Japanese Shunga Podcast: The Sugimura Jihei Genre Handscroll

Narrated by Stephen Salel

One of two large-scale paintings presented in this exhibition, this work, known simply as the Sugimura Jihei Genre Handscroll, seems at first glance to depict unrelated couples in various stages of erotic interaction. Aspects about this artwork, however, reveal it to be something far more sophisticated.

One such aspect is the way in which the discarded clothing of the figures is arranged. The ground plane is dramatically tilted towards the viewer, and rather than lying bundled in discrete heaps, the bits of clothing span the length of each vignette as if floating on the surface of a stream. These compositions are typical of Jihei's work and can occasionally be seen in the woodblock prints displayed above this scroll. Might that sense of weightlessness, however, also be a clever visual reference to "ukiyo-e," the Japanese term that we use to describe early modern Japanese prints but which literally translates to "pictures of the floating world"?

The phrase "floating world" has a fascinating origin. Exhausted from centuries of civil war, natural disasters, and other hardships, the people of early modern Japan decided to focus on the simple pleasures of daily life -- baudy kabuki performances, a visit to the local brothel district, and other such carefree activities. Metropolitan cities such as Edo catered to these interests, and soon the pastime of disparate individuals coalesced into a unified culture of sexuality. Though we often attempt to appreciate the genre of ukiyo-e prints as something divorced from shunga, in their underlying philosophy, they are essentially one and the same.