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The Complete Shunga Legacy of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)


Katsushika Hokusai’s talent,mania and perseverance for portraying nature in all its facets was the reason he excelled in all ukiyo-e genres including the erotic subject of shunga.This was an important genre of Japanese painting, prints and book illustration, and to which, at the time, no moral stigma was attached. His early work (1780s) at first in shunga illustration was executed in a style close to his teacher Shunsho (1726-1792). Unlike his later erotica, these works are often signed and otherwise would have been difficult to distinguish from the work fellow-students in the Shunsho school.

Surimono - Egoyomi (Calendar print)

After Hokusai’s training at the Shunsho school, a hiatus of 10 years, we begin to discover unsigned erotic pieces in the characteristic Hokusai style, in the miniature-surimono (commisioned print) size called egoyomi (calendar print). These small, private editions for the devotees of the time were originally published in sets of twelve prints, enclosed in wrappers or envelopes – usually now lost – which included the title of the set, often the date, and sometimes even the pseudonym of the artist. The printing is extremely subtle, and in materials and techniques they are analogous to surimono.

The specific sequence of the ‘long’ (thirty-day) or ‘short’ (twenty-nine) months of the coming year was indicated in their composition or through the incorporation of numerals, sometimes in rebus form. Around 1800 the device of egoyomi, or ‘pictorial calendar prints’, was adopted by shunga designers.

Some of these miniature shunga feature an ingenious flip-up device in which a seperately printed little flap is pasted to the print, providing both discreet and indiscreet versions of the same design. This flap was, however, often lost – or removed by unsubtle aficionados (a complete example can be seen in fig.1 and 2).


A curious countryman is peeking through a window of a bathhouse where a couple is  

A curious countryman is peeking through a window of a bathhouse where a couple is  

   (Fig. 1)    (Fig.2)
   A curious countryman is peeking through a window of a bathhouse where a couple is  
   making love, c.1805 (From the Rene Scholten Collection)


It will be obvious that this kind of ‘play-print’ (adult toys, so to speak) is not susceptible to easy reproduction, and the tactile joy of flipping must be left to the reader’s imagination. This device – termed shikake-e or ‘trick-picture’, and sometimes a feature of later shunga books as well – is always most ingeniously contrived (and provides vivid evidence that Japanese dexterity in export markets should not have been so unexpected).

One cannot claim that these minuscule calendar prints (sometimes, only one of the set includes the actual date) are important works of art: merely that they are of higher quality, more enjoyable and creative than most of the greeting cards one sees nowadays. Such colourful little adult toys cater to people’s latent voyeurism and delight in games. They are not ostenatiously erotic. With a set of these playful gems in hand, one is all too readily transported to another and more leisurely age, when the erotic was merely one of humanity’s natural pleasures.

It must be commented that the influence of the woodblock-carver increases in proportion to the miniaturization of a tableau. In the absence of signature, with such tiny prints (smaller than a postcard) absolute authentication of the artist is not easy. To weed out the works of pupils (Sori III and Shinsai for the early ones, Hokusai II, Taito II and Eisen for the later) is not a simple task, even for the specialist.


Shunga Books

With most of Hokusai’s shunga books, however – to which we now turn – there is rather more certainty of authorship. And like most of the artist’s more impressive erotica these are clustered together in the years c.1812-21. The master was now in his mid-fifties: perhaps his own sexual powers declining; or perhaps simply a rejuvenation of youthful passion; but, above all, no doubt, stimulated by the flood of erotic publishing commissions that characterized this particular age of Edo culture.


Pining for Love (Kinoe no komatsu)

Hokusai’s first datable book is Kinoe no komatsu, c.1814. Like all of the later Hokusai shunga books, it was issued in three slim volumes with five or so double-page colour plates to each fascicle. As is customary, the text takes the form of a novelette recounting the erotic adventures of various heroes and heroines. The complicated plots – and Hokusai’s probable involvement in their composition – must form the subject for a later study (he was fond, for example, of vividly employed erotic onomatopoeia); we can here only cite a few characteristic illustrations. Off course, Pining for Love is most famous because of the > Diving Girl Ravished by Octopuses - design but it includes more masterful scenes as well like for instance the lesbian intermezzo (see Fig. 3) with its deliberate composition and use of colour and also the Chinese Couple (see Fig. 4)


