Erotic Japonisme, Shunga to Manga
In keeping with the anti-authoritarianism of the late 1960s and early ’70s, my parents weren’t too stringent about what they left around the house. So it was with the usual excitement of having discovered something “dirty” that I saw my first shunga (“springtime pictures”) woodblock prints at the age of six. My dad was an artist and frequently left books of pin-up art, nudes and those early issues of Playboy on the coffee table. The shunga prints, however, made a more powerful impression on me than any of the airbrushed bodies that Hugh Hefner gave the American public. The swollen, labiated, oozing vulvae and massive, veined, rigorously enthused penises in shunga represented the human sex organs undergoing a physical transformation that was dramatically outsized. Despite my ignorance of the realities of sex, I took them as symbolizing excitement and pleasure, which is how I see them to this day.
The best shunga resolves for me—as all good erotica does—the fundamental paradoxes of sex: delicious yet disgusting, necessary yet frivolous, captivating yet liberating, common yet forbidden. The way in which shunga achieves this is through hyperbole based on realistic detail and erotic drama. It is a highly stylized exaggeration of the sexual experience, one that depends as much on discipline and economy as it does on spontaneity and license. The result is a dynamic formality that is apt to eros, itself a paradoxical escape from social taboo yet an entrapment in carnality.
Anyone versed in Western art knows how profoundly and inextricably the Japanese way of seeing and rendering was assimilated into Impressionist art. Van Gogh, who had hundreds of ukiyoe prints in his possession, stated his esthetic use of these in a letter to his brother Theo: “My great longing is to learn to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, remodelings, changes to reality, so that they become, yes, like lies if you like—but truer than the literal truth.” Those prints hanging on the walls behind him in many of his self-portraits informed the expressive departures from literal representation that characterize his work. Edgar Degas’ renderings of bathing figures consist of postures lifted right out of the Hokusai sketchbooks, exemplifying how Japanese prints served as a catalogue of new ways to render the human figure. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec found an analog for the lively, spontaneous characters in Hokusai’s oeuvre in the pleasure dens of Montparnasse, thus opening depiction of that demimonde to Western art.
It wasn’t just figuration, pose and subject matter that found their way into the Impressionist canon, but Japanese spatial conception. Traditionally, Western art represented spatial relationships through a fixed viewpoint, or “vanishing point.” Japanese art represented spatial position through stacked planes, truncated shapes, and imagined viewpoints. Western artists discovered in the Japanese rendering of space that position, as represented by shape, and distance, as represented by order, brought forms to the surface, which had a clarifying effect on composition. Each object became strikingly present, occupying a distinct plane referred to as “floating space.” They blasted the shadowy and somber atmosphere of the nineteenth-century drawing room with vivid color, lively line and proximate surface.
Color in Japanese landscapes has an inner luminousness, a vividness that Monet and Van Gogh were quick to seize on. Bodies of water, clouds and geographic formations are reflective of divine force in Japanese art. Van Gogh writes to his brother from Arles, “You see things with an eye more Japanese, you feel color differently.” The vortexual swirls of water and clouds, the fractal patterns of breaking waves, the lava-like cragginess of rocks and the rough-to-gentle bifurcations of trees in Japanese art gave the West not only techniques of rendering nature, but a vision of nature as luminous. It could be argued that the Edo-period ukiyoe masters liberated Western visual artists to present the literal world as a powerfully figurative experience.
The High and the Low
Le Japon, oú jadis brilla tant de lumière,
N’est plus qu’n triste amas de folles visions.
–Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique
When Commodore Perry opened trade with Japan in 1854, agreements with Russia, Great Britain, America, The Netherlands and France facilitated an influx of Japanese art into the West. Many woodblock prints found their way to a shop at 22 rue de Provence, Paris, owned by Samuel Bing, a collector and purveyor of ukiyoe. Van Gogh, Degas, Lautrec, Monet and many other influential figures in impressionist art habituated Bing’s shop. In 1888 Bing launched his periodical Le Japon artistique, in which he announced, “This art is permanently bound together with ours. It is like a drop of blood that is mingled with our blood, and now no power on earth is able to separate it again.” This auspicious mingling consisted of formal and esthetic elements, as well as subject matter, which, in the prints and paintings of the Edo masters often consisted of social satire, gore and graphic sex.
