Exploring Kunichika's "36 Good and Evil Beauties"

I was first attracted to this series when I saw this image of "Uba Shizue of Nabeshima" Praying Under a Waterfall for the survival of Botaro.

Shizue under the waterfall

In one version of this story, the young Botaro's father was murdered by his fencing master, who was jealous that his skills would surpass his own. Botaro spent his life training so that he could avenge his father's death, but the fencing teacher imprisoned him, planning to murder him as well. Botaro's faithful nurse, Shizue, did penance under a waterfall, praying for the boy's release, which was granted. The image of the deathly pale woman bowing under the weight of the waterfall. The overall lack of color adds to the focus of the image on the woman’s harsh plight and resolve. On further research, I learned that this was one of a series of 36 images of virtuous and infamous women of Japanese history and legend. I was totally enthralled by the concept and images in the series and was determined to collect them all.

Toyohara Kunichika designed this series in 1876

Kunichika was already quite accomplished, designing Bijin-ga, or beautiful women prints and this is considered the best of those series. What makes this series unusual is that the women are not the conventional, stylized geisha portrayed against lavish backgrounds, they are women in their element depicted at seminal and often emotional moments in their lives. This imbues the images with a purpose and energy that is invigorating when compared to more conventional images of the period. We cannot casually ignore or dismiss them. Many of these women, were also depicted by ukiyo-e artists such as Kunisada, Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi, but as a series, Kunichika's renditions are the most consistently powerful and beautiful.

All the prints in this series have a similar composition.

The woman of note is in the foreground, with their face in 2/3 view usually looking downward to the left or right. The body is usually in 1/2 view which can include the body from the mid thigh, or torso upwards. With the exception of a few images, the kimonos are amazingly detailed and rendered. The block cutters did a fantastic job with the patterns on the cloth, the folds, layers, and intricate details. The backgrounds of the prints are provided to enhance elements of the story and don't pull focus from the main character. The cartouche above each of the women explains the story behind the image. Unfortunately, I don’t have translations of all the stories (yet). The cartouche is decorated by lightly colored versions of the circular Toshidama seal. The Kanji that tells the story is small and includes Yomi-gana to assist with the reading of the difficult Kanji. With details as fine as this, I’m sure the blocks wore down quickly. I only know of one edition of these prints, I don't believe the blocks were ever re-carved and reissued by later publishers.

Amy Reigle Newland's book “Time Past and Time Present, Images of a Forgotten Master” displays several images from this series. For any Kunichika enthusiast, this is the best English language reference. Of this series, Newland says

“Thirty-six good and evil beauties (Zen-aku sanjūroku bijin)... of 1876 is arguably one of Kunichika's most accomplished forays into bijinga. The quality of printing is superb. His treatment of the subject is fluid, the women portrayed energetic, wild, their poses at times reminiscent of those encountered in the work of earlier artists like Kuniyoshi and Kunisada…” 

36 good and evil beauties by kunichika

Next I'd like to explore several of my favorite prints from this series, beginning with this first image of Kaga no Chiyo. Fukuda Chiyo-ni was a poet and Buddhist nun. She was one of the greatest poets of Haiku. She began writing Haiku at age seven and became nationally famous at age seventeen. She blazed a path for other women poets to follow. She is best known for a Haiku called "Morning Glory":

"Morning glory!
the well bucket entangled, 
I ask for water."

This relates that she would rather ask for water somewhere else than disturb the morning glory that has grown around the bucket at the well.

The first thing that strikes the viewer is how delicate and gentle this image looks. This is due to the graceful pose of the subject as she lights the candle, and the simple fabric of her evening kimono and mosquito netting. The background is empty except for the gradation of candle light on the wall. There is a pop of color in the candle flame, her lips, and the obi around her waist. The cutters here did a wonderful job on the translucency of the mosquito netting and the figure behind it.

Dakki the strangler

From such a gentle image, let's jump to it's polar opposite with “Dakki the Strangler”. In Japanese literature, seductive but murderous women are often referred to as Dakki. This image depicts a geisha possessed by an evil fox spirit. Dakki was obliged to marry the cruel tyrant Teishin. A nine-tailed fox spirit serving the goddess Joka, who had been offended by Teishin, went into her and took possession of her body. The spirit, under the appearance of Dakki, and her new husband, planned cruel plots and invented many tortures.

In this print, we see her violently engaged in strangling a priest or pilgrim. She looks upward with an intense expression, her hair in disarray. The background is a stark black graduation that makes the characters pop. All we see of the priest is his back and battered straw hat as he reels back gasping for air. The fact that we can't see his face, except in our imagination, makes this image even more intense. In contrast to most images in the series, Dakki's kimono is very simple with no decorative pattern.