Fig.3 (Print from our own gallery)

Fig.4 (Print from our own gallery)


It is important to emphasize that there had been no tradition of nude art in the Far East. The naked form appeared only incidentally: in scenes of disaster and pillage, or of bathing, for example, but with hardly any erotic connotations; and in shunga, where the situations were erotic but the nudity was not. (To be sure, at periods of government ‘reforms’ semi-nude depictions sometimes flourished briefly in ukiyo-e, in reaction to the bans) Nor was there any long tradition of sketching from life – or one of the nude per se. Thus, not having studied anatomy or the originals in any systematic manner, the Japanese artist was at a disadvantage in attempting to depict the human form; and Hokusai was certainly one of the pioneers in this category, as he was in many others.

Indeed, this opportunity to attempt a new genre, a new approach to the human form, may well have been one of his principal stimuli to such elaborate erotic productions. There was, in fact, no particular stigma – social or legal – attached to erotic art at the time, nor to the artists who produced it. This was but another assignment. Yet with Hokusai, each new commission meant a chance to explore new worlds of graphic meaning, well above and beyond the requirements of the particular task in hand.


Gods of Intercourse (Mampuku wagojin)

The other major work among the Hokusai’s shunga books will be found in the Gods of Intercourse (Mampuku wagojin), datable to 1821. The printing is (at least in the early editions) of the finest quality and the illustrations, too, are uniformly excellent. Unlike the previous work, this one features a number of multiple scenes: double pairs of couples, onlookers, and the like. The technique had appeared earlier in classical shunga scrolls, and Hokusai adapts it to fill each frame to the limit in complex compositions.

Such a scene is that of Fig.5, where the young hero pleasures a matron at right, as another plays with herself at left. Again the combination of kimono-patters and minuscule calligraphy will doubtles seem too busy for the Western viewer: the faul of the medium, not the artist. From the same volume, a figure (see Fig.6) features one of the heroines of the novelette, lying exhausted at the roadside after being violently raped. The tableau is not all that different from the Diving Girl Ravished by Octopuses image and conveys a curious sense of quietude following outrage.


‘Lad with Ladies’ from the series The Gods of Intercourse, c.1821
(Print from our own gallery – sold)

‘Post-rape scene’ from the series >
The Gods of Intercourse, c.1821
(Print from our own gallery)


Overlapping Skirts (Tsuma gasane) and The Jewelled Merkin (Tamakazura)

Two lesser known shunga books of the period by Hokusai are Overlapping Skirts (see Fig.7) and The Jewelled Merkin (see Fig.8). Both books are not in the same league as his other books in authority and style (and the second suggests Eisen, who sometimes imitated Hokusai at this period); but given the intervention of the woodblock carver they cannot, for the present, be so readily removed from the Hokusai canon.




From the series Overlapping Skirts, c.1820 
(Print from our own gallery)

From the series The Jewelled Wig, c.1820
(Print from our own gallery)


Oban Series

Hokusai’s remaining – and more major – shunga oeuvre are in the album format: sets of twelve prints, usually in the larger, oban size, plus brief texts. Bound in accordian fashion, the plates are easily dismounted and many are thus scattered through the worldwide collections.


Brocade of the East (Azuma nishiki)

The first oban album of this period, c.1812, unsigned but in Hokusai’s distinctive style, is the Brocade of the East (Azuma nishiki). The album commences with a brief preface featuring elegant calligraphy, summarizing the classical themes of sexual love – from the China of Yang Kuei-fei to the Japan of Prince Narihira – and of their depiction in ukiyo-e from the shunga albums of Moronobu to the master of the present work (who is not, however, cited by name). The preface is signed with the facetious pseudonym Jokotei (‘Skirt-chaser’), possibly indentifiable with the minor novelist Jujitei Sankyu – or, with the young Eisen.

