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Watanabe Ryoeki (mid-19th century)

Otafuku: “One Hundred Plain Women”

Six-fold screen, ink and color on paper
152.5 x 359.5 cm. (60 x 141 1/2 in.)


Artist’s seal:
Minamoto Yoshimi in

Strong colors, active figures, and a mood of gaiety characterize this late Edo-period screen. The women can be termed otafuku, either “plain” women or “moon-faced” ladies, and either description would fit the subjects of this charming work.

The activities include playing children’s games, cards, sumo wrestling, a backgammon-like board game, an incense ceremony, Japanese chess, painting, calligraphy, playing the biwa and koto, enjoying the tea ceremony, Doll’s Festival, dancing, a moon viewing party, expelling demons at year’s end, and cleaning for the New Year, this last with “Happiness” written on a fan used to expel dust. The ladies talk avidly face-to-face or in groups, all with great gusto and good humor. Any of us can imagine joining such a joyous group and greatly enjoying encountering the inhabitants of the scene.

The attraction of such otofuku paintings is perhaps best suggested by a poem written by Shokusanjin (1768-1829) on a painting of an otafuku done by Nakamura Hochu (active ca. 1790-ca. 1820) (fig. 1).

“A beautiful woman is not the equal of a plain woman in terms of feelings,
So one should not reject ‘twice’ full or ‘thrice heavy.’
Okame, Otaku, and Otafuku—
only such as these can end disaster and prolong life.”

The point would seem to be that beautiful woman are attended by the potential for problems of various kinds—”beauty is only skin-deep”—while those not so blessed in outward beauty are perhaps more likely to appreciate an attentive relationship and to respond to such with loyalty and warmth. Certain it is that all of these ladies radiate positive emotions, their very girth promising much maternal support and comfort. Among the earliest images of such figures are Kyogen masks called Oto and Otogoze that appeared during the Muromachi period. Otafuku represent an important aspect of Japanese society, symbolizing the humorous and happy women who bring us the gift of laughter. Many companies and shops have used such images as their trademark, so translation of otafuku as “ugly” is clearly inappropriate.

Active during the middle of the 19th century in Osaka, Watanabe Yoshimi, called Ryoeki, studied painting with Natsume Ryoyu; Ryoeki’s son, Syoeki, was also active in Osaka, a member of the Shijo-school of artists. Ryoeki’s seal on the present painting indicates that his family originated in the Minamoto clan, one of four great clans that dominated Japanese politics during the Heian period.

Fig. 1. Nakamura Hochu: “Otafuku,” Kaikodo Journal IX, Autumn, 1998, cat. 35, p. 107.

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