While the Impressionists might have shocked the Parisian upper crust with their portrayals of the denizens of Montparnasse, they could not have depicted sexual acts in the way that the Japanese have always done. When erotic representation begins at the highest level of society, which in classical Japan was the Imperial court, and over the course of a thousand years becomes increasingly available to the lower strata, it carries a lesser charge of obscenity and salaciousness than it does in societies in which the ruling powers pretend to asexual piety and virtue, as in the Christian West. Emperor Daigo (885-930) had twenty-one empresses, imperial consorts and concubines, by whom he begot thirty-six imperial sons and daughters. Sex in Japan of that time was associated with power and sovereignty, not with the moral lapse known in the West as sin.
In the Heian period (794-1185), the last period of Japanese classical history, shunga had its beginnings. During the T’ang Dynasty (618-907), China’s capital, Ch’ang-an (modern Sian), was the cosmopolitan center of the East, influencing much of what was à la mode in Japan. The Japanese court of Daigo emulated the Chinese court of Tang Xuazong (685-762), for whom the Chinese painter Zhou Fang (730-800) produced works in several genres, including erotica. Zhou Fang depicted the life of the imperial court with its vast pleasure gardens and portly courtesans amusing themselves at games of chance, grooming, or flirting with courtiers. From Ch’ang-an’s Northern Quarter there issued a less aristocratic product: illustrated pornographic novels depicting the exploits of fashionable urbanites, Buddhist priests, Nestorian monks, Taoist magicians, merchants, sailors, politicos—a whole panoply of pleasure seekers. Unfortunately, only the non-illustrated texts of these books have survived, such as the Su nu ching (“Classic of the Plain Girl”).
The oldest extant erotic scroll in Japan is the Kanjo no maki (“The Scroll of Initiation”), also known as the Koshibagaki zoshi (“The Brushwood-Fence Scroll”), which depicts a courtier and courtesan of the Heian period fornicating in sixteen positions. The interesting thing about this work—attributed to a thirteenth-century painter Sumihoshi Kei-on and purportedly a copy of a 900-AD original—is that it has all the characteristics of Japanese erotic representation, most notably exaggerated sex organs. This suggests that there are traits unique to Japanese erotica, one of which is visual amplification of the erotic state. The subject matter, being of the Imperial court, speaks to the probability that these erotic scrolls were painted for people in court, and possibly for well-to-do plebes who conceived of royalty as being sexually charged.
The decentralization of power from Emperor Daigo to the Fujiwara clan of regents, who raised vast private armies to guard and enforce their power, thus creating the samurai class, had a decentralizing effect on the arts as well. The Hoegen Rebellion (1156) was an Imperial schism caused by two hereditary successors to the throne of Emperor Toba. His sons, Go-Shirikawa and Sutoku, sided with respective factions of the Fujiwara regents and two powerful samurai clans, the Taira and Minamoto. Go-Shirakawa’s allies were the regent Fujiwara no Tadami and the Taira clan; Sotoku’s were the regent Fujiwara no Yorinaga and the Minamoto clan. The sides clashed and the country lapsed into civil war. The outcome favored Go-Shirakawa, who became the new cloistered emperor in 1158. However, the fragmenting effect of this schism brought about Japan’s long feudal period. Several epics dramatizing the conflict and the exploits of the samurai during this period are The Tale of Hogen, covering the Hogen Rebellion, The Tale of Heiji, covering the rise and fall of the Minamoto samurai, and The Tale of Heike, covering that of the Taira samurai.
By the seventeenth century, Dutch explorers discovered Japan in a state of affairs similar to that of the Europeans in the Middle Ages. It was an empire fragmented by warring feudal lords, peasants generating the wealth and local lords and clerics collecting it. There were bloody executions in the town square, roving warriors acting as killers for hire, women stratified into domestics and prostitutes, children treated as miniature adults, and a virtual absence of civil infrastructure beyond that imposed by the armies of the ruling clans. The fine arts, which in the Heian period achieved a level of mastery surpassing even their T’ang Dynasty models, were, like everything else, put in service of the samurai junta and the merchant class.
