A Journey Through the Erotic World of “Shunga”: Director Hirata Junko Discusses Her New FilmCinema Culture History
Shunga: A Documentary Film is an in-depth introduction to the artistic pleasures of the sexually explicit prints known as shunga (literally “spring pictures”). But it is more than that, and has greater depth as a film than most art documentaries.
This reflects the vision and sensibility of the director, Hirata Junko, who was determined from the moment she was approached to direct the film to bring out the “human perspective” by focusing as much as possible on the diverse characters involved in the artform. Watching it again after talking to her, I found myself noticing different things about the film. Although this often happens after meeting film directors, this time the effect was particularly pronounced.
The Changing Image of Shunga
Graphic depictions of human sexuality have existed in all parts of the world since ancient times.
Shunga stand out from other sexually explicit art by their unusually high artistic value, which have earned these Japanese prints a special position in global art history. Against the backdrop of the thriving publishing scene of early modern Edo (modern Tokyo), the most popular forms of shunga were woodblock prints, and many of the best-known artists of the era produced pictures that were turned into prints, including world-famous artists like Hokusai and Utamaro.
But despite its high aesthetic qualities and excellence as art, the true value of shunga has not always been appreciated outside small circles of enthusiasts, and from the stiff-backed, moralistic Meiji era on, there has been a tendency to shun the prints as something sordid and embarrassing. There have been signs in recent years that the critical tide is starting to turn, thanks in part to a major exhibition held at the British Museum in 2013.
Until recently, opportunities to study these works were limited to the occasional exhibition in a sex museum or similar, slightly shady places. And even then, behind the thick-curtained doors of adults-only establishments, the “moving parts” of the action were often painted over or otherwise obscured so that little but a dim impression of shape and size could be discerned. For many people, the word shunga probably conjures up little more than a peepshow-style grotesquerie of outsized genitals. Hirata herself was no exception.
“I didn’t have any particular interest in shunga. If anything, I regarded them less as art than as part of the cultural history of sex. I was interested in the prints as an expression of one aspect of Japanese attitudes to sex and sexuality. I suppose I was intrigued about why this kind of erotic art had developed to such a high level in Japan, but that was about the extent of it until I was approached to make this film.”
Hirata’s career has centered on documentaries about dance and other forms of physical expression. She was approached to direct this project in 2020. The producer, who was working on the dramatic film Shunga sensei (directed by Shiota Akihiko, released in October 2023) at the time, wanted someone who could tackle the subject from a documentary angle as well. Hirata says she started on the research almost immediately.
“It was at the height of the pandemic, so I had plenty of time for research. I talked to various people, and then . . . we started filming in a kind of haphazard way. There’s no plot. And I didn’t spend much time thinking about the overall structure of the film either. When we found somewhere that would let us film, we’d hurry over and start filming. We arranged our schedule around where and when we were able to shoot. And that’s how the film got made.”
God in the Details (of the Pubic Hair)
Despite her protestations, the entire film puts forward a clearly organized and persuasively argued case on behalf of shunga. The film opens with the tip of a chisel in the hand of a modern craftsman, working to carve a woodblock that will be used to make a replica of an original shunga print. Eventually, the viewer realizes what it is that is being carved.
The Tokyo Traditional Woodblock Print Association is engaged in a restoration project in partnership with the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) in Kyoto. One of the pictures chosen for restoration, Torii Kiyonaga’s Sode no maki (Handscroll for the Sleeve), is the first of many shunga to be introduced in the film.
The picture comes from a 12-print series published in 1785. (The banner photo used for this article features another print from the same series.) The bold composition employs a strikingly narrow, horizontal format, in which the coupling lovers seem about to overspill the frame. The bodies and faces are depicted with extremely simple lines, and the palette is limited to just a few basic colors. The effect is one of restrained and deliberate simplicity. By contrast, the designs and folds on the couple’s clothing and their elaborate coiffeurs are depicted in great detail—as is their pubic hair, from the midst of which looms a mighty phallus, depicted with fleshy realism and shown in full flood.
