TOKYO (majirox news) – Beauty has fascinated artists as far back as art goes. So has sex, and sometimes they are inextricably woven together to make a work of art. No one is quite sure how long Shunga– Spring Pictures–Spring in this case being the Chinese and Japanese expression for sex –dates back. However, some scholars think they were already firmly established by the Heian era in Japan when nobles probably had a few risque picture roles hidden away for their viewing pleasure.
Some of the first examples we have are from the Kamakura era, which starts around the 13 century, but Shunga didn’t become a full- blown art form until the coming of multicolor woodblock prints called “hanga” during the early 1600s.
With the advent of the ukiyo-e movement in Japanese art, the woodblock print method developed during the Edo period (1603-1867) and the erotic art of shunga books soon became available to a mass audience. Ukiyo-e printing methods brought popular audiences to shunga, making it the sexually explicit manga/anime of its day. Merchants and housewives owned shunga. Samurai carried shunga books as good luck charms. Essentially, everyone at all levels of society owned them, from the lowliest peasants to the daimyo. Brides were traditionally presented shunga as a wedding gift. They were even circulated in rural areas via libraries. Shunga was hot.
Shunga stories usually portrayed fully-clothed characters with enlarged genitalia performing various sexual acts. Nudity was never a shame issue in Japan. After all, Japanese public baths were mixed gender. In anime/manga this sort of expression is referred to as hentai (sexually perverse or explicit). While the majority of shunga story lines were male-female heterosexual hentai, some shunga also featured male-male yaoi hentai and female-female yuri hentai sexual fantasies, just like anime/manga.
Masturbation was even a frequent topic. Just like anime/manga. However, artistic symbolism was more prevalent for sexual innuendo than the extremely graphic illustrations of sexual activity in anime. In other words, in a shunga story plum blossoms represented virginity. In anime nothing is subtle. Everything in anime is larger than life. Anime is in-your-face art.
The great ukiyo-e artists of the Edo Period, such as Katsushika Hokusai, produced shunga. One 12-page shunga book created with rich colors could support an artist for six months. It was a moneymaker for ukiyo-e artists then, just like manga and anime are in today’s Japan.
In fact, Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (Tako to Ama), which shows a pair of octopuses in a sexual encounter with a woman, could be considered the forerunner of amine’s controversial Tentacle Rape hentai genre. Tentacle Rape censorship being part of the current Tokyo edict.
Does shunga physically survive today? Yes, thanks to the wonderful printing techniques and paper stock. Shunga from even the Edo Period has survived. Shunga can be found for sale on Yahoo! Japan (YJ) auctions and Japanese on-line stores. There are more than 1,000 shunga items for sale on any given day on YJ. Depending on the vibrancy of the colors, the particular artist, the subject matter, and the condition, complete shunga books can be bought in the range of $100 to $5,000.
Be aware that most YJ sellers will cover the genitalia in their photos. This is done to attract a larger general art audience and keep the listings out of YJ’s Adult Only section. In the United States, Ebay has a policy of rejecting most shunga book listings. The several they do allow for sale in the general listings category are only from Japanese sellers, not US sellers, and are usually from the later Meiji Period. They are subject to Ebay’s limited Adult Only X-rated section.
Just like the current Tokyo government ban of manga and anime, the Tokugawa Shogunate attempted to ban shunga in 1661. Unsuccessfully. A perfect example of philosopher George Santayana’s comment, “Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Heather Russell is a writer for majirox news and CEO of Rinkya — www.rinkya.com