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Blowing the dust off Edo Period erotica

by Victoria James

Special To The Japan Times

You always remember your first time.

Mine was on a subway train in central London, late one September afternoon. It was 1999, shortly before I moved to Japan. My impression of the country I would soon be living in had just been thoroughly shaken up.

Shunga, by Ishigami Aki, Uragami Mitsuru, Yamamoto Yukari and art directed by Takaoka Kazuya
Pie International + Pie Books, Nonfiction.

That was because I was reading, for the first time, about shunga: Japan’s infamous “spring pictures” that depict graphic and larger-than-life sexual couplings in every partner combination imaginable — including across species. The book was a study by Timon Screech, now professor of the history of art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Back then, Screech’s book was the first full-length scholarly treatment in English of shunga and the Edo Period culture that created it. As if to reinforce its academic intent, the book contained only a few discreet color reproductions of these.

These days, shunga is mainstream both in terms of its accessibility to the public — confirmed by a major exhibition at the British Museum in 2013 — and its place on the spectrum of shock, with far more extreme images just a click away online. So it is perhaps inevitable that the time would come for a book treatment that wears its learning lightly, and instead put the images themselves front and center.

Enter “Shunga: Aesthetics of Japanese Erotic Art by Ukiyo-e Masters,” published by Japan’s Pie Books and Pie International. The text, by Japanese scholars Aki Ishigami (a curator for the British Museum exhibition) and art historian Yukari Yamamoto, is minimal. Instead, the volume is crammed with gorgeous full-page illustrations, including double-page spreads of entire images and hugely magnified details. Appropriate to its well-endowed subject matter, the book is of outsize proportions: 30 by 21 cm and 600 pages. The paper is textured and creamy to the touch, and the colors are faithfully reproduced.

It’s not a facsimile. The portions shown in detail are far larger than they would be in a real “spring picture.” Instead, these close-up segments serve to “curate” the viewing experience, singling out elements of the prints that may be overlooked in favor of their, ahem, more attention-grabbing aspects. The covers prepare you for the sort of details picked out. While the front shows an elegant touching of tongues and lips, the back reveals a woman’s nipple being bitten and tugged by tiny white teeth.

There are close-ups of the gorgeous curled toes of the ecstatic ladies in several of Kitagawa Utamaro’s illustrations from his “Warai Jogo” (“The Laughing Drinker”) picture book. Elsewhere, hairy forearms eagerly wrap around a fold of soft belly-flesh; every wiry hair is outlined in the sparse thatch of a woman’s pubis or on a man’s tight scrotum. There is, inevitably, a full-frame of exposed female genitalia, like some exotic, wrinkled red fruit.

Sometimes these details are given to rebalance aspects of a print’s story. One of shunga’s more unsettling works is the attempt upon a young maiden by a “coarse old man” from Utamaro’s genre-defining book, “Utamakura” (“Poem of the Pillow”). Previously, I had somehow neither noticed that the girl is biting the forearm of her assailant, nor that the fingernails of her right hand are gouging — unseen — into his unshaven cheek.

It’s not just bodies. The furnishings of the rooms in which the lovers grapple and couple make their own bid for our attention. There is a lovely yellow teapot nestled between the fretwork stand of a lantern, an elegant lacquer box holding tobacco accessories, the braided scabbards and embellished handles of two katana (laid neatly upon the tatami), a porcelain dish of appetizing sweetmeats, and an abandoned book of calligraphy.

These details are compelling, such as the portable iron candelabra, stood upon a tree stump in a dark pine forest in which a bandit waylays a young lady. At least, at first I thought it was a bandit — his fingers seem to pull at her clothing brusquely enough. But then I realize that, if it were an assault, one of them would hardly have carefully set down the candlestick. The candles (now extinguished) must have been lit by one of the lovers to guide their partner to the nocturnal assignation. Here and elsewhere the clever selection of detail and the subtle reframing of familiar images redirects, and re-educates, our gaze.

It’s extraordinary how far appreciation of shunga has come in less than two decades. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, when legal changes finally made possible the publication of these graphic works, that shunga opened up as a field of academic study. Screech’s work was the first, and arguably remains the definitive monograph (it was revised and reissued in a second edition a few years ago). The catalog to the British Museum’s shunga exhibit is a both magnificently illustrated and offers a comprehensive array of scholarly contributors.

So does the market really need any more books on shunga?

I was skeptical at first, but this sumptuous volume convinced me otherwise. The commentator’s voice is almost entirely absent as text, but it is as though someone stands at your elbow while you leaf through the pages, directing your attention to this detail and that. In the process, these erotic prints give up their secrets afresh: as art, as social document and, yes, as beautifully filthy, often shocking erotica.