From the best samurai films, such as Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro, and Kobayashi’s Rebellion and Harakiri, we see the samurai code of honor, bushido (“way of the warrior”), fighting for its life under the corruption and tyranny of both the Imperial court and clan rule, and against its obsolescence in the face of Western military technology (guns). This makes for great heroic drama. However, there were many mercenaries and masterless samurai who had abandoned the bushido, as portrayed in the original television series Zatoichi, which ran from 1962 to 1989. By the Edo period, while there were indeed genuine samurai in the employ of the Shogun, there was also a mercenary class of those who had sunken into something like the life of the German barbarians as described by Gibbon in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “In the dull intervals of peace these barbarians were immoderately addicted to deep gaming and excessive drinking; both of which, by different means, the one by enflaming the passions, the other by extinguishing their reason, alike relieved them of the pain of thinking.” We also see a thriving and powerful merchant class mimicking the decadence of courtly life.
The Floating World
Le Porno dit: il y a du bon sexe quelque part, puisque j’en suis la caricature.
–Baudrillard, De la séduction
The warring Shogunates and samurai clans fighting on behalf of vying Imperial successors formed mini-courts, if you will, popularizing the art and literature that had once been the domain of Imperial culture. Art and literature took on a more realistic strain, catering to the tastes of the warrior class and Buddhist priests who used it to proselytize to illiterate commoners. Among the emerging genres of this period were the Kegon Engi Emaki, which combined pictures with text passages to dramatize the history of the Kegan sect. Another was illustrated knock-offs of Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari (“Tale of the Genji”) and Sei Shonagon’s Makura no Soshi (“Pillow Book”), both Heian-period classics. These lowbrow takes of the classics were the early prototypes of the modern-day comic book, casting the originals along satirical and erotic lines. The Pillow Book spawned a whole genre of erotic “pillow books” (makura ebon), which used the seasonal and diurnal organization of the original to stage sex scenes. Notwithstanding their pop-erotic appeal, the makura ebon were used as sex manuals for courtesans, geishas and, of course, newlyweds.
From the powerful Buddhist church there issued a genre that has inspired the present-day manga comics. A twelfth-century priest, Bishop Toba Sojo, produced Chojugiga (“Frolicking Animal Scrolls”). Like Aesop of Ancient Greece, La Fontaine of Enlightenment France, and George Orwell of post-WWII Britain, Toba created fables in which animals parodied the human race. Satirizing the nobility and clergy of his time, he rendered comic picture-and-text scrolls of hares, monkeys and frogs engaged in a range of ludicrous activities, such as farting contests. These satirical sketches were sequential, reading from right to left and inspiring the eighteenth-century genre Tobae, an early species of manga.
Erotic media generally boom in times marked by significant technological advancement, as we know by the effects of the Internet. In Edo-period Japan (1600-1868), woodblock printing outstripped painting and illustration. Ukiyoe, which until the mid-eighteenth century had to be colored by hand, went polychromatic under the influence of Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770), an ukiyoe artist who, commissioned to produce a full-color calendar for his Shogunate patrons, gave Japan color printing (nishikie). Naturally, the habitués of Edo’s pleasure district, Yoshiwara, served both as the subjects and consumers of this higher-quality porn.
Edo (modern Tokyo) was a city to which young men migrated from all over the island for gainful employment in manufacturing, the arts and trade. The result was that its population was two-thirds male and game for those urbane entertainments which the unencumbered of all times have enjoyed: theatergoing, gourmandizing, gambling and debauchery—or, that failing, porn. By 1808 there were 656 rental bookshops in Edo—one for every 1500 people—where you could get your hands on shunga by masters such as Katsushi Hokusai (1760-1849), Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-1792), Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) and Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858). Though a 1665 edict issued by the Tokugawa Shogunate prohibited the production of erotic books, and an even stricter 1722 edict banned the production of all new books pending permission of the city commissioner, shunga flourished.
Like all morality-driven injunctions against products in high demand, this pressure only pushed the ostensibly immoral commerce underground, where it thrived on a level over which the Shogunate had no control. Artists like Hokusai and Utamaro, though renowned for mastery in highbrow genres, had to take refuge from the long arm of the law among the throngs of the great city. The publisher’s guild sent out warnings of the prohibitions to no effect—portrayals of samurai fornicating with geishas, pop-icon courtesans and actresses were all the rage and quite lucrative.
