Whatever Happened to the Self-Portrait of Hananuma Masakichi?

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.


A couple years ago, I came across the incredible story of the 19th-century Japanese sculptor Hananuma Masakichi in Umberto Eco's essay collection Travels in Hyperreality. After being diagnosed with tuberculosis, Masakichi decided that his last great project would be to carve a perfectly life-like portrait of himself out of wood, to leave behind for the woman he loved. The hair, fingernails, teeth, and toenails of the sculpture were all pulled directly from his own body. The above image is from an old postcard of the statue, which has the following caption:

The statue is composed of over 2000 separate pieces being hollow with the exception of the feet. The head, thighs, calves, and every member of the anatomy was carved separately and the whole put together. The joints were perfectly made, dovetailed, and glued together — no metal nails, only wooden pegs or pins beings used to fasten where necessary. After putting all the members together and finishing as far as the woodwork was concerned, he painted and lacquered the statue to give it the flesh and blood appearance; The hairs which adorn the figure belong to himself. He used clippings of his head and ears and each and every hair is bored for and put in one by one. The body hairs were actually pulled from his own body and put in exactly the same position as they occupied on himself. The eyes were also made by the artist and are the wonder of the oculist and optical precision.

And just in case this story wasn't poetic enough already, Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, which owns the statue, holds that Masakichi "later regained his health but lost his lover."

When I originally wrote about Masakichi in the Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society, the only information I could find about the sculpture's present whereabouts was a notice saying that it had once been on display in a Ripley's museum, but was put in storage after being badly damaged in an earthquake.

I called up Ripley's the other day to find out about the fate of the sculpture, and was connected to their archivist, Ed Meyer. He informed me that it got banged up pretty badly in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. "It was on a rotating platform, and it spun right off the rotator," he said. It took four months for a professional restorer to get Hananuma back into shape, however, "the hair still looks a little funny." The self-portrait is now back on display in Ripley's Wisconsin Dells location.

None of the Ripley's museums have yet been entered into the Atlas Obscura. But surely they all will be soon!

UPDATE: I found this picture at Sideshow World. Man or Image?! I guess that's the real Masakichi on the right.