When I was a kid, I would often wish that characters from my favourite books and cartoons would come to life so we could play together.
Hiroyuki Nomura gets to live that fantasy every day.
But Hiroyuki is no child – he is a 51-year-old man. A self-described “Otaku”, which is Japanese slang for “geek”. Hiroyuki would rather live with his family of 17 dolls than have a relationship with a real woman.
All of his dolls resemble characters from his favourite animation shows, and they live in a room of his Tokyo apartment.
I’ve filmed in an array of strange situations, but this is probably the closest I’ll ever get to being in a real dollhouse.
Interviewing Hiroyuki on his couch, surrounded by his dolls, feels rather disconcerting, particularly when his most beloved doll, Tise, is perched right next to me.
Before Tise came along, his passion was collecting motorbikes.
Hiroyuki works as a window cleaner and he thinks reality is dull compared to his life with Tise and the other dolls.
“I dress and put make-up on them. That’s about it. When I’m working on my laptop and they are just sitting around … all they need to do is be there, and it’s already fun enough for me.”
During our interview, he struggles to define his relationship with all of them. He says he is not their boyfriend or their father – they are just special people in his life. Hiroyuki tells me that having these dolls is like being the manager of a big pop band.
Hiroyuki is proud of his collection. He takes them out, photographing them in some of Japan’s top tourist spots and then posting the pictures on his website. It is his attempt to counter the belief that doll collectors are social recluses.
Hiroyuki is one of a growing number of Japanese men who are withdrawing from society and shunning conventional relationships with women.
“Herbivore men”, “parasite singles”, “grass eaters” – are all terms that have been coined by Japanese society to describe Hiroyuki and other men like him. They are blamed for the country’s shrinking population and declining marriage rate.
The government is trying to encourage singles to tie the knot and boost the marriage rate by funding events like matchmaking parties.
But nothing, it seems, will persuade Hiroyuki to pursue a conventional relationship – he is committed to his dolls.
He says that after painting their eyes, he feels that a spirit lives within them.
“It might be hard to understand for people not interested in dolls but when you compare dolls in a shop and mine, they are clearly different. They are alive. You can tell that by their expression.”
Hiroyuki admits that part of the reason he prefers dolls is because real relationships can be complicated.
“I think many men here are disappointed by real women,” he says. “Dolls are the ideal image of women. They’re cute, nice and always smile at you. Real women aren’t like that.”