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Hokusai's Shunga Masterpiece

' Diving Girl Ravished by Octopuses '


Although Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is most widely known for his great landscape prints (e.g. '36 Views of Mount Fuji') and Manga Sketchbook series, moreover his output of shunga was rather small in relation to his total production, they still can be ranked above the level of the erotic work of his contemporaries.

Hokusai started his active career in 1778 at the Shunsho school where he specialized himself in prints of stage scenes and illustrations for popular novels. His first erotic pictures are very similar to those of his master but in 1795, after Shunsho's death he developed his own aesthetic style. Hokusai's depiction of the human figure became more elongated adding an otherworldly expression imbued with a message of violent and impulsive action. The overwhelming impression these erotic works give is one of disquietness and disturbance.


 Hokusai's Shunga Masterpiece  ' Diving Girl Ravished by Octopuses '


One of Hokusai greatest achievements in the erotic woodblock genre is his Pining for Love (Kinoe no komatsu), three book volumes (including 15 double color illustrations) published in 1814, which reflects his new type of human figure and containing his excellent masterpiece Diving Girl Ravished by Octopuses (aka.'Dream of the Fisherman's Wife'). A design that stands in a class of its own. Despite the substantial quantity that has been written about this work, it remains one of those images which require neither advocacy nor analysis in order to illuminate its enigmatic effect.

To give an impression I have included some excerpts I found in various books on Hokusai's Diving Girl Ravished by Octopuses:

"Among the pictures is the terrifying plate of the nude form of a woman draped over seaweed-strewn rocks, swooning with pleasure. 
She is in such a state of abandon, sicut cadaver, that it is not at all easy to tell whether she is a victim of drowning or if her body is in truth alive. A huge octopus, with ghaslty pupils like black quarter moons, sucks at her nether regions, while another smaller octopus avidly devours her mouth" (Edmond de Goncourt - 'The Art of Hokusai in Book Illustration, p.170).

"In Hokusai's most famous shunga, a large octopus performs cunnilungus on a woman abalone diver or ama, and a smaller one, perhaps his offspring, kisses her and fondles one of her nipples with a tentacle. This print is testimony to how our interpretation of an image can be distorted when seen in isolation and without understanding the text. A recent study by Danielle Talerico (2001: 24-42) explains that this image was initially considered by Western collectors and scholars like Edmund de Goncourt, Jack Hillier and Richard Lane to represent a rape scene. Talerico's study shows that an Edo audience would have associated the image with the story of Tamatori. In the legend, the abalone diver Tamatori sacrifices her life to save the Emperor by cutting open her breast, where she hides the jewel she has stolen from the Sea-Dragon King in his underwater Dragon Palace. The Sea-Dragon King is accompanied by all nature of sea creatures, including octopuses. The dialogues between the two creatures and the diver express mutual sexual enjoyment (see Talerico 2001: 37, for a complete translation)". (p. 161 in 'Japanese Erotic Fantasies' by C. Uhlenbeck and M. Winkel)

"This illustration, of a woman with two octopuses, twin incubi, has lost none of his power to disturb (...) Despite the considerable amount that has been written about this work, all attempts to interpret and elucidate it end up by revealing more about the writer than about the original work. It remains one of those designs which require neither advocacy nor analysis in order to work its mysterious effect". (p.249 in 'Shunga, the Erotic Art of Love in Japan' by Tom and Mary Evans)

"...On the right, a large octopus ravishes the girl with androit cunnilungus, while a smaller octopus (his son?) assists earnestly at the left. 
Yet however bizarre the concept, the effect is neither comic nor pornographic; in this fantasy of a passionate shell diver, we discover a new facet of Hokusai's genius and a consummate work of erotica". (Richard Lane - 'Love's Labour's Found: The Erotic Art of Hokusai)

"The most beautiful Japanese erotic print that I know is truly frightening: it is of a Japanese woman mounted by an octopus; with its tentacles, the horrible beast sucks the tips of her breasts and rummages in her mouth, while its head drinks from her lower parts. The almost superhuman expression of agony and sorrow - which convulses this long, graceful female figure with aquiline nose - and the hysterical joy - which emanates at the same time from her forehead, from those eyes closed as in death - are admirable". 
(J.K. Huysman - 1889)


Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-1792), Chiyo-dameshi, c.1786

While Hokusai's Octopus print is the most appraised erotic image in the history of Japanese art (most probably universal) it was not the debut of these three protagonists. In c.1786, Hokusai's teacher Shunsho designed a B & W book illustration, from the book series Chiyo-dameshi, which already depicted a diving girl and two horny octopuses (see above illustration!). The giant octopus uses on of his tentacles to penetrate the girls vagina while giving tongue with the small octopus watching from a distance. In the composition of Shunsho's image the three are shown in an 'establishing shot' and therefore the viewer is less involved with the events taking place especially when you compare it with the close-up composition of Hokusai's masterpiece.

Other shunga prints inspired by Hokusai Octopus design:

Utagawa school, c.1840

Utagawa school, c.1855





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