Hokusai here (see Fig.9) presents a variation on his favored composition, with the maiden resting her head and arm on a lacquered box at left, as her young lover commences to mount her from the rear. Interestingly enough – alone of the plates in the album – the scene depicts a famous couple from the contemporary kabuki stage (and even earlier, from the puppet theater): O-Koma and Saiza. (A pair also immortalized in a famous Yoshitoshi diptych: the hairdresser Saiza suddenly struck by O-Kama’s beauty, as she however, seem to have been made for literary purposes, but simply to take advantage of the current popularity of these two characters in contemporary kabuki. Compositionally the scene is again adroitly unified – though O-Kama’s face does not much mirror the passionate content of her conversation.


‘O-Kama and Saiza’ (Sheet 10) from the series >Brocade of the East, c.1812.

‘O-Kama and Saiza’ (Sheet 10) from the series
>Brocade of the East, c.1812.
(Print from our own gallery)


Models of Loving Couples (Tsui no hinagata)

The most famous of these albums is Models of Loving Couples (Tsui no hinagata) dating from c.1814. Each plate of the album is filled with the forms of amorous couples; the compositions, enhanced by bold yet tasteful colouring, are often striking, with the texts (comprising the participants’ conversation) rather less obtrusive than in the smaller books. Each plate of the album is filled with the forms of amorous couples; the compositions, enhanced by bold yet tasteful colouring, are often striking, with the texts (comprising the participants’ conversation) rather less obtrusive than in the smaller books.

The word tsui can be interpreted as ‘couple’ or ‘male and female pairs’. It is also possible that Hokusai intended a wordplay as the word tsui (written here tsuhi) can also be pronounced tsubi, an archaic term for ‘vulva’. One of the plates in the work is signed ‘Shishoku Ganko’.This has been interpreted as a pseudonym for Hokusai, even though this theory cannot be substantiated.


‘Relaxing Couple with two black mice and cat’ (Sheet 4) from the series Models of Loving Couples, c.1814.

‘Relaxing Couple with two black mice and cat’ (Sheet 4) from the series Models of Loving Couples, c.1814.

Richard Lane remarks on this design (Fig.10):

...As is customary with Hokusai, in one scene of the series we are afforded a brief respite from the acrobatic exertions of sexual passion. Here, the lovers are seen in mid-summer, taking their own brief respite from sex: the drowsing woman, still holding gently but firmly onto her lover’s spent phallus.

And, in that adroit touch of humor and variety with which few artists but Hokusai could succeed, at bottom we view two black mice, engaged in their own lovemaking, doubtless, stimulated by what they have just seen of human efforts in that endeavor? (This possibility is not just a figment of my imagination: cf. Hokusai’s notable shunga scene involving the passionate conversation of > two rutting dogs). Not only that, but a pert little, bellendand-beribboned kitten looks on curiously at left: too young either to know much of sex itself, or even, luckily, to present any real danger to the love-possessed mice. (Rarely for any shunga print, the lovers’previous sexual acts and conversation are recorded in detail through the kitten’s eyes – presented in the form of acatish monologue).

“...Note: Readers interested in animal psychology may well ask if rats might, indeed, be stimulated by viewing sniffing human sexual activity. I have been unable to locate any scientific study concerning this intriguing subject, which might well constitute an excellent theme for a Ph.D. dissertation (with, I should think, no shortage of unpaid volunteers). Eisen’s memorable scene of love-making > monkey-trainer  and aroused monkey comes immediately to mind...” [...] (Richard Lane)


‘Festive lovers’ (Sheet 2) from the series ‘Models of the Loving Couples’ , c.1814

‘Festive lovers’ (Sheet 2) from the series ‘Models of the Loving Couples’ , c.1814


In this tightly filled frame (Fig.11), a geisha and her secret lover meet at festival time – he is sporting a half-opened fan and cape, regalia for performance of the Lion Dance. The tension of the situation is well expressed by the girl’s passionate kiss (in Japan, reserved for intimate contact only), and in the strategic placement of the man’s hand. (The reader unfamiliar with the Orient may require time to differentiate the participants’ various appendages, but it is worth the effort).

As is customary in shunga, the sex organs are depicted in exaggerated size: an artistic device that is perhaps a vestige of ancient phallic worship, perhaps symbolic of the protagonists’ highly aroused state; and certainly, an aid to focusing the composition.

