Supernatural Shunga: Things that Go Bump in the Night

One way in which Japanese artists reinvigorated the genre of shunga was by focusing upon the narrative content of their works. In 1776, the artist Toriyama Sekien (1712–1788) published The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons (Gazu hyakki yagyō), an encyclopedic bestiary of supernatural creatures (known in Japanese as yōkai or bakemono) inspired by Chinese precedents such as the Collected Illustrations of the Three Realms (Sancai Tuhui, 1607) by Wang Qi and Wang Siyi (active c. late 16th—early 17th centuries).

With its fanciful illustrations, unbridled imagination, pseudo-scientific tone and literary roots in Asian mythology, Gazu hyakki yagyō not only enjoyed astonishing commercial success but also had a substantial influence upon the imagery of artists such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) and his contemporaries. Over the following ten years, Sekien released multiple sequels to Gazu hyakki yagyō, and even in the 19th century, artists such as Takehara Shunsensai (active c. early 19th century) continued to explore the world of tengu (long-nosed goblins), rokurokubi (ghosts with necks that elongated indefinitely like elastic, airborne serpents) and shape-shifting foxes that disguised themselves as beautiful women in order to seduce unsuspecting men. Needless to say, shunga artists found such creatures to be irresistibly ripe for sexual reinterpretation.