (what?) frightening two children and splendid modern examples like this skull and raven.

Depending upon your pocketbook, there are antique ivory carvings running into the thousands of dollars and modern wooden ones for under ten bucks. There are collectors’ organizations which can help you explore your options and plenty of dealers in both rare antiques and cheap reproductions. You can even find them on Amazon.

It’s easy to get started with inexpensive modern specimens and then work your way into more esoteric types if you find the hobby suits you (and if it doesn’t, turn the ones you have into jewelry or other accessories). Best of all, unlike with stamps or coins or many similar collectibles, there’s no critical mass you have to reach before it becomes a “collection.” One netsuke is interesting all by itself.

If you’ve never investigated the enormous variety of netsuke before, take a look. You might find a brand-new hobby.


*Okay, they were technically called inro and were used because traditional garments didn’t have pockets, but still. Purse.

Posted in Paint It Black | 5 Comments »

5 Responses

  1. joasakura Says:

    I should post a picture of it, but I bought online a little bat netsuke ages ago – it was smaller than I thought it was going to be, so I strung him up with some beads on an eyepin and made the cutest little bat pendant! :D

  2. xJane Says:

    These are one of my favorite things in the world (and I once didn’t buy a spider one because I’m an idiot)—if you’re ever in LA, the LACMA has a Japanese pavilion with two permanent exhibits: calligraphic banners and netsuke. The netsuke is one of my favorite places. It does not get old. (And speaking of people who are entirely too happy to be holding an octopus: that’s like a whole theme of netsuke. I wonder if there’s a Japanese fairytale/ghost story {they’re often one and the same, neh?} about The Man Who Was Entirely Too Happy To Be Holding An Octopus; maybe it’s The Man Whose Wife Turned Into An Octopus or The Man Who Didn’t Realize His Pot Of Gold Was An Octopus but in any case, I wish I knew it.)

  3. WitchArachne Says:

    I’d never heard of netsuke before, but I’m recognising a few of them. I’m wondering if I’ve come across a few in antique shops before and just didn’t know what they were.
    I’m absolutely in love with them though. That rat one is ADORABLE. And that guy holding the octopus is just crying out to have his cheeks pinched :D

  4. Sisifo Says:

    Etsy has oodles of these. There’s the cutest little octopus on there… Gads.

  5. Maven Says:

    I have a collection of carved boxwood cicadas, both netsuke and the larger segmented “purse” sash boxes. I also have been collecting the carved boxwood bats to use as fan pulls in my bedroom. LOVE them!

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