Richard Lane on this Hokusai design: “I would myself certainly consider this the masterpiece of the album: its composition is impeccable, its lovers’ powerful emotions at their peak – a fact most forcefully apparent even to the casual viewer. The scene represents, in fact, that true acme of erotic pleasure: when overpowering passions and expectations fill the entire bodies of the protagonists, making their subsequent ‘climax’ more an aferthought than a main event.[...] (The Complete Ukiyo-e Shunga (Vol.13) by Richard Lane).


Plovers Above the Waves (Namichidori) and The Adonis Plant (Fukujuso)

From the late 1810s, Hokusai’s shunga style turns even more to massive figures and monumental compositions, filling – and sometimes reaching beyond – the frame of the print. His major work of this later period is popularity known, from the pattern on its decorated cover, as Plovers Above the Waves (Namichidori), c.1828. This significant production exists in several editions, but the earliest is probably that issued under the title The Adonis Plant (Fukujuso, a New Year’s Symbol), c.1822. This album is characterized by its adult nature: there are hardly any scenes of young, romantic love, and indeed, there is a preponderance of matrons – including widows and unfaithful wives – at dalliance with their husbands or lovers.

Stylistically, the album is characterized by massive, stunning figures, which literally fill each sheet from corner to corner – what space remians being filled with the participants’ vividly phrased sexual conversation. In the better-known and more luxuriant edition of this album – Plovers Above the Waves – the woodblocks are recarved and the text is deleted, being replaced by an opulent background of mica dust; hand-colouring is added here and there, and the vulva details are also hand-applied (whether by Hokusai or assistant is unclear).


‘Suckling Lover ’ from the series ‘Plovers Above the Waves’ (Sheet 3), c.1828, sumizuri-e, hand-colored with mica.

‘Suckling Lover ’ from the series ‘Plovers Above the Waves’ (Sheet 3), c.1828, sumizuri-e, hand-colored with mica.


Here you can find the Meiji impression of this Hokusai design by the well-known Meiji artist > Ikeda Terukata.

Here (see Fig.12) a more mature couple – husband and pregnant wife – are seen at passionate foreplay: the woman urging the playful man to get on with the main act – forthwith directing him in the details of every desired variation of penetration. This is another of the most effective designs in the set displaying a lot of erotic power. Suckling scenes are rather frequent in Hokusai and one is reminded immediately of the charming illustration of matron and young lover in > Manpuku wagojin.


‘Bathhouse Rape’ (Sheet 7) from the series >The Adonis Plant, c.1822.

‘Bathhouse Rape’ (Sheet 7) from the series
>The Adonis Plant, c.1822.
(Print from our own gallery)


This Hokusai image (Fig.13) features a rather deviating and comical design from the The Adonis Plant (c.1822) with a moronic bath-house attendant trying to seduce a pretty maiden, he had observed for a long time, while she has emerged from the bath. In most cases the sympathy of the viewer lies with the victim (off course) as usually displayed in shunga scenes but in this case one tends to feel pity for the clumsy, yearning assistant – who has a coin in his ear, which was the custom at that time of purse-less servants.

> Here you can find an example of a retard whose lovelorning has been rewarded.


‘Mother and Child’ (1st sheet) from the series The Adonis Plant, c.1820.

‘Mother and Child’ (1st sheet) from the series The Adonis Plant, c.1820.


Richard Lane: “ (Fig.14) What a strange way to commence a shunga album! – this is real Hokusai ! A reclining voluptuous and mature female holds her plump.aggresive little boy in her arms; her skirt in disarray and her private parts on full display. Many are the connoisseurs who have enjoyed tis famous print for its unusual theme and masterful, wave-patterned kimono (the shadowy plover-pattern perhaps the inspiration for the later, ‘Nami-chidori’ nickname for the album); but I suspect there are few who have bothered to read the text: the mother – á la Molly Bloom of James Joyce’s Ulysses – reminisces on the sexual pleasures of the night before: first reacting a full list of the ten most common types of phallus and finally concluding her own husband’s is the best of all: the result, the doubtless, of her prayers to Buddha.

Whether this monologue is spoken aloud or not, we do not know. But we are suddenly awakened from our reverie as the child pipes up: “When I get big, I’m going to be a great lover too: teach me how to do it like Mommy and Daddy did last night!...” [...] (The Complete Ukiyo-e Shunga (Vol.23) by Richard Lane).


