- The Return of Seduction
The cover of Rosina Buckland’s book, Shunga: Erotic Art in Japan (here after cited as Erotic Art), depicts the rapturous heads of a couple, kissing with their mouths open, tongues engaged, and eyes closed in a visible display of pleasure. The image projects passion and intimacy, but it is also rather chaste as a representation of sex, showing us only the heads and necks of the lovers. The actual woodblock print from [End Page 437] which this cover detail is excerpted, the middle image of Torii Kiyonaga’s 鳥居清長 The Scroll for the Sleeve (Sode no maki 袖の巻, 1785), in fact shows the full explicit scene of the couple during coitus, with the right-hand side of the print detailing the woman’s vagina, which holds the man’s largely obscured penis as he embraces her from behind and she holds up her left leg to allow easy entry. The image on the cover seems to present a visual argument for the primacy of idealized intimacy, making it useful as a public-facing, “family-friendly” representation of Japan’s early modern visual culture. The full print contained within the book’s pages, on the other hand, conveys the messy and vivid encounter of two bodies having sex. The gap between the two hints at the challenge of displaying and indeed studying early modern Japanese erotic art or “spring pictures” (shunga 春画), a key genre in the well-known field of “pictures of the floating world” (ukiyo-e 浮世 絵). This essay examines several recent exhibition catalogs and monographs that illustrate the visual culture of early modern Japan, including but not limited to erotic art, to consider the history and ongoing allure of shunga and ukiyo-e inside and outside of Japan.
Buckland’s Erotic Art is not, strictly speaking, an exhibition catalog, but rather a history of the production of shunga “illustrated with artworks in the British Museum’s collection, many previously unpublished” (p. 7). The book begins with an overview of Japan’s erotic imagery, touching on attitudes, usage and formats, social and cultural contexts, and censorship. This section, like most pages of the book, is amply illustrated with full-color reproductions of prints and paintings that depict everything from courtesans with their lovers to cheating wives and husbands, with plenty of attention paid to singing and dancing among other activities in the period’s houses of prostitution. The second section, “Features of shunga,” details the contents of these erotic images and focuses considerable attention on correcting mistaken assumptions and beliefs among modern and Western viewers. Buckland notes, for example, that the majority of people shown in shunga were not sex workers but ordinary men and women; even when courtesans did appear, it was usually in encounters with their private or secret lovers rather than with clients. Buckland also emphasizes that the majority of shunga highlight pleasure rather than dominance, and they frequently display individuals or couples in the throes of passion while rarely displaying violence.
The point here is to counter the perception of shunga as pornography, with all of the negative perceptions that adhere to that term. By [End Page 438] analyzing the content of the prints to emphasize female agency, diverse but recognizable characters, and a culture of intimacy that feels recognizable, this book seems to make the argument that the genre of shunga possesses positive, universalistic qualities. This is a compelling argument. Yet the...