Giving movement to the simple lines of the original drawing is the work of the carver (horishi). To bring out the nuances of the design, the skills of a talented surishi (printer) were also essential. The extraordinary thickness and realism of the pubic hair is one of the distinctive characteristics of shunga—nothing comparable is found in any other kind of woodblock print—and is the result of the dedication and skills of the three different types of craftsmen who worked on each woodblock print.
“The film director Nishikawa Miwa made a funny comment: She said, ‘God is in the pubes!’ It’s certainly true that when you see the original prints up close, there’s an extraordinary sense of passion and almost tangible heat that comes off them.”
Hirata uses a wide variety of approaches to convey the attention to detail and hard work that went into producing these erotic masterpieces, one of which is to show the process of printmaking through the work of contemporary craftsmen engaged in replicating the prints today.
“Ideally, you’d like to see the eshi (artist), horishi (carver), and surishi (printer) working together in a studio in eighteenth-century Edo, encouraging and spurring each other on. You could try to recreate that through a dramatization, but I decided that approach wasn’t suitable for a documentary film.”
Bringing Shunga to Life
Hirata’s wish to make a film about the human aspects of shunga and the people involved in making and collecting the pictures meant that the film naturally became an account of her travels in search of shunga. Although the film devotes a generous amount of time to masterpieces by famous ukiyo-e artists, Hirata also wanted to feature cheaper prints by unknown artists, and hoped to locate present-day owners who had held onto prints that had survived in the family for previous generations. But things didn’t turn out the way she expected. Few ordinary people stepped forward to show off their family collections of prints, and Hirata found it surprisingly difficult to encounter the real thing outside formal settings.
For help with the masterpieces, Hirata turned to the Uragami Sōkyūdō art dealership in the old Nihonbashi district of Tokyo. The owner, Uragami Mitsuru, has been at the forefront of the shunga revival in recent years, serving as a key advisor for both the British Museum show and a shunga exhibition at the Eisei Bunko Museum in Tokyo in 2015.
As part of the film, Hirata invited artists and collectors to “shunga nights,” where small groups of guests looked at and discussed shunga together. In these scenes, Uragami explains each picture, while the guests exchange their own views and impressions. A succession of shunga masterpieces is introduced, covering more or less the entire history of the artform from its earliest days to its steady decline following the Meiji Restoration.
“I wanted to do more than just show the pictures on film. These prints were meant to be held and looked at up-close. That’s how they were designed to be seen and enjoyed. Back in the Edo period, enthusiasts used to gather and share their collections. In these sessions, we were shown an amazing number of prints, and by the end I think everyone was kind of drunk on shunga!”
The film looks at many of the most famous examples of the genre, taking time to focus on the finest details of the prints. Famous prints discussed include Fūryū enshoku mane’emon (Elegant Amorous Mane’emon), a humorous series of shunga painted by Suzuki Harunobu (1725–70) toward the end of his life, as well as the famous Octopuses and Diving Girl (or Fisherman’s Wife) by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), from the illustrated book Ki no e no komatsu (Pine Seedlings on the First Rat Day, or Old True Sophisticates of the Club of Delightful Skills), published around 1820.
In the film, these two works are brought to life through animation and narration (voiced by Moriyama Mirai and Yoshida Yō), drawing viewers into the scene, and allowing audiences to appreciate the humorous side of shunga, which were also known as warai-e, or laughter pictures.
A Passion for Creation
The crew traveled to Hokkaidō in search of an elusive set of three erotic books by Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864) popularly known as the San Genji (Three Genji Set). Parodying scenes from the Tale of Genji, this masterpiece of the genre brings together all the refinement and craftsmanship of woodblock printing in the nineteenth century.
The books were produced during the Tenpō era (1831–45), when a series of disastrous harvests led to widespread famine and unrest, prompting the shogunate to introduce strict sumptuary laws forbidding luxuries and fripperies of all kinds. That a series like this could have been produced at such a time is testimony not only to the popularity of shunga but also to its semilicit status, as an artform that was produced in a gray zone away from the mainstream and beyond the reach of censorship.
“I felt I’d discovered something most Japanese people even don’t know about. When I was allowed to hold the piece, my hands started shaking as I started to appreciate the amazing skills that had gone into creating it. The big difference between shunga and erotic art in other countries is that in Japan, artists and craftsmen of the first rank worked passionately to produce these works in a kind of netherworld away from the mainstream. And I got the sense that something of that passion has been passed down to the collectors who keep the artform alive today.”