The Horny God of Izumo (En musubi Izumo no sugi)

The first edition of the The Horny God album is so rare that up to now only Hokusai expert Dr. Richard Lane has seen the set in his totality. The prints are in the smaller chuban size and dates from 1822. Again, it’s visuals are characteristic of Hokusai’s final stage of shunga production. The protagonists are depicted in increasingly massive fashion, as though sculpted from blocks of wood or marble, and here Hokusai foreshadows one of the trends of modern sculpture, while admittedly considerably reducing the passionate content of his shunga. 

One may well reinquire here as to what drove Hokusai to such increasing extremes in the depiction of sex at this period? Obviously, the commissions were there: ukiyo-e artists did not paint just for fun, nor publish for their own amusement. But there is more to this remarkable interval of erotic activity than a simple job to be done. One thinks here, inevitably, of Picasso (who was, incidentally, an avid collector of Japanese shunga), and of his similar burst of erotic energy in his later years; and, without wishing to go any further into psychoanalysis than I have already, I think it will be clear that, at least, one of the keys to Hokusai’s personality is to be found in his shunga of this surprising decade. Scholars who shy from this difficult theme will do so only at the risk of missing half their man.


Meiji impression of Hokusai’s The Horny God of Izumo (Sheet 12), c.1890.

Meiji impression of Hokusai’s The Horny God of Izumo (Sheet 12), c.1890.
The blue frame featuring birds and flowers was not part of the first edition published in c.1822.


This striking tableau (Fig.15), the last of the set, features a vigorous, attractive widow who calmly determinates the residual sexual powers of her three admirers. All are shown with their penis supporting two heavy strings of Chinese coins. This device was not only to attest to the men’s capability in sex, but also to their condition as gigolos. Their complaints are layed bare in the text: “I’ve never seen such an insatiable woman. Seven times, and she still wants more; I’ve had enough...I feel dizzy”. To which this redoubtable lady dryly comments, “You fellows are too young to give up so easily...after I finish a smoke, I’ll give each of you tow more tries to prove your manhood”. And withal – as though to emphasize this resolute woman’s powers of determination – her long smoking-pipe insistently pokes its red-hot bowl towards the array of reluctant, albeit well-rewarded, phalli. This is not, indeed, the usual image of the Yamato-nadeshiko, or demure Japanese female: an image which should, obviously, be tempered by that common saying of a generation or two ago: “Since the end of the War they’ve become much stronger: ladies’ stockings – and Japanese womanhood” (Richard Lane).


Decline in Taste

It must also be remembered that times were changing, and by the middle 1820s all of ukiyo-e figure-print design was entering its ‘Decadent Period’; and the new, more plebeian shunga audience tended to call for more violence, more impact – even with the same kind of subject matter. This decline in taste could hardly have escaped Hokusai’s notice – and that of many other connoisseurs of the time.The great age of the figure print, and of shunga, was clearly over; yet only a few years remained before Hokusai was to revive the fortunes of ukiyo-e with a revolution in the landscape print.


Four additional series attributed to Hokusai

The following shunga series, including the famous scene featuring the >lesbian abalone divers with a sea-cucumber, is designed by Hokusai, but is untitled.

Also the following series with the dreamlike images has the > characteristic features of Hokusai. 

There is also debate on the series Erotic Book of Conjugal Eddies (Ehon futamigata) whether the designs are by Hokusai. 
The famous four-panel scene with the violent and sadistic bandit can be
found on the  > following page (last image!).

Check out our > shunga section or our section > completely dedicated to Hokusai.


References and Sources:

> Japanese Erotic Fantasies – Sexual Imagery of the Edo Period by C. Uhlenbeck and M. Winkel.

> The Complete Ukiyo-e Shunga (Vol.1, 7, 13 and 23) by Richard Lane & Y. Hayashi.

> Shunga, the Art of Love in Japan by Tom and Mary Evans.

> Hokusai by Gian Carlo Calza.

> Phaidon Press.

> Scholten Japanese Art.

> Check out more articles on Hokusai and Japanese wooblock prints...etc.



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