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FORBIDDEN IMAGES: Erotic Art from Japan’s Edo Period, by Monta Kayakawa, (Trilingual: Finnish, Swedish, English). Helsinki: City Art Museum, 2003, 112 pp., 82 color plates, 3,800 yen (cloth).

Japanese shunga — erotic paintings and prints, some of the world’s most beautiful — remain indigenously unknown. Though there has recently been some reproductions in Japan allowed, the original works are almost never displayed. That such censorship should be thought necessary in 2004 is a curious anomaly.

A century ago law enforcers in Japan were confiscating erotic art because “it might cause the foreigners to laugh at us.” Now, more liberated countries are truly laughing at the spectacle of a Japan continuing to blot its imported Playboys and still hampering public showings of some of the finest works in its artistic heritage.

There are some exceptions, however. The recent “Happiness” exhibition at the Mori Art Museum had a small room off to the side, where those aged 18 or over could appreciate shunga by Hokusai, Utamaro, Kuniyoshi and other great artists. And abroad there has never been the same censorship as exhibited in Japan.

Last year, one of the finest of all shunga showings was held at and sponsored by the Helsinki City Art Museum. In partnership with the Transform Corporation in Tokyo, the show drew works from both private and public collections and was one of the largest exhibitions of shunga ever. “Forbidden Images” is the sumptuous catalog of the event.

All the major woodcut-print artists are included as well as sections dedicated to the “three greatest shunga series”: Hokusai, Utamaro and Kionaga. In addition there are interesting notes, a glossary and biographies of the artists. The reproductions by Art-Print (Helsinki) are superb and the editorial presentation is precise.

This is one of the first shunga publications to not only show uncut images but also to include the texts that form integral parts of the prints. Often in the form of dialogues, these texts are usually lightly humorous. For example, the dialogue that accompanies an image of a husband being fed sake by his wife emphasizes how, flaccid, he is plainly between bouts:

Husband: Tonight it feels particularly good,perhaps because of the moon-viewing.

Wife: Me too. I’ve climaxed five times tonight.

Husband: Let’s take a break and have a bit of sake.

Wife: You’ll only poison your body. Husband: You’re more poisonous than any sake.

Sometimes the text comments. A particularly strenuous series of poses carries the annotation “The stupid couple/ Trying to do it like in the shunga/ they sprain their hands.” While another couple is accompanied with “Going all out/ to copy shunga/ they get muscle cramps.” There is also, as in contemporary manga, vocal ejaculations (“Yes, yes! More, more!”) along with onomatopoeia such as “Tsupa, tsupa,” the sound of two mouths kissing and “nicha, nicha,” an unclassifiable but wet and sticky sound.

It is, of course, just this kind of plain rendering that disturbs authority — that and the pictorial detail. Depictions of Edo Period lovers, often fully dressed, still disclose an aperture or two for maneuvers. Both sexes are naturally equipped as we would all perhaps like to be, but so seldom are, and are earnestly engaged in love with a dedication far removed from the normal spheres in which we operate.

A frank depiction of genitalia is thus narratively necessary, but there are other reasons as well. As Timon Screech has told us in his masterly study of the uses of shunga: “The Western genre of the nude downplays the genitals. With so much erotic power inherent in the secondary sexual characteristics, it can afford to.” But the people in Japanese prints have few secondary sexual characteristics (though their clothing may have some) and there is “not much else of a bodily kind for shunga to show.”

This is perhaps one of the reasons for the magnification of male genitalia — a much remarked upon phenomenon. But there are, too, further reasons. Hayakawa quotes a Heian-period monk who told his students “if you draw the penis realistically, it’s not interesting. You must exaggerate it.”

Women are sometimes shown outsized as well, and here we may detect the curious egalitarianism of the shunga. Not only do men and women look alike, they also act alike. One of the hallmarks of the shunga (at least until the end of the Edo Period) is the amount of freedom and pleasure that the couple find in each other. The genre, in fact, creates a kind of sexual utopia in which the sexes are finally regarded as equal and their pleasures are seen as mutual.

One wonders why this should be when it is plainly not so regarded in life. Screech maintains that this fantasy was necessary since shunga intended to be not only erotic art, but pornography — that is, they were intended to arouse.

The appearance of shunga coincides with the urbanization of Japan, beginning in the 17th century. The cities were demographically unbalanced, none more so than Edo. Two-thirds of Edo were male, prompting the novelist Ihara Saikaku to call it a “city of bachelors.” At the same time this city was severely disciplined and not many could afford what pleasure quarters there were.

Shunga thus filled a need. They were, as Screech memorably says, “cheap, stainable and disposable.” Their use could take the place of a visit to a prostitute. A print, we are told by Hayakawa, cost about the same as a bowl of noodles, and was hence much less expensive than even the most modest street-walker. Print in fist, the purchaser could be assured of roughly the same experience as that of the more leisured and the more monied. Shunga were to be enjoyed, as a current saying has it, with one hand.

Despite claims of educational use (pillow books for ignorant brides), shunga were intended for fun. It is just this “cheap, stainable and disposable” quality that the authorities objected to. At the same time, however, they are still works of art — that is they were created with a concern and by a craft that removed them from mundane considerations and placed them in a timeless perspective.

This is precisely what the fine Helsinki exhibition showed observers, and now this beautiful catalog allows us to appreciate.

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