Video Podcast No. 2: "The Shunga of Nishikawa Sukenobu"
Narrated by Sati
The shunga prints and erotic books designed by Nishikawa Sukenobu are easily distinguished by their beautifully balanced compositions, their attention to details such as textile design, and the gentleness and innocence that his characters radiate. Those qualities are clearly evident in his book “The Fashionable Game of Colorful Shells,” both volumes of which we display here, side by side. However, the illustrations also reveal other significant aspects of his personal approach to shunga.
Notice, for example, the couple reading the handscroll on the left page of volume 1. Are these two women, two men, or perhaps a man and a woman? I‘ll let you explore our section on gender along the free-standing partition behind you, and after that, you can return here and answer the question for yourself. For the time being, however, suffice it to say that Sukenobu intentionally obscured the observable differences between men and women.
In the image on the right page, the artist displays his marvelous sense of humor. To add a bit of fun to their lovemaking, a couple has decided to dress up the man’s penis in a doll’s kimono and has inserted a tobacco pipe down one of the kimono’s sleeves as if the penis were carrying a walking stick.
In the second volume of the book, displayed immediately to the right of volume one, we find another image that is equally surprising but quite a bit more disturbing. The woman’s headdress indicates that she is a nun, and from her posture she appears to be sleeping. Is this a depiction of sexual assault? Probably not. The lifestyles of religious devotees in early modern Japan differed quite radically from those of contemporary western clerics, and itinerant Buddhist nuns were known to often engage in prostitution. Sukenobu’s image itself offers evidence to support the theory that this nun is far from the wholesome archetype we might assume her to be. The sleeping woman holds in her hands a woodblock-printed book, and in the corner of the room are similar books. From the appearance of a full page illustration found in one of them, we realize that these are in fact works of erotica.