A cluster of rats

An ivory netsuke depicting a cluster of rats.

At once beautiful and a little bit strange (to my Western eyes, anyway!), this wonderful carving of a cluster of rats is actually a tiny (4 cm in diameter) ivory netsuke, made in Japan in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, and now part of the Japanese Art collection in LACMA. Netsuke are miniature sculptures invented in 17th century Japan as a toggle to secure a small pouch or container to the sash of a kimono. Although first produced to fulfill a utilitarian function, they evolved into objects of impressive craftsmanship which reflected many aspects of Japanese culture. As the first animal of the Chinese zodiac (which was adopted in Japan around 600 AD), rats (nezumi) were a popular motif in netsuke carving, which, according to the British Museum, were given as gifts to people born in the Year of the Rat. White rats in particular were seen as lucky in old Japan, believed to be a messenger of Daikoku, one of the seven gods of luck.

What strikes me about this sculpture is how the differences in Western and Eastern perceptions of rats might completely change the feel of this netsuke between viewers: a whimsical carving of a lucky symbol to one person, a gruesome depiction of disease-laden pests to another. But I think the curiousness of this particular object lays in the fact that it depicts such a thick clump of rats. The rat cluster seems too be far less common than single rat netsuke (although another great example exists in the collection of the Liverpool Museum), and I think that somehow the jumble of many little bodies together makes it feel particularly absurd (see also: a jar of pickled moles).

// Image from the online collections of LACMA. For any 30 Rock fans out there: doesn’t this netsuke also remind you of Dennis Duffy’s amusing description of rat kings? (Season 1, Episode 6).

 

Elsewhere on the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things:

A jar of pickled moles.

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17 thoughts on “A cluster of rats

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  3. whilst I by no means disagree with the observation about the wavy carvings on the side of the netsuke, as an owner and breeder of rats when I looked at the image I just saw an image of a typical nest of baby rats. Infant rats will instinctively cluster together, particularly when the mother is absent.

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  10. Looking at the bottom of this netsuke (is netsuke singular or plural? It feels plural…) I’m interested in the wavy carving that seems to go half way up the sides of this piece – as the top has been beautifully smoothed, this is obviously a deliberate effect. It seems that this is meant to represent water, and that this is why the rats are swarming. They are scrambling over each other to escape from drowning.

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    • I’m so glad I turned the follow-comments thing on – I would have never noticed the “water”… and would have never known about your site. I agree with Chelsea – ridiculously interesting (especially the live-snails-as-art concept)!

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  12. Bingo!
    Last week my husband and I were discussing our visit at the Museum of Art and Design in NYC in 2007. We went there because of a knitting exhibition but a beautiful collection of netsuke[s]. We forgot how it was called and didn’t bother to google, but that particularity, “a toggle to secure a small pouch or container to the sash of a kimono”, is brilliant.

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