Kunisada, A Collection of 5 Brave Women - Ocho

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) A Collection of Five Brave Women: Kawarazaki Gonjuro as Ocho, 1861. Oban.

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Representations of strong women increasingly entered the world of Japanese prints as the nineteenth century wore on. In archaic, or early manifestations of woodblock prints, women are represented primarily as decorative, sexually available or useful… by which I mean as washerwomen or shell divers or fisher-women and such like. Their presence reinforced the ukiyo, the ‘floating world’ vision of sexual decadence, of endless uninterrupted time for pleasure.

The nineteenth century by contrast was grim and becoming grimmer. The town dominated, urbanisation became the norm and people were forced into smaller spaces and needed to compete fiercely to make a living. As revolution loomed in the early 1860’s, social order started to break down and the anxiety of the government and authority was reinforced by sumptuary laws. The strong woman became a trope that perhaps had more to do with male anxiety than a regard for feminism. Print series reflected new roles in kabuki and female bandits, female poisoners, female murderers, and female warriors started to become common subjects for both art forms. This series from 1861 reflects that change. Unfortunately, like many of these individuals, the life of Ocho has disappeared from history, but here she is… played by onnagata actor Kawarazaki Gonjuro, (women were forbidden to act) not a bandit I am guessing, but a townswoman, working class and a heroine of some tale of injustice and cruelty.

It is a great print from a highly regarded series. There is delicate embossing on her robes and mica sprinkled on the top of the dark background. Colour, impression and condition are all very fine.  A full set of the series is held at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Publisher: Tsujiokaya Bunsuke (Kinshodo).

37cm x 26cm.