Feuilletez son oeuvre, et vous verrez défiler devant vos yeux, dans sa réalité fantastique et saississante, tout ce q’une grande ville contient de vivantes monstruosités.
–Baudelaire, Curiosités esthétiques
What killed shunga was not its attempted suppression by political force but obsolescence brought about by erotic photographs at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912). The advent of this technology, however, had unexpected consequences: the graphic arts were channeled into social and political satire and proliferated in the form of manga. The term manga is essentially a Japanese term for cartoons—that witty and satirical graphic representation which is probably as old as Japanese civilization itself. Caricatures depicting important personages with exaggerated penises were discovered during the restoration of the Horyugi Temple, which burned in 670. Akahon (“red books”), picture books based on fairy tales and folk tales, became popular during the late seventeenth century. The “yellow jacket books,” kibyoshi, originating as picture books for kids, ventured into adult-oriented satire and were popular during the An’ei period (1772-1781). Hokusai, a defining figure for modern manga, caricatured people from all strata of society in his twelve-volume book Manga. He produced and published this book at the age of 54 during the Tempo period (1830-1844), a time of famine, inflation and peasant uprisings, and it reflected the disillusionment that is the mother of all satire. Already a master painter, Hokusai subsequently became a best-selling caricaturist, whose Manga book made it to the 1867 World Exposition in Paris.
In 1862, Charles Wirgman, a foreign correspondent for the Illustrated London News, published the Japan Punch comic, which satirized the conflict between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Western nations. Running for twenty-five consecutive years and totaling 2,500 pages, the Japan Punch spawned a generation of artists who employed Wirgman’s word balloons and narrative techniques. George Bigot, a French artist inspired by Japanese art, published Tobae in 1887. These modern-style comics harnessed advances in printing technology and mail distribution, and reflected the unrest of the Civil Rights Movement of the early Meiji period. Fumio Nomura’s 1877 weekly magazine, Maru Maru Chimbun, offered its Meiji satire at a lower price than Wirgman’s and Bigot’s publications, thus managed to reach folks outside the scholarly and professional circles and widened Manga‘s popularity.
As the Taisho period (1912-1926) introduced a parliamentary government and Western democratic values, it looked as if this pop literature would continue to flourish. However, the Peace Preservation Law of 1925 almost completely quashed Japanese freedom of speech. As the political powers became more totalitarian, they yoked popular manga to the propaganda machine. Because both art and politics vie for popularity, originally subversive art, once popular, is often appropriated as an instrument of political persuasion. There isn’t a popular medium or genre that hasn’t suffered this appropriation and perversion in the hands of political power, and manga was no exception as Japan ramped up for World War II.
Always obey your parents, when they are present.
–Mark Twain, “Advice to Youth”
Youth culture grows not only out of a hormonal flush but an awareness of the lie of authority, especially when it perceives that authority as the author of its misery. After the Second World War, Japanese society wanted an escape from what the ruling powers had put them through. Manga magazines such as Shinso (“The Truth”) and Kumanbati (“The Hornet”) bashed Emperor Hirohito and the royal family. The kasutori, a low-grade pulp literature—kasutori is literally a rotgut liquor distilled from sake lees—made its lurid debut, paralleling the pulp-paperback boom in the U.S. Furthermore, as in any postwar society, the Japanese populace went into reproductive overdrive, as reflected in the sexsationalism and prurient sexology of the time. After the publication of the Kinsey Reports in the late 1940s there was a preoccupation with what was called hentai seiyoku (“abnormal sexual desires”). Magazines like Ningen Tankyu (“Human Research”), Fuzoku Kagaku (“Sex-Customs Science”) and Amatoria exploited the sexual preoccupation of Japanese society, titillating the public under clinical camouflage and scientific sanction with topics like homosexuality, lesbianism, fetishism and sadomasochism.
Cartoons and comics, which made up a big part of Japanese cultural commerce, also rode the sex wave. While masters of manga like Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) were achieving historic and international recognition for child-audience classics like Astro Boy, Black Jack, Princess Knight and Kimba and the White Lion, a manga genre called geika (“drama pictures”) emerged. These presented realistic graphics and relatively mature content for audiences at the teen level, mostly boys (shonen). Next came a girl-audience manga called shojo, written by women artists and mostly dealing with girls’ dreams and fantasies. Soft-erotic offshoots of these genres dealt with love, sex and sexual fantasies: shonen-ai (“boy love”) and shojo-ai (“girl love”).
