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10 Striking Shunga Designs by the Celebrated Ukiyo-e Artist Utagawa Kunisada.


Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) was one of the most prosperous and productive Japanese artists of the nineteenth century, designing a vast number of prints which included various subjects and themes such as bijin-ga (beautiful women), > musha-e  ( warriors ) and kabuki-e (theatre actors). He was a student of Toyokuni but soon liberated himself from his master’s influence and created his own individual style.

When Kunisada was in his thirties he started to work in > shunga  (lit. spring picture, erotic print) and designed his best work in this genre during that time. He paid a lot of attention to the details and objects surrounding the scenes as can be seen in his portrayal of the clothing, the characteristic hair-styles of the protagonists, the luxurious screens and sliding doors, porcelain vases, flowers, plates of food and the vividly colored quilts. Kunisada’s emphasis on these minutely rendered details help to create a rich and realistic atmosphere.

This also can be said about his treatment of exterior scenes which are depicted with a detailed naturalism to accentuate the changing seasons or to present famous places that are familiar to the Japanese public. In Kunisada’s de luxe limited editions, his erotic prints were embroidered using silver and gold dust.mother of pearl and applying karazuri (blind embossing) and tsuyazumi (lacquer) printing techniques.

The following ten are some of his most striking examples:

1) > Dog Hero Yatsubusa









In 1837, under the pseudonym Bukiyo Matahei, Kunisada designed some masterful shunga images parodying the famous work Satomi Hakken-den of Kyokutei Bakin. It was a collaboration work with author Hanagasa Bunkyo and was called Koi no yatsu fuji (The Love of Yatsufuji). The protagonists of the story Princess Sasehime and the canine hero Yatsubusa are depicted by Kunisada in an overt manner in all its explicity as can be seen in the above image. The highly quality of the carving and the printing technique in this print is accentuated by the detailed embossing on the dog’s fur.

2) > Tattooed Villain







From the same series as the previous piece, here a violent heavily tattooed intruder assaults a couple who were shortly before making love underneath a mosquito-net. The metallic pigment details on the woman’s kimono are exquisite.

3) > Fox Spirit







This magnificent surrealistic scene from the series An Assortment of Pleasure in Spring (c.1850) portrays a woman in an ecstatic pose while a fox spirit performs cunnilingus on her. On this work Kunisada collaborated with Shotei Kinsui (1795-1862) who wrote under the pseudonym Nyokan. There are wonderful gauffrage details on the fur of the fox and the kimono of the woman.

4) > Lovers and Sleeping Husband








A humorous scene with a woman, partly covered under a mosquito-net, being penetrated by a secret lover while her husband is in a deep sleep. Theseries is called Viewing Forms in the Four Seasons and was published in 1842. In his book Sex and the Floating World – Erotic Images in Japan 1700-1820. Timon Screech remarks,’...the viewer sees a woman’s head (and mind) still in bed with her rightful prtner, while her genitals – divided by the netting – are outside. Although she is aware of what she does, the status of her sexual act, sectioned off from her head, seems dreamlike, for mental and bodily zones do not match. Pictorially, she is doing nothing wrong’.

5) > Tattooed Man and his Wife







A famous Kunisada print from the erotic series Prospects for the Four Seasons (Shunka shuto shiki no nagame), c.1820s, features a husband and wife having intercourse in the seclusion of their home while startled by the flying geese outside. The man sports a giant tattoo depicting a scene from the famous Chinese saga 108 Heroes of the Suikoden (put on the map by Kuniyoshi) and the woodblock prints pasted on the wall behind them feature two kabuki actors. One of them the well-known Matsumoto Koshiro V. The image is treated in several books on shunga.

6) > Genital Mountains







An early Kunisada work (c.1827) featuring the adventures of the fantasy figures Beanman and Beanwoman from the New Tale of the Welling Waters (Sentõ shinwa) who explore ‘genital mountains’. The author of this book was Jujitei Sanku.

7) > Rape in Forest






One of Kunisada’s most disturbing shunga images. During the night on a hill a gruelling affair takes place. A woman is tied down with ropes to a stick while a hairy assailant slowly enters her. The desolate environment and the woman’s inescapability of her destiny give this scene a harrowing atmosphere. The moon as a silent witness in the background. A haunting masterpiece from the Prospects for the Four Seasons -series.

8) > Monk and Wetnurse






An older monk is having sex with an ecstatic wetnurse who passionately grabs him by the nose. A design from Kunisada’s acclaimed masterpiece Genji of the East dating from 1837. This specific print has been depicted in Calza’s book on shunga Poem of the Pillow and Other Stories (p.402). This work was most probably commisioned by a rich merchant.

9) > Masturbating Woman






Another exquisite design from the Genji of the East –series with a woman masturbating in the privacy of her room. The format of the print in combination with the masturbation theme is rather unique. The viewer almost gets the impression he is peeking on her.

10) > Females in Bathhouse






A lovely Kunisada scene of the Prospects for the Four Seasons –series. In a bathhouse two ladies have an intimate gathering during their cleaning activities. The naked squatting woman holds a small bag in her mouth while cleaning her genitals and doing her laundry at the same time. The shadowing details of the cloths hanging over the door are an indication of the Western influences on Kunisada and his printer. Another impression of this design is illustrated in Fagioli’s book Shunga, the Erotic Art of Japan (on p.139).

Bonus design:

11) > Ghosts and Monsters







Kunisada created so many marvellous shunga designs, the list could easily have consisted of 50 images or more, that I have included the above Boschian scene which has been recently attributed to Kunisada and is described in the exhibition catalogue of the British Museum:

“...Utagawa-school artists steered shunga in strange directions, mobilizing monsters, ghosts and corpses, and we can see that this trend conciously harked back to the work of Shunsho and the Katsukawa school. In his first erotic book Hyakki yagyo (Night Procession of One Hundred Demons) of 1825, Kunisada included an image entitled Hakuki yakyo yokai no zu, which features all the same monsters found in Shunsho’s Hyaku bobo-gatari. It is not possible to gauge the intention of Kunisada or the author (Utei Enba II) in reusing Shunsho’s inventions in this way. But the impact was clear: in the case of both Katsukawa and Utagawa-school works, these grotesque, fantastical characters served as the catalyst that transformed the shunga genre”. (on p.377 in Shunga, Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art by Ishigami Aki)

All the prints discussed in the article are available in our gallery and can be found on the following pages:

> Click here for more info on Kunisada’s Genji of the East-series.

> Click here for more info on Kunisada’s New Tale of the Welling Waters and Prospects for the Four Seasons-series.

> Click here for more on info on Kunisada’s Viewing Forms in the Four Seasons-series.

> Click here for more info on Kunisada’s The Love of Yatsufuji-series.

> Click here for more info on Kunisada’s An Assortment of Pleasure in Spring-series.

> Or click here for more articles on shunga and ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints)shunga and ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints).




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