Kunisada, Iwai Hanshiro V in a scene from Yamatogana Heike Monogatari

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865) Iwai Hanshiro V in a scene from Yamatogana Heike Monogatari, 1824. Oban triptych.

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A tremendous and dynamic kabuki triptych by the great Kunisada, starring Iwai Hanshiro V as the ‘evil woman’ Omatsu. I cannot find a plot for the play and given the tremendous popularity of Omatsu as a kabuki villain, not very much exists about her roles. First and foremost, Omatsu was a hinin, which is to say an outcast. She was from a class that was shunned by the rest of society, reduced to being street performers or buriers of the dead.

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. She 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 a blind samurai named Shirosaburo; become an outlaw, and ended up as leader of the bandit gang. In the print we see the male, onnagata actor Iwai Hanshiro V as Omatsu, reading from a scroll in the left hand sheet.

These slightly archaic prints of Kunisada are among his best, filled with drama and extravagant brushstrokes. This is a very fine print, an outstanding design with very good colour and excellent impression. Overall the condition is fine although the centre sheet has suffered a little damage with a folding crease.  

Publisher: Itoya Yohei.

76 x 36.5 cm.