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Monday, December 13, 2010

Dolls Volume 1

Review by Michael May

Written and Illustrated by Yumiko Kawahara
VIZ; $9.99

Everybody has his or her thing. As I look up at my bookshelf and see an alligator statue from Fantasia next to a Dr. Caligari action figure and a Hellboy picture made from cut paper, I realize the hypocrisy in my calling someone else's hobby or collection "weird."

But dolls just freak me right out.

I don't see how doll collectors can sleep at night with all those little eyes staring at them in the dark from on top of dressers and bookshelves. Didn't these people see Child's Play? But, God bless ‘em, folks like the dolls. Flip through any random issue of TV Guide and see if there's not a new collectable doll being advertised. "This enchanting portrayal of America's beloved child star, Shirley Temple, and her Scottish terrier, Corky, was inspired by a rare family photo."

The cover of Yumiko Kawahara's Dolls: Volume 1 reminded me of all this. An unnaturally beautiful little girl with long blonde hair, enormous blue eyes, and a lacy white dress right out of a Merchant Ivory film sits demurely as she holds a doll that is an exact replica of herself. Creepy. And not cool, Ringu creepy either. As far as I could tell from the cover, this wasn't a horror book.

Then I flip it over to look at the back cover blurb, as I'm wont to do, and I read, "Yumiko Kawahara's disturbing short stories explore the strange and codependent world of dolls and the people who own them." No less uneasy, at least I know that I'm in good company now. Kawahara is just as creeped out as I am. Encouraged, I open the book and read on.

The stories in Dolls are best described as morality tales. They tell about an exclusive shop that sells something called plant dolls: beautiful, living dolls that subsist on milk and sugar cookies, choose their owners, and are unbelievably expensive. They're also good for nothing more than sitting prettily and smiling beatifically at their owners while selfishly being nurtured by their owners' love. And milk and sugar cookies.

Through the stories of the various plant dolls and the love of their owners, Kawahara explores the relationships between love and other concepts like indulgence, jealousy, greed, connection and contentment. A young man gives his plant doll whatever she wants until he literally spoils her. A father becomes envious of the attention his family lavishes on the plant doll he bought for them. A jeweler relentlessly tries to acquire a plant doll as a lucrative investment and finds his feelings towards her changing. An elderly man hires an artist to paint his plant doll's portrait in order to immortalize it, so that he doesn't even have to see the doll himself. A carefree gambler and his uptight girlfriend must come to terms with each other's attitudes when the gambler's lucky plant doll comes between them.

Each story is robust, but subtle. There's a lot to think about in Dolls and by the time you're done you realize that the book isn't about a creepy hobby at all, but about the concepts of love and selfishness and how they connect.

There are two stories at the end of the anthology that have nothing to do with dolls, plant or otherwise. At first I was confused by their presence in the book, but in light of the love/selfishness link that permeates the rest of the book, they make perfect sense. "The Distant Sound of Water" is about wedding jitters over giving up one's right to be selfish in order to begin a partnership with the person one loves. "A Spell to Unbind Spring" is a wonderful ghost story about a man who has lost his wife and daughter and who learns to selflessly love someone else through his pain.

Kawahara illustrates these creepy and thoughtful stories in a style that's as intricate and delicate as the lace on a plant doll's dress. The illustrations are as beautiful to look at as the stories are to read.

Dolls is available to purchase online at

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