Sonezaki Shinju kunichika

We move from a demon possessed woman to a tragic woman. This print shows the heroine of a kabuki drama, Sonezaki Shinju. The play dates from very early in the eighteenth century and is notable for being the first kabuki drama about townspeople rather than heroes or aristocrats. In this play, the prostitute Ohatsu falls in love with the clerk Tokube. Tokube is betrothed against his will to his employee's niece, the dowry is misappropriated and used by the evil Kuheiji to entrap Ohatsu. The situation for the lovers seems hopeless. Broke and pursued from all sides they hide out in a wooden hut. Kuheiji taunts Ohatsu whilst Tokube hides under the step. Ohatsu talks loudly of her suicide to Kuheiji and removing her sandal, she dangles her foot in front of her concealed lover… this is the sign that she intends a double suicide. We see her with an umbrella in one hand and in her other a straw sandal.

Her gaze is fixed on the sandal, since it determines her fate. Her kimono is of a simple design, probably fitting for a woman of her class, but also this simple pattern and subdued color allows us to focus on the important aspects of the scene. The background once again is a simple color gradation. The kimono and obi melt into the left bottom of the print with the yellow flowers on the ground.

tragic figure, Kesa Gozen

Next we have another tragic figure, Kesa Gozen. Endo Morito, the son of a minor courtier became infatuated with Kesa despite the fact that she was married to a palace guard. He bullied her until she agreed to his advances on the condition that he murder her husband. She concealed herself in her husband's room having first cut off her long hair. Morito stole into the room and cut off the head of the sleeping figure only discovering later that he had killed the object of his desire. 

Here we see her sitting at her mirror getting ready to cut off her long hair that spills down her right shoulder. The right hand holds the razor, the left grasps her hair. with a razor. The mirror on the lower left, is wrapped in a flowered print cloth. Her kimono is deep purple with a water pattern. Her face shows determination but even a touch of happiness revealing that she believes she is taking the right path, since it will protect her husband. The background is a dark gradation, that helps highlight the scene. 


Princess Sayo of Matsuura

This next print is of the Princess Sayo of Matsuura in Hizen province. She sits on a rocky cliff bidding farewell her husband Otomo Sadehiko sailing away in a battle ship. She cried so long that she became a stone. The stone was nicknamed as "Weeping-wife Stone". What I love about this print is the execution of the hair and kimono. Her hair is beautifully carved and one can sense the wind swirling around her. The kimono is very intricate and detailed. It is hard to tell where the kimono starts and the rock begins as she transitions from human to stone.

Courtesan Tamagiku Jade Chrysanthemum 36 beauties

This print depicts the Courtesan Tamagiku (Jade Chrysanthemum). During the *Kyōhō era there was a courtesan named Tamagiku at *Nakamanya in *Shin-Yoshiwara Kado-cho district. She excelled not only in her beauty but also in various arts. Customers of course, tea-house owners, boat lodging operators, letter messengers all enjoyed her generous nature at the hight of her golden days. However, at age of 25 she caught an autumn cold. Neither the herb roots nor the tree bark remedies could help her. Soon after she wilted like a winter chrysanthemum and passed away.

In July of the next year at the first Bon (Festival of the Dead) after her death for the repose of her soul the Katobushi (a kind of Joruri - narrative with low pitched shamisen music) was performed, and the district was decorated with Bon Festival lanterns. This has become an annual event since that time. The gentle silk fabric blowing in the wind behind her completes the composition. Her elaborate hair style, and elegant kimono is striking.

That Person Otoyo

"That Person Otoyo" is a particularly interesting print.
It is the story of Prince Nabeshima and his beautiful mistress Otoyo. One night a vampire cat kills Otoyo and assumes her form. In the guise of Otoyo, the cat nightly drains the life of the prince until a guard accidentally notices Otoyo in the form of the cat; however, she escapes to the country and continues to attack people. Prince Nabeshima organises a hunt and the vampire is eventually killed. In the print, the lantern on the left casts the shadow of the vampire cat’s head and ears on the screen in the foreground.

That Person Otoyo

Ǒiso no Tora (The Tiger Maiden of Ǒiso).           
The Tiger Maiden was called the best courtesan along the highway. She gave herself to Jurō, one of the famous Soga brothers. Despite several seduction attempts from other lords she remained faithful to him. After Jurō took revenge on his father and was killed, she shaved her hair, renounced the world and held a memorial service for him. I think this print is especially beautiful. In her hand she holds a rolled up letter - perhaps notifying her of Jurō's death. Her striking teal and burgundy kimono is in disarray due to her emotional state. The addition of flowers and colored strings on the left side is a nice touch and softens the composition.

I have only elaborated on a few of the 36 prints, as you can imagine each has a compelling story and high-quality design. Our gallery does have several of these prints for sale since I seek them out and buy duplicates when I can find them. If you have any online resources to add please provide them and I'll post them to this article. You can see our permanent collection here.

Happy Collecting!