“Be prepared for the fact that in Japan there is no sin, original or otherwise…” -Bernard Rudofsky in The Kimono Mind
The Japanese were obsessed with hedonism. Look no further than the gazillions of woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) for evidence. The merrymaking occurred in the Yoshiwara in Tokyo. Male artists created tens of thousands of designs showing the characters there. Their subjects included male and female courtesans and prostitutes, kabuki actors, and jesters, etc.
Another common subject was eroticism. The shunga sub-genre of this art shows explicit sexual images depicting caricatured genitals and sexual activities.
Prints of kabuki actors developed as sub-genre of ukiyo-e as well. Sharing the same patrons, the Yoshiwara became intertwined with the theater world. Actors themselves spent a great deal of time in the Yoshiwara.
Common townspeople bought the mass-produced ukiyo-e prints, which promoted the Yoshiwara. Artists made their living by glamorizing their renditions of Yoshiwara’s sights and activities. I must note that the women’s unattractive lives of slavery, disease, and premature death were neglected in the prints. We must be careful not to romanticize this world.
Nonetheless, the legacy of the artists’ work is a partial historian of those times. I’ve curated a roundup of some of the most famous ukiyo-e artists and their work.
The Emerging Art Form
Moronobu was the first to master the lines of ukiyo-e. He produced more than 100 illustrated books in black and white.
His scenes give us a peek at the happenings inside the Yoshiwara like no others do. He shows us teahouses where courtesans entertain lounging customers with music, dance, food, and drink.
Girls sat behind latices in showrooms outside the houses. There is one man inside with the job of matching the girls with the outside customers.
These kids are getting intimate. A robe’s already been thrown off. They’ve got their personal items strung around them (the sword and the instrument). He’s starting to sneak his hand inside her robe…
Creator of Evocative Women
Utamaro’s talent captured the subtle aspects of personality and moods of women of all classes, ages, and circumstances.
He created the famous shunga book, Poem of the Pillow, which is considered to be a highlight of the genre. In it, he explores conjugal bliss, violent rape, and fantasy.
In the most recognized image from the book (above), Utamaro created a sensual scene without showing the genitalia that was so prevalent in many images. The sensation of the woman pulling her lover forward is powerful. The nape of her neck is prominent, which drove the Japanese crazy.
Contact with Dutch tradesman was common at this time, and even they were captured in the shunga books. The proportions of this image are unflattering and the man’s eyes make him look like a barbarian.
It’s all about the genitals here! Her hat indicates that she’s a servant. Bent toes are a sign of passion to the Japanese. Since she’s hiding her mouth, we can’t really tell what she is thinking.
Another book, On the Road, Love Songs for the Thick-Necked Shamisen, shows homosexual activity that was common. The young man bends over to allow anal penetration while the older man licks his fingers. Do you notice the young woman peeking in?
Yoshiwara actors were often male prostitutes and engaged in homosexual relationships amongst themselves. These homosexuals flaunted their sexuality, much like you might see at a gay pride parade in San Francisco. Male brothel houses existed for a time, but not inside the Yoshiwara.
The Creator of Most Famous Print of All
Hokusai is known around the world for the collection 36 views of Mount Fuji, and notably Great Wave Off Kanagawa. You’ll see it everywhere in Japan. He broadened the style of ukiyo-e from courtesans and kabuki to landscapes, plants, and animals.
In the shunga genre, one of his greatest achievements is from his book Pining for Love. Not much commentary is needed for this creepy image. Although, I love that there are two octopi pleasing her.
Below, Hokusai shows an intimate scene between two ladies. One uses a sea-cucumber as an improvised dildo. But don’t think that there weren’t sex shops in Yoshiwara! You could buy whatever you wanted, including condoms embellished with knobs, clay dildos, and mechanical vibrators. Check out the rin-no-tama.
Prosperous and Prolific
Kunisada is the most popular, prolific and financially successful of all ukiyo-e artists. His reputation far exceeded all others. He produced over 14,500 unique designs. A majority of his subjects were kabuki actors because the theater was so popular during his time. Over his 50-year career, he illustrated over 750 plays.
This one is a gory depiction of an actor committing seppuku. Seppuki is suicide via disembowlment. They loved death scenes in the theater. The closer the violent re-enactments mimicked reality, the more they liked it.
His repertoire spanned the entire ukiyo-e genre. Below is a rural landscape with the geisha Koman of Minoya.
He is known for his use of bright colors and attention to detail. Below, the peeper brings a comedy to the piece, but the size of the penises and the concentration of the couple provide an interesting focal point.
And with this one, it feels as if I’m the peeper!
Hiroshige is best known for landscapes and re-creating famous scenes that people kept as souvenirs. Tourism was booming during this time, and Hiroshige created the art that fed it. There was an immediate demand for landscape prints after his masterpiece 53 Stations Along the Tokaido was released. Tokaido, the road between Tokyo to Kyoto, was an important commercial route. You can think of Hokusai as an early travel photographer!
“Two Brushes” is a collaboration between Hiroshige and Kunisada (see above). For each print in this spectacular series, Hiroshige created the landscapes and Kunisada designed the figures in the foreground.
Shunga designed by Hiroshige is rare, but he produced a few illustrated books.
The flamboyant world of Yokiwara came under attack a few times. As part of a particularly harsh crackdown in 1841, shunga and kayusha-e were banned. An artist during this time called Kuniyoshi got creative to get around this.
Look at the faces of the turtles. These are faces of famous kabuki actors. He’s also put stylized symbols on their shells worn by kabuki actors to identify themselves. A close look shows the patterns on the turtles are different.
Check out the intricate tattoo on the man’s back. Japanese decorative tattooing became popular during this time. It is likely that a woodblock artist etched this tattoo from a work of poetess Ono no Komachi, one of Japan’s thirty-six immortal poets.
While ukiyo-e presents a one-sided view of the Yoshiwara, it still provides historical context. It shows us the décor and fashion, the delicacies served at teahouses, and the talents of courtesans, both sexual and intellectual. And certainly the Japanese weren’t shy about their sexuality!
Do you have favorite ubiko-e artists? Do you find these images perversive? Let me know in the comments below!