Kunisada, Scenes from Kabuki Plays - Bando Shuka as the Female Bandit Kijin no Omatsu

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Scenes from Kabuki Plays: Bando Shuka as the Female Bandit Kijin no Omatsu, 1850. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

Another terrific print from the later years of Kunisada’s output, and another outstanding piece of virtuoso printmaking. The block cutting is again peerless and the colours and technical achievement is of the highest quality. The print illustrates the very popular story of the mythical thief Kijin no Omatsu.

Omatsu, usually referred to as 'Evil Omatsu', is loosely based on an historical figure: a woman outcast who used her beauty to escape her origins. The popular version falls into the female poisoner genre. Omatsu is said to have become a courtesan, seduced, married and murdered Shirosaburo, a blind samurai, become an outlaw, and ended up as leader of the bandit gang.

The prevalence of female outlaws, poisoners, ghosts, bandits, outlaws and warriors in folk tales and in ukiyo-e and kabuki dramas represent two competing ideas… on the one hand, they may reflect the growing status of women as Japan moved towards post Tokugawa feudalism, on the other hand they may represent the fear and anger at what was perceived as a female threat to the social order of things. In early modern British society for example, the threat of women poisoners… particularly those who poisoned their husband was actually very small, but public apprehension of the threat was stoked by one or two show trials and the publication of block printed news sheets that whipped up a frenzy of fear and rage in the male populace.

Either way, Evil Omatsu was the subject of kabuki plays and the public were clearly thrilled at her exploits… albeit fictional. Here, Kunisada shows Bando Shuka playing Omatsu, carrying a baby and looking at the stars, an omen presumably, of her fate.

A very fine and dramatic print. As the detailed photograph partly shows, the robes of Omatsu are drawn and printed to create an extraordinary, barely believable three-dimensional effect.  The black geometric shomenzuri pattern shimmers against the grey and yellow spiky floral embellishment.  In contrast to this, other elements of the design are deeply incised and embossed. Colour, condition and impression are all fine.

Publisher:  Sumiyoshiya Masagoro.

36.5 x 25.5 cm.