Unsurprisingly, the energy of shunga continues to have an impact on artists working today. One interesting example introduced in the film is the Japanese painter Kimura Ryōko, who was inspired by a piece from the series Shunga yūrei-zu (Erotic Ghost Paintings) by Katsukawa Shun’ei, the original artwork of which was shown to her by a collector from Denmark.
Aida Makoto persuasively discusses points of contact between contemporary art, the subculture, and shunga, and speaks disdainfully of those sections of the Japanese public who suddenly “discovered” the merits in shunga after it was shown at the British Museum as high art.
Yokoo Tadanori, who has painted pictures based on motifs from shunga by Utamaro, shares an anecdote about a small shunga he found tucked into a belly-warmer that had belonged to his late mother.
“He tried his best to find that print for me,” Hirata says, “but it never turned up. He’s adamant that he didn’t throw it away, so presumably it must still be hiding somewhere.” In Kyoto, shunga by Tsukioka Settei were believed to have a special talismanic power to protect against fire. “I think it was the association between lubriciousness and water that led to the idea. So that’s one place where there’s a good chance of finding images, hidden away inside warehouses to ward off fire. Really, I’d hoped to encounter more evidence of these kinds of uses of shunga in people’s everyday lives.”
Still to Be Discovered?
Even today, when the artform has received the imprimatur of a major exhibition at the British Museum, an air of taboo still clings to shunga. Hirata says that although it’s well known that a famous temple in Kyoto owns important holdings of shunga, the temple steadfastly refused to confirm that it had any such pictures in its collection when contacted for the film.
“If this shunga renaissance continues to spread, and shunga are appreciated for their real value as art, I suppose things might change. But the taboo about sex exists on another level, and that is less likely to disappear. I worry that more and more prints might be lost, as people who don’t realize their value just burn them or throw them away.”
Hirata compares shunga to an endangered species that has barely survived the modern age, gasping for breath and on its last legs. “The prints we are able to see are just a small remnant, the ones that happened to survive.”
As well as examining shunga as works of art, the film also considers the struggles the genre has undergone as one of the most forthright expressions of a relaxed, libertine approach to sex that was suppressed in the Meiji era and continues to be marginalized today. How did Hirata’s own journey in search of shunga end? The way she tells the story brings out the special sensibility I mentioned at the start of this article.
“I assumed all the masterpieces were already out there and known about. But one antiques dealer we talked to was adamant that this isn’t the case. No, no, he kept saying. There are still shunga out there waiting to be discovered. Pieces that ordinary people away put to one side, that are still hidden away somewhere. I think it’s thrilling to think that our eras might still be connected in that way. The world has changed so much over the past 150 years or so. But if that man was right, there’s still something deep down that hasn’t changed at all. I hope the film will provide an opportunity for people, through shunga, to reconsider what has been lost in the course of modernization.”
The world of shunga is not totally separate from our contemporary reality. Framed prints on gallery walls do not represent the whole of the artform.
“Over the three years I spent working on this film, I saw a huge number of shunga. By the end, I felt that the experience had changed my image of what it means to be Japanese, what it means to be human. However serious and cerebral people might seem, there is no escaping from our physical bodies. There’s humor in shunga, as well as tenderness for our humanity.
“The genre unites so many of the different aspects of the complexity and joy of human life. Recently, there has been so much negative news about sex, but sex itself isn’t a negative thing. Shunga reminds us that sex is something positive, life-affirming. To be human, as long as we are alive, is to be a sensual being—and shunga are a celebration of that reality.”
About the Film
- Directed by: Hirata Junko
- Photography: Yamazaki Yutaka, Takano Hiroki
- Year of production: 2023
- Country of production: Japan
- Running time: 121 mins.
- Rating: R18+
- Official website: culture-pub.jp/harunoe/
(Originally written in Japanese. Interview photographs © Hanai Tomoko, Banner photo: Torii Kiyonaga’s Sode no maki, in the Uragami Sōkyudō collection. © 2023 Shunga Production Committee.)