Kitagawa Utamaro
“Prelude to Desire” (Threads Leading to Desire)
- Monta Hayakawa / International Ukiyo-e Society

Humour is a very important element of shunga and an alternative name for shunga, warai-e (‘laughter pictures’), implies that the works are meant to be entertaining.

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) is famous in the world as an Edo-period ukiyo-e artist who also produced many distinctive shunga works. Most of these are monochrome in black ink in the hanshibon format, but he also produced three luxury books each with a set of twelve large (ôban) prints. These are the famous Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow, 1788), Ehon Komachi-biki (Picture Book: Pulling Komachi, 1802) and Negai no itoguchi (1799).

Negai no itoguchi is usually described as having a structure consisting of a preface of one sheet, twelve prints and a short story over three sheets, but this particular edition reproduced here also includes one extra print without any text. This would imply that this book was produced as a special edition.

The Preface contains a riddle that indicates the date of publication to be New Year in 1799, and at the end the preface author is listed as ‘Intôtei no Aruji’ (Master of the Inn of Debauchery), the identity of whom is as yet unknown, although there is one theory that it is Shikitei Sanba (1776-1822).

The thirteen prints in this work are considerably different in comparison with Utamakura, composed thirteen years earlier; the brush lines are elegant, soft and flowing. This particular shunga work shows the colours – purple, blue, red and green – almost completely preserved in pristine condition. In particular, what is sometimes termed as ‘Utamaro purple’ is magnificently presented.

Why Shunga is Important Today?
- Andrew Gerstle / University of London

Before we address the question above, let us first consider a perspective on shunga from the Edo period through a quotation from a shunga book, Genji on iro-asobi, published in Kyoto in 1681 by Yoshida Hanbei (active 1681-93). This is from the afterword and presents a case for the importance of shunga (and by extension the pleasures of sex itself) for men and women, ‘to give pleasure to one’s heart’.

‘Pillow pictures’ (shunga, makura-e) are the most important items for a bride’s trousseau. For men as well these are essential. If we ask why this is the case, the answer is that sex is essential to give pleasure to one’s heart. This is the reason shunga is found in the armour chests of samurai as well.

This quotation is, of course, making a case within shunga discourse to attract customers for books like these, which were sold commercially, but, I think, it nevertheless offers a succinct answer why a reevaluation of shunga is important today. Sex, sexual pleasure and the depiction of sexuality, the quotation simply puts, are an essential part of life, and we should celebrate this aspect of our existence. Such an attitude contrasts with that promoted in Japan and the West from the late nineteenth century as part of modern nation-building, when the suppression of sexual desire became a fundamental tenet of the modern socializing process, especially for women.

This view in Edo shunga discourse, of sex as a natural part of life for both men and women, was the defining response of those who attended the British Museum exhibition held in London in 2013, Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art. The popularity and extremely positive audience reaction to the exhibition showed that people – Japanese and non-Japanese alike – felt that shunga offered us a refreshingly healthy attitude to sexuality, and one relevant to life today.

During the Edo period a huge number of shunga books, prints and paintings were produced and have survived today in spite of modern censorship and rigorous government suppression. Most were the work of well known artists. A short list of major figures is most impressive: Kano and Tosa School painters, Hishikawa Moronobu, Torii Kiyonobu, Nishikawa Sukenobu, Okumura Masanobu, Tsukioka Settei, Suzuki Harunobu, Katsukawa School (Shunshô, Shunchô, Shun’ei), Torii Kiyonaga, Kitagawa Utamaro, Hosoda Eishi, Katsushika Hokusai, and the Utagawa School (Toyokuni, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi). Among these Utamaro is considered especially significant not only for the quantity of shunga produced but also for the artistic quality and liveliness of his works. This long tradition of high quality artistic works by famous artists distinguishes Japanese shunga in world history, particularly of the early modern era.