Kunisada, The Female Bandit Kijin no Omatsu

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) The Female Bandit Kijin no Omatsu, 1851. Oban.

Click here for a detailed enlargement.

We have two prints… almost sister pieces in fact, of the legendary female bandit  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. Kunisada was especially fond of Omatsu and portrayed her at every opportunity, another indicator of his and Kuniyoshi’s interest in strong and powerful women, not only that but also a reflection of Edo’s changing (although brief) emancipation of females.

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 husbands, 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. This print appears to be relatively unknown, Colour, condition and impression are all fine. Very fine shomen-zuri printed over the bokashi patterns.

25 x 36 cm.