Late Edo Period villainy is captured in violent ukiyo-e prints

by Yoko Haruhara

Contributing Writer

In the waning years of the Edo Period (1603-1868), a darkness seized hold of the public consciousness and bloody murders, acts of arson and sexual scandal were rampant. Well, at least in Japanese art.

The 19th century saw the commoner class become ascendent, and Japan’s expanding cities fostered forms of entertainment that the chōnin (commoners) relished. With the shogunate weakened due to the intrusion of Westerners, who challenged Japan’s established political order, the government was no longer firmly in control. Consequently, lawlessness was more rampant, and storytellers and artists fed into the mass anxiety that overtook the capital city.

The “villain” phenomenon in art and literature provides modern-day viewers with a tangible sense of the Edoite’s lingering insecurity, and the special exhibition “Villains in Ukiyo-e” at the Ota Memorial Museum of Art delves into this world of Japanese outlaws with sinister ease. Divided into two sections across June and July, the exhibition showcases 220 woodblock prints of legendary villains from the late Edo and early Meiji (1868-1912) periods.

An actual thief, Jirokichi (1797-1832), inspired the creation of the character Nezumi Kozo (literally, “rat boy”), who was known for his nimble ability to scale walls and enter the households of warlords unnoticed. In the hands of talented kōdan storytellers, Jirokichi’s adventures delighted audiences. At the time of his capture, he was penniless, fueling the rumor that he had distributed his fortune to the poor, which turned him into a folk hero following his execution.

Kōdan storytellers were the first to popularize Jirokichi, incorporating the latest gossip and rumors into their performances. As one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the 19th century, kōdan in turn inspired ukiyo-e artists, who fashioned their own retelling of these stories.

There are two depictions of Jirokichi in the exhibition. The first, prominently displayed in the June showing and a highlight of the exhibition, is an 1874 print by the artist Shosetsusai Ginko (1853-1902). In it, Nezumi Kozo is illustrated in a dramatic pose as he grasps his sword hilt, slashing downwards in an attempt to fend off his captors. His arm is immobilized by tools that were commonly used to capture thieves at the time: a bamboo ladder and a T-shaped iron pole. His long, disheveled hair pegs him as a rebellious character.

The second Nezumi Kozo woodblock print, a diptych dating to 1857 that will be on display from June 30 to July 14, is by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865). Here the thief and his captors are in the middle of a wild fight on a dark snowy night, and the samurai vassals employ the famous shihō bashigo method, using four ladders to surround him. The depiction showcases the thief’s stout, muscular arms and legs. One “captor” tumbles down the ladder as the “hero” spears him, while the others cower in his presence.

With tensions heightened in Edo Period life it’s not surprising that parades were organized so the public could ogle at the latest execution. Luckily for us, today’s viewers can satisfy their bloodlust simply by appreciating this collection of fascinating woodblock prints.

The first half of “Villains in Ukiyo-e Part II” runs through June 27 at Ota Memorial Museum of Art, the second half runs June 30 to July 29. Tickets cost ¥1,000 for adults, ¥700 for students and admission is free for junior high students and younger. For more information, visit www.ukiyoe-ota-muse.jp/exhibition-eng/villains-in-ukiyo-e-partⅡ.