The stylistic elements of this manga—huge eyes, childish features, elongated legs, enlarged breasts, pubic hairlessness—originated as popular graphical trends in the West, miming Western physiognomies and censorship evasion. The artist Tezuka introduced the facial features associated with modern-day manga, having appropriated the large, reflective eyes from Western cartoon characters like Betty Boop. The childlike faces of these characters populated the shonen and shojo genres. The wide-eyed innocence, candor, and guileless enthusiasm of youth, as expressed in these faces, made for more dramatic conflict with the sinister realities of the adult world in coming-of-age stories. The be-happy ethos of the 1980s, which put a sexual premium on Lolita-like innocence, emphasized the cutseyness of female manga characters. Finally, an injunction against the showing of pubic hair, which would have classified the more sexually graphic manga as pornographic, fostered a compulsory trend in barren genitalia and a compensatory display of sexual ripeness in the form of outsized breasts. Of course the American love of big boobs, as manifest in so many American cartoons, was also influential.
The Sino-Japanese compound hentai (hen, meaning “weird” or “strange,” and tai, meaning “attitude” or “appearance”) actually refers to the more bizarre, fetishistic subgenres of ero manga. These include tentacle sex, which is a monster-fiction projection of the famous octopus sex that Hokusai depicted in “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” in which creatures violate girls with their tentacles. Urotsukidoji (“The Legend of Overfiend”), the defining tentacle-sex hentai anime, originated as a censorship dodge. Toshio Maeda, its creator, wanted to create some original adult manga but had to avoid illegal portrayal of straight-up sex. So he employed tentacled monsters to suffice. By the time the law against genital depiction was lifted, hairlessness and monster rape were already popular.
Another Maeda anime title, La Blue Girl, takes a classic myth cycle—a teenager’s discovery of adult powers, destiny and evil—and turns it into a teen superheroine’s discovery of her sexuality, magical martial artistry, and nemesis in the form of a multiphallic monster that rapes her repeatedly. Another trend in hentai is shibari, the intricate bondage technique derived from the Sengoku-period (1467-1573) martial art called hojojutsu. A single piece of rope, traditionally about 7 meters long, is used to tie up the bottom (victim) with a series of knots. This erotic-bondage technique, which has become a favorite in the Western BSDM scene, usually appears in hentai titles where rape is involved.
Many hentai titles started as an eroge (erotic computer game), such as Bible Black, which is probably the most popular hentai title in the U.S. Bible Black takes off on the black magic theme, portraying high school students turned occultists. The high school campus is a common scenario in hentai, as the forbearers of hentai, the shonen and shojo genres, were a youth cult. Pornography and youth are closely affiliated, the young being better looking and possessing both the opportunity and ability to have lots of gratuitous, experimental and unaccountable sex. As initiation into adulthood involves first encounters with adult pleasures and pains, the drama generated by the ecstasy and terror of these first encounters makes for the true psychic content of hentai.
A manga artist who provides for a more esthetically urbane and addictively disturbing manga is Suehiro Maruo. Maruo is a master of the erotic-grotesque, infusing his work with an almost sneering mockery of social taboos and pop morality. Born in 1956 in Nagasaki (germane to his post-apocalyptic nightmares), Maruo dropped out of high school to work for a bookbindery and dedicate himself to drawing. His first work, submitted to Shonen Jump when he was 17, was rejected; his second attempt at the age of 24, however, met with success in Ribon no Kishi. He issued his first anthology Barairo no Kaibutsu (“Rose-Colored Monster”) in 1982. He has since produced Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show (1984), which was made into the anime feature Midori, and Ultra-Gash Inferno (2001), another anthology. Maruo’s manga has assimilated traditional Japanese stylistic elements in such a way as to express something weirdly original. It is as if he were simultaneously mocking normality with perversity and perversity with normality. His work puts the viewer in a realm without moral compass—that of the nightmare—where characters murder, mutilate, steal, cheat, lie, torture and cannibalize with the casualness of people in a dream. All of it is executed, however, with a finesse and stylistic discipline that is characteristically Japanese.
Originally published in WestEast magazine, Spring 2008. ©2011 Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.