In a few days we'll enter one of Japanese gosekku, traditional festivities of Chinese origin, widely know as Kodomo no Hi ("Boys' Day"), celebrated on May 5.
Originally this festivity was known as tango no sekku or shobu no sekku, and it was celebrated because it indicated the start of the rainy season: the purifying rituals to grant a nice harvest involved the built of a doll made of grass and irises ("shobu") serving as a yorishiro, a temporary lodging place for the spirits.
Later on, the "sharp" features of the irises started to be associated with swords and masculinity, and the rural festivity turned into a celebration for males and virility, counterparting the "Girls' Day" of Hinamatsuri.
Irises started to be used to build ritual kabuto, and the dolls started to assume the features of popular samurai or legendary heroes, whose heroic feats were considered a good omen for the strong and healthy growth of a boy.
As a fan of figures when I saw such dolls depicting Nobunaga, I foolishly thought that they were some kind of "scale figures", but the price and refinement left me a bit wonderous.
After a few researches, I realized that those were musha ningyo ("dolls of warriors") indeed, the dolls that used to be exposed in the house during shobu no sekko as auspicious for the boy's well-being.
this website, where you can see more.
Apparently Nobunaga wasn't popular as a musha ningyo back in the times when this festival developed its military characteristics.
Yoshitsune, Benkei, Empress Jingu and Kato Kiyomasa were the top-selling figures for the strong, masculine characters that they incarnated.
As the merchant class rose its sphere of influence, characters like Momotaro and Kintaro, coming from popular legends, started to pop-up on shelves and altars.
During the Meiji restoration, instead of the threatening look of old times samurai, the style developed a more refined and stoic attitude for the chosen heroes, now picked from the rooster of the Imperial family.
Mostly portrayed while sitting or riding a white horse ("tango"), the dolls can be displayed simply on a shelf or altar, or can be arranged on a "stage" decorated with auspicious symbols: a sword, a kabuto and arrows.
Similarly to the hina ningyo, they can be exhibited on platforms, but instead of fellow courtiers, the musha is accompanied by military and talismanic symbols.
Alternative or complementary displays for the musha ningyo are reproductions of samurai yoroi and kabuto.
Going straight to the point, these displays are quite obvious about the nature of the positive influence that they were expecting to have on a boy: courage, strenght, justice but first and foremost protection.
No wonder that they were used before the introduction of dolls, and artisans fought to make them every time more elaborated and precious.
After the Meiji era and WWII, the militaristic tone of the musha ningyo slowly disappeared.
Instead of being a festival for boys only it was "enlarged" to the whole population of children ("kodomo"), and the once fierce dolls started to turn into cute -but still somehow solemn, babies.
As this post comes to its end, I feel like sharing some interesting reads about the issue in case you feel like knowing more:
"Musha Ningyo: Portrait Dolls of Boy's Day", Pate, Allen Scott article from L'Asie Exotique;
"Japanese Dolls: The Fascinating World of Ningyo", Pate, Allen Scott the can be consulted partially on Google Books.