Kunisada, Hagoita of Bando Shuka as Kijin no Omatsu

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Hagoita of Bando Shuka as Kijin no Omatsu, 1862. Oban.

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The prints from this short series represent the equipment used in the Japanese game of Hanetsuki. The game is played in the New Year and is somewhat like badminton, but played without a net, using solid wooden paddles called Hagoita and brightly coloured shuttlecocks. The aim is to keep the shuttlecock in the air for as long as possible in order to gain protection from mosquitoes in the coming year. The bright hovering shuttlecocks obviously in some way represent the mosquito and the batting action of the hagoita is also obvious. Traditionally the bats are decorated with pictures - often kabuki actors - and these are sold at special fairs called Hagoitaichi at Asakusa Temple in December.

The print is remarkable. A very special print effect called itama-mokuhan (imitation woodgrain) has been used to decorate the back of the bat. A superb actor portrait is superimposed upon that surface. The sides of the bat are rendered in grained three dimensions, the background to the whole image is a wonderful and brilliant bokashi shading and the brilliant shuttlecocks and balls decorate the foreground. The print is a masterpiece of detail and design, truly outstanding.

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 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, (the big round blobs above her head), an omen presumably, of her fate.

This is an outstanding piece of woodblock art. Brilliant carving, design and effects. Colour, condition and impression are all fine.

36cm x 25cm.