Japanese Woodblock Prints: Three Women from the 100 Ogura Poets

Three Women from the 100 Ogura Poets

By toshidama

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The current show at the Toshidama Gallery has three sheets from the peerless series of woodblock prints A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets of 1847. This series of 100 prints is one of the outstanding achievements of woodblock printing in Japan in the nineteenth century. Commissioned by the publisher Ibaya Senzaburo in 1845, the series is the joint work of Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige and Kunisada: the three most exceptional woodblock print artists of the age. All of the prints in this series are beautifully composed, drawn and printed and they exhibit a remarkable conformity of style. The edition was one in a long line of anthologies which gathered together the canon of great poetry going back to the eighth century. Whilst there had been previous attempts by artists to anthologise and illustrate the great poems, notably by Hokusai, and Kuniyoshi himself, this was the first major work to be completed. Chosen somewhat randomly, the three pieces shown here illustrate various famous women from history and mythology. Obscure women, they all share characteristics that reflect a growing awareness of social change and a respect for the strength of females that might be surprising to outside observers of a culture that was to some extent still buried in medieval class structure and technological development.

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Hotoke Gozen, Tamamo no Mae and Iga no Tsubone are all exemplars of women who were single minded, strong and independent… certainly independent of a patriarchal culture that at least outwardly seemed intent upon subjugation and obedience. It’s unusual, to say the least, that the artists and publisher would have chosen women who openly walked away from convention were it not part of a popular expression of contemporary culture.

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The story of Hotoke Gozen is quiet and greatly moving. A sixteen year old dancer, she was introduced to a despotic and powerful samurai, Taira Kiyomori, by her friend Gio. Preferring the younger girl, Kiyomori dismissed Gio and, unable to betray her friendship, Gozen and Gio retreated from the world together and became nuns. This clearly represents a symbolic rejection of the traditional hierarchy – a gesture designed to undermine the mighty despot’s assumption of power and natural right to control the world.

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Iga no Tsubone  is a representation of courage and fearlessness and a subject greatly favoured by ukiyo-e artists. Iga’s act was to exorcise the ghost of an unhappy general who had taken the form of a mighty bird. The ghostly bird was of course a gift to woodblock artists and Yoshitoshi and Kuniyoshi made various more or less gruesome depictions of the young woman dismissing the phantom apparition. Spectres, ghosts, hauntings were very real concerns for people in Edo Japan. The presence of the supernatural was, like in Europe in the middle ages a real and constant threat. Iga represents not only strength here, but also compassion and single mindedness – strength traditionally being the male and not the female virtue.

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to the third of these tough women, Tamamo no Mae (pictured bottom of page) is the most enduring of all of them. She is also the strongest and most masculine. The story concerns the Emperor Toba (1103 – 56), who in retirement takes Tamamo no Mae  as a mistress. He begins to sicken and fall gravely ill. It is discovered through magic that Tamamo is in reality a nine tailed fox (kitsune)  who is bewitching the old Emperor. Altars are erected and the witch is exorcised. She is hunted down and when killed, transforms herself into a sesshoseki or death stone (pictured below right). It is said that touching the death stone or even looking at it is fatal. Tamamo lives on though, in contemporary representations such as the one at the top of this page. Her story has found new adherents amongst the modern anime community. A quick search in Google images reveals representations of her that span at least 150 years – this shining, elegant and vengeful angel. Mysterious as the fox, as terrifying as a disease and as beautiful as a goddess, it seems that Tamamo has become a popular emblem for young females today and for romantically inclined young men, albeit young men who rarely leave their basement rooms.

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It is lazy and easy for westerners to look at traditional Japanese culture and picture Japanese women as Geisha (whatever that means); compliant entertainers, not bold enough even to have real sex. If you believe that sentimental ideal, Japanese women of the nineteenth century were dolls to be put on shelves and dusted off in the evening, admired for their skills at pouring tea and playing a single stringed instrument for the entertainment of powerful men. How much more inspiring and vital are these three portraits… women who are every bit as bold, destructive, compassionate, brave and individual as their male counterparts.

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