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FEATURE: How My Dress-Up Darling Bridges Fandoms Across Generations with Ningyo Dolls

My Dress-Up Darling x Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum


Ahead of this year’s Hinamatsuri, Saitama City teamed up with the My Dress-Up Darling anime to bring people to Iwatsuki Ward, the “city of dolls.” This collaboration ran deep, with the anime featured inside the Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum and a workshop held by the real-life inspiration behind Gojo Wakana. In coordination with Saitama City’s Tourism and International Exchange Division, Crunchyroll News got a guided tour of the museum where we learned more about ningyo dolls — traditional figurines displayed in Japanese homes — than we ever expected, and how the anime has impacted the art form of doll making.


A Brief History of Ningyo Dolls


My Dress-Up Darling x Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum

A pair of ningyo dolls


While the ningyo dolls as we know them were created in the Edo Period, the modern doll designs can be traced back to the Heian Period, where they were used as both playthings of wealthy children and decorations for families to show off that opulence. One usage of these dolls would typically have families order a ningyo for a girl when she was born which would then be a companion in her life, going with her as she married into another family as a reminder of where she came and to keep her safe. These dolls were then displayed next to the rest of the dolls in the family, as well as the ones bought throughout her life.


Other ningyo were made to ward off evil and bring luck to those who played with them. In modern times, what we think of ningyo are Hina Ningyo, elaborately decorated dolls that are displayed on tiers and are commonly associated with Hinamatsuri, a yearly holiday on March 3 to celebrate these dolls as well as young women in modern times.


History of Ningyo in Iwatsuki


My Dress-Up Darling x Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum

A brief illustrated history of ningyo dolls


Saitama City’s Iwatsuki Ward has been the home of ningyo since records began and became known as the home of dolls during the Taisho era. Walking around the area ahead of Hinamatsuri gave us the pleasure of seeing many elaborate displays of these ningyo in old machiya-style houses. The town embraces its history with countless ningyo makers in a lightly populated area — less than 120,000 people live in the area yet ningyo is everywhere. This is no doubt why Iwatsuki was inspired to be the home of Gojo’s family workshop in My Dress-Up Darling.


Iwatsuki, or at least the area where it now stands, has dolls in its DNA. The history of ningyo’s basic concept of figures with human faces can be traced back to the Jomon period and directly to the area where Iwatsuki now resides, with archeological digs in the township uncovering artifacts from the period of doll-sized clay figures, including a complete “owl-faced clay figurine”. Sadly, this piece is only on display at the Tokyo National Museum.


My Dress-Up Darling x Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum

A Jomon-era “doll”


How Fandom Hasn’t Changed in Centuries


On display at the Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum was one near-full collection of Edo-era “nisegao ningyo” dolls, and their various costumes. “Nisegao ningyo” were a type of doll made to resemble kabuki actors of the day, complete with different removable outfits and changeable faces to recreate fan-favorite moments from kabuki plays.


My Dress-Up Darling x Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum


My Dress-Up Darling x Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum


In another room of the museum was a collection of ukiyo-e prints from the same period of kabuki actors. Both the dolls and prints were usually sold close to the theaters, with prints regularly traded around with friends and fans alike, much like trading cards of today.


It’s interesting to see that even as modern technology progresses, humans never change. One could argue that Nendoroid — or even Marin-styled dolls — are just a modern take on “nisegao ningyo” with their changeable parts. The art and merchandise abundant in Akihabara is just the modern form of the old ukiyo-e prints, with people continuing to trade in the streets of Akiba to get that one card they desire.


My Dress-Up Darling Brings Ningyo Back Into the Spotlight


My Dress-Up Darling x Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum

The cuter, younger-looking, faces of modern ningyo are more popular these days


In modern times, whether it’s due to the cost of the dolls or the more traditional artisan form falling from favor with younger generations, ningyo sales have been steadily declining. Enter My Dress-Up Darling in 2018, a manga from Shinichi Fukuda who wanted to imbue realistic elements into her romantic comedy manga series.


RELATED: ESSAY: How My Dress-Up Darling Taps Into Cosplay Culture By Being Grounded In Reality


Before publication, Fukuda met with Iwatsuki ningyo maker Keisho Suzuki of Suzuki Dolls, a third-generation artisan who was more than happy to show Fukuda around the workshop and his house. Suzuki became the real-life model for Gojo, as well as his house and workshop, who then felt vindicated for his more modern style of ningyo dolls. This modern style of ningyo is dubbed “Bell’s Kiss” which takes youthful trends and creates dolls in those styles, which includes female dolls that have blonde hair – the first widespread use for ningyo dolls. 


This doesn’t come without problems: No supplier sells doll’s hair in blonde, only black hair. This means Suzuki has to bleach the hair himself, adding yet another layer of intricacy to the art form where he has to stay up to date with make-up and clothing trends, as well as somehow market these expensive dolls to younger generations.


My Dress-Up Darling x Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum

Suzuki Dolls workshop


The My Dress-Up Darling manga was an instant success, quickly nominated for some of the manga’s top honors and entering yearly top manga lists from industry professionals. For the first time in a long time, ningyo was in the spotlight – its kanji is even in the name of the series, though with a different reading. When the anime aired in 2022, the popularity of the series exploded, as did the sales of those “Bell’s Kiss” dolls.


Demand for these gyaru-styled dolls only increased as the anime continued, though some ningyo makers in Iwatsuki reject the modern styles, preferring to iterate on traditional methods not adapt to what sells.


My Dress-Up Darling at the Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum


My Dress-Up Darling x Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum

A poster to highlight the Iwatsuki ningyo exhibit


In 2020, Saitama City opened up the Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum to teach people the history of the art form, as well as promote ningyo in the modern day. Ahead of the event at the museum, Saitama City’s Tourism and International Exchange Division held a My Dress-Up Darling exhibition in the heart of Tokyo with a focus on the craftsmanship featured within the series.


The exhibit was then moved to Iwatsuki for Hinamatsuri to help bring people to the area during its most festive time. Part of the event also invited Suzuki to hold a workshop on how dolls are made with a hands-on demonstration, all the while collaborating with and supporting My Dress-Up Darling.


My Dress-Up Darling x Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum


A major section of the My Dress-Up Darling exhibit was held in the nearby Nigiwai Koryukan Iwatsuki building, a community space for workshops, free rooms and more. While the collaboration in Iwatsuki was small, it focused on introducing the series to those who might walk in, as well as showing Iwatsuki in the series — walking the streets before and after just solidified how detailed the recreation of the area was in the anime.


My Dress-Up Darling x Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum


Alongside life-sized standees of Marin in her usual fit and Shizuku Kuroe cosplay was a wall of animation keyframes that looked at some of the more tender moments from the series, including one of Gojo painting a ningyo’s face.


My Dress-Up Darling x Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum


My Dress-Up Darling x Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum


My Dress-Up Darling x Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum


Both the museum and Saitama City are hoping My Dress-Up Darling will be at the forefront of a ningyo renaissance. Though unfortunately, Iwatsuki hasn’t quite yet seen international tourists flock to the area from My Dress-Up Darling’s success — not helped by the pandemic completely closing Japan’s borders, just recently reopening in November. The series, as well as this collaboration event, has brought more local and domestic fans to Iwatsuki to learn more about what inspired the series. 


For those who want to check out the Iwatsuki Ningyo Museum for themselves, it’s only a short walk from Iwatsuki station on the Tobu Urban Park Line in Saitama Prefecture.


All photos by Daryl Harding, with special thanks to the Saitama City’s Tourism and International Exchange Division.




Daryl Harding is a Senior Japan Correspondent for Crunchyroll News. He also runs a YouTube channel about Japan stuff called TheDoctorDazza, tweets at @DoctorDazza, and posts photos of his travels on Instagram. Season two of My Dress-Up Darling